By Milford Prewitt
Now in the art world, they don’t necessarily need black kids to be artists. We got plenty of white artists. We got that covered. Bill Rhoden, sports columnist
There is too much agreement about what constitutes the kind of art that belongs. People are not throwing things up in the air. It’s not accidental or chance. And if it is not accidental, then there must be something you can know and something you can do in order to insure that your chances of being in this place is better than 50/50. Kerry James Marshall, contemporary black painter
For all of their accolades and wealth, black superstar athletes and critically acclaimed black artists have little to no power or influence within the spheres of endeavor that define their outward success.
That’s the takeaway from an insightful and sobering discussion between contemporary black painter Kerry James Marshall and the New York Times sports columnist (recently retired) Bill Rhoden. While they were not always on the same page, they both agreed that high-performing black artists and superstar athletes share similar frailties and powerlessness.
Celebrated by the media, adored by fans and rich beyond measure, neither artists nor athlete is able to overcome the traditional and ancient institutionalized racism in their fields and are therefore unable to secure real, inclusive change.
Both men explored some uncomfortable realities about success, power, and identity in the world of sports and the arts during a two-man discussion at a packed Grace Rainey Theater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At least 700 people (including myself) attended the event.
[An hour-and-a-half long video of their talk is posted elsewhere on this website. This article offers a Cliff Notes version of the talk.]
The discussion coincided with Marshall’s recently closed special exhibition, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” at the Met Bruer contemporary art building (formerly the old Whitney Museum at 75th and Madison). The retrospective to his 40-year career was the largest exhibit ever at the MET to celebrate a living black artist.
The exhibit featured some 40-plus large canvasses of everyday African-American life, peopled with black characters whose skin tone Marshall projects blacker than black, a pre-Big Bang black. Next stop will be the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles a few months from now.
In addition, Marshall, whose work can be found at important museums around the nation, recently sold through a Christie’s auction his 1992 painting “Plunge,” for $2.1 million, the highest amount ever paid for one of his works.
Rhoden, author of the profoundly insightful book “$40 Million Slaves” – a historic look at how athletic achievement and fabulous fortunes among black sportsmen in boxing, track, football, baseball and basketball, mask centuries of exploitation and powerlessness – currently writes for the new ESPN website, The Undefeated.
What follows are selected, non-sequential topic areas from Marshall’s and Rhoden’s far-ranging discussion.
Kerry James Marshall: What you hope is that a retrospective shows that your career was a thoughtful one. The goal was ultimately to be free but I just didn’t want to fit in or have to abandon the black figure in order to get here. Ultimately, I wanted the viewer to see that I experienced pleasure, that I experienced pain and that I was not working in a vacuum, but working in a culture that has a history.
Bill Rhoden: I could have written “$40 Million Slaves” about any place where black people are working. It could have been The Times, Wall Street, jazz, real estate or even here, the Met. What they share is being excluded when they get power and are afraid to use it. Who defines you?
I’ve written about sports and jazz for 40 years and this discussion could be about black innovators in music. But that is all they have: the music. They don’t own anything; they don’t own the means of production, the clubs they play in or the concert halls.
In the art world, that is a whole different dimension of reality. I saw the exhibit twice and nothing could prepare me for the power, frame after frame, floor after floor. His [Marshall’s] love of black people and his burning desire to define ourselves. That is the common ground [between us].
On Power and Wealth
Rhoden: Michael Jordan acquired all this power and wealth, but stayed out of politics. Why that path? What does that say beyond the accolades? What does it mean for the next 20 or 30 years to young black talented artists or athletes?
Marshall: Talking about Michael Jordan and the money he made is one of those cases where you can confuse wealth with power because wealth is not power. Power would have been the ability to walk away from the game and not be impacted by the consequences of having done so. That is power. But the problem with most athletes is that most of them are a knee injury away from ending their careers next Sunday. When they stop playing, they stop generating money and that is not power.
Rhoden: I’m starting to see a lot of young black athletes step up. Money is supposed to make you stronger but in sports money makes you weak because you don’t want to lose the money.
On Success and Mediocrity
Marshall: The overlap between the art world and the sports world is that they are both obsessed with winning. I’m obsessed with winning and there’s not a lot of difference between winning and losing in the art world. Everything we do as human beings is hierarchical in terms of the structure of the organizations [we compete in]. The vast number of people we know are located somewhere near the bottom. There are those at the top and those in the middle and then the folks at the bottom.
In the art world there is the assumption that if you are not already positioned at the top, there is no way you can get there; no mechanism to put you into play to get there. The decision about who arrives at the Met has not already been determined but it is being determined by a secret cabal, a network of people who have knowledge, critical acumen a good eye and by people who know what good art is supposed to look like and if you don’t know that then you aren’t going to get in. When I got started in art and visited the Met, The Whitney or MOMA — where I thought I’d never be — my goal was to get in. But could I play the game to get in? My goal was to win. And the consequences of not being a part of this were intolerable.
When I think about art history I think about the football draft. There’s always the Heisman Trophy winner and the teams that will always want him. Then there are the people with high production who are picked out and might become starters and then there are the bench players who do a particular job who comes in when someone gets in foul trouble or injured. Some of these people may be on the team for years and never touch the ball or get on the court. I see the art world like that, too. Is it really enough to have to go to school, get in a few shows, but never get invited to place your work in The Whitney? This is not a matter of chance. There is too much agreement about what constitutes the kind of art that belongs. People are not throwing things up in the air. It’s not accidental or chance. And if it is not accidental, then there must be something you can know and something you can do in order to insure that your chances of being in this place is better than 50/50.
Rhoden: I come from the world of the blood sports: football (NFL, major college) and basketball (NBA, major college), where young black men dominate. Now the institutions don’t necessarily like black men, but they need them. You either jump high, run fast, you train, you lift. Whose path is clearer? The 15-year-old black kid in Chicago who wants to get to the NFL or the Major Leagues or the 15-year-old with these art skills who would love to be here. What’s the route?
I always thought the black kid sportsman has a clearer path in the blood sports. Tennis and gymnastics, sports where you have to deal with judgment, the odds for black success are far worse. That’s why when you go to an Alabama or Clemson football game and the team is almost 97 percent black people. We need them. It’s a billion dollar industry that some young people who would be getting murdered if they didn’t have the uniforms on are being begged by white men to come to their schools.
Now in the art world, they don’t necessarily need black kids to be artists. We got plenty of white artists. We got that covered. What we don’t have and need are people to play football at Alabama and Clemson because that is what you been doing for 400 years anyway: tote that barge, left that bale and oh, by the way, we still keep the power.
In the art field, the route is far more difficult and hazy: A - they don’t need you and, B - there’s no standard. What is winning? Now I agree with you [Marshall] about the relationship of art to sports teams. But in the fine arts, in music and jazz in particular, it is now more difficult because they’ve managed to move the art to the conservatory and anytime you put a price tag on things, the mass of black people are out. That is just the reality.
Self-Doubt and Confidence
Marshall: There is something unsettling about wild praise, especially for those of us who are in the arts where we are use to a certain amount of obscurity. There’s no guarantee that you will achieve the things you set out to achieve and finally arrive here and have your work received as well as it has been received. It is a bit daunting because the praise does not alleviate the doubt.
Milford Prewitt is a freelance writer and Met gallery guard