I can't recall exactly when it was I first heard the term Art Workers. I do know that by the time I had returned from Howard University and was back in Harlem with Faith at 345 West 145th Street approaching the Christmas holidays in 1969, I had heard of the Art Worker's Coalition, which met downtown on Monday nights at a place called Museum, and either had already attended a meeting myself or was about to.
However, it is only now in reading Julia Bryan-Wilson's ART WORKERS: RADICAL PRACTICE IN THE VIETNAM WAR ERA (University of California Press 2009) that I am beginning to revisit and examine anew the importance of that term in the context of radicalism in the art world in the late 60s and early 70s. Her book considers in great depth the endeavors of the Art Workers' Coalition particularly as expressed by the activism and art work of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Lucy Lippard and Hans Haacke, the four artists she mainly focuses on in telling her story.
I cannot ever recall having met Hans Haacke but the other three I got to know quite well, or rather perhaps I should say I got to observe them closely for a time because I was 17 in 1969 and at the time I had no idea who I was. I was very shy and frequently found it difficult to address adults for more than a sentence or two in this period.
Granted this extreme shyness and lack of self-confidence did not prevent me from dancing or singing on stage (which I did in a number of productions either in or outside of school), nor did it prevent me from saying something belligerent in the context of a demonstration or debate as needed in the service of whatever Faiths' agenda may have been that day. What I am saying, in other words, is that if you had seen me then you might not have noticed that I was shy and self-conscious. Indeed, to attract attention to the fact that you are shy defeats the whole purpose of being shy. The point is to avoid being singled out for special or extreme scrutiny. For this you need to fit in. Or as in the case of also having a very extroverted mother, grandmother, aunt and sister--none of whom could conceive of shyness and had no patience for it, you need to really never let the ball fall dead in your court. Just make sure you shove that ball back to one of them, and they will always keep it going.
Sometimes I felt as though I didn't exist at all. I was most often entirely in my head. I did not have a will of my own as I recall. But then Faith kept me very busy so there wasn't a lot of time to sulk. When I got home from Howard University in the winter of 1969, I got a full time job during the day (working as an account adjuster at Best & Company's) and attending college at night at the City College of New York. On weekends I guess, I accompanied her to these various demonstrations, openings and parties.
It was during this period that Faith and I and Tom Lloyd were engaged in a series of protests to increase the representation of black and Puerto Rican artists at the Museum of Modern Art so I would imagine that Lucy, Robert and Carl noticed me less than I noticed them, other than the fact that young people had a certain automatic credibility then. Particularly since I was always in the presence of my mother Faith Ringgold who was a major player in the Art Activism and in the Art Worker's Coalition in New York at this time.
First, I should say that at the time my perception of all three was that they were very very upset about the Vietnam War and wanted it to stop, and that perhaps they were also anti-racist but distinctly less so. But the thing that Bryan-Wilson's account really calls into question was my own impression at the time that the two men were vigorously and unrepentently engaged in producing apolitical or anti-political art, and that Lucy who wrote about the art of white male artists like Andre and Morris, was herself a proponent of an art for art's sake view of some sort consistent with the prominence and success of the leading white male artists at the time--who ranged from minimalist and pop painters to conceptual artists of one variety or another, overwhelmingly white, overwhelming male.
I also thought of such people as wealthy, or in other words rich. Or in other words, they were living (as they were engaged in their anti-war and anti-materialist rhetoric) in relative luxury (despite their paint spattered overalls, their frequently bare feet and bedraggled, uncombed hair) on the spoils of their ostentatiously apolitical art making. As it happened, my experience of the decade of the 60s as a student at the progressive New Lincoln school (I entered in 7th grade in 1963) had already acquainted me with the self-presentation of poverty or blue collar or farmworker dress purchased from the Army Navy stores that use to sprinkle New York City among the children of the wealthy. Plus that I had grown up all my life experiencing the importance of neat, stylish and even expensive clothing among the largely working class population of a the black communities of the Bronx and Manhattan. I fully understood by 1969 that identifying someone's wealth or attitudes about wealth was not a conclusion you could draw from what the person was wearing. Indeed, quite the opposite. You would be more likely to understand a person's wealth from where they lived. Also, I had this notion that if you were a "successful artist," or in other words somebody who was a white male, whose name often appeared in print and who belonged to a prominent gallery (and my favorite solitary social activity even as a teenager was trolling the galleries of 57th Street and the Village, and the art museums of the city of new york) and (this was probably the most important) was employed full time as an artist, then you were probably well off, rich, wealthy, comfortable--choose any of these words. At the time, they all meant the same to me.
Granted I was not a deep thinker of the issue of wealth. There was only one important fact I knew about wealth. Neither I nor anybody in my family was wealthy.
So I am not sure how I came to the conclusion that their notions of art making were an attempt to avoid political issues in connection with their art but I think this may have been what Faith thought. And perhaps even if you were familiar with Bryan-Wilson's account of their ideas concerning the political usefulness of conceptual art, you might still pooh pooh the whole thing. Even Bryan-Wilson points out that conceptual art is not much associated in most people's minds with progressive politics. But her account makes some sense to me, particularly since she brings in the fact that a lot of people in the art world in the 60s were very turned off by the notion of social realism as a valid way to articulate politics in art. This I was, or subsequently became very aware of. I also think I didn't see, nor had never seen anything wrong with the idea of art for art's sake (although I would not have had the courage to say such a thing to my mother then).
But then it also makes sense that at this point (in the early 70s), that such extreme personalities as Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard and Robert Morris would have wanted to bring everything in their lives into a kind of theoretical consistency. In other words, if they were critiquing the current arrangements of the art world and protesting the implicit contribution of the established art world in the political arrangements of the dominant culture in the United States that they would have also done writing and made art that would be consistent with those same views.
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- Michele Wallace
- I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.