“Baby on Nail” and Other Racist Musings: Baldwin Lee’s ‘Black & White’ Exhibit Elicits Questionable Reviews

Baby on Nail by Baldwin Lee

Baby on Nail by Baldwin Lee

In the November/December 2014 edition of Artscope (self-described as “New England’s Premier Culture Magazine”) Brian Goslow’s review of Baldwin Lee’s “Black & White: Photographs from the American South” is pretty much what you would expect from a bunch of Yankee art snobs. But before delving too deeply into the article, I’d like to be clear: Lee’s photography isn’t “bad” per se. The photographs are fine and I believe it is indeed important to reveal the inequalities that still pervade American society just below the surface. I’ll go further and acknowledge a benevolent impulse as a motivator in his work. But what I found most shocking about the exhibit is not the fact that poverty still exists in black America (one would have to be blind not to see this glaring reality); rather, what’s most shocking is that the people reviewing the exhibit betray the (unconscious?) racism that pervades even the most liberal of the liberal art establishment.

After reading and re-reading Goslow’s article, one might think that the fine folks of New England’s artist communities have only recently become aware of the fact that there are many suffering and impoverished peoples in the United States – especially in the South. (It’s also noteworthy that the photographs were taken in the 1980s so this is not a newsflash.) But what is truly outrageous about the review is the barrage of thinly veiled racist remarks throughout. For instance, take the comments by Monika Andersson, assistant director of the Groton School’s de Menil Gallery who said: “I am impressed by the sheer guts it took [Lee] to enter into each situation, to stand face-to-face with people of such poverty, and showcase the beauty of their humanity and spirit in the midst of squalor.” Comments such as these betray the elitism of the entire exhibit which parades itself as something educational and progressive but, in actual fact, describes the subjects of Lee’s photographs as one might describe animals encountered on a safari. Goslow himself seems shocked by the fact that blacks are in fact fully human and have found ways to adapt and enjoy their lives to some extent in spite of their circumstances. He writes, “The people portrayed in Lee’s images seem to celebrate and embrace life in surroundings most call condemnable…” Comments such as these beg the question, ‘What would you expect, Mr. Goslow?’

The commentators featured in the review seem surprised that the human subjects used as grist for the exhibitionists are not so stricken by their circumstances that they have any remaining sense of humanity or dignity about them at all. It’s as though Goslow and Andersson expected all the poor Southern blacks to be strung-out on drugs, imprisoned or crippled in some other way as a result of their grieving and yearning for the lifestyles of the enlightened middle class. Of course the commentators are delighted to see that, in spite of the plight suffered by those in Lee’s photos, the black folks in these communities are somehow able to scrape out a meager existence. The exuberance of both Goslow’s and Andersson’s comments become more insidious when one takes their attitudes to their logical conclusions; that is, when Goslow and Andersson rejoice at the sight of people experiencing such “hardships” engaged in little enjoyments like a game of basketball or laughing with their children, they are in essence admitting that they expected to find poor blacks behaving more like animals and less like the human beings that they are. The fact that Lee, Andersson and Goslow are surprised by their subjects’ humanity only reveals the extent of their disconnect from the hardships they romanticize and the level of their own elitism.

What’s worse, Golsow’s piece reinforces two deplorable strains of thought popular amongst the American middle and upper classes: first, they uphold the notion that misery is but a state of mind which can be overcome regardless of external circumstances like poverty. Second, that impoverished people – especially blacks – are so unrefined (unevolved/unintelligent, etc.) that they can somehow manage to find enjoyment even in their pitiful lives (whereas the likes of Lee, Andersson and Goslow would surely be unable to rise from their beds knowing that they had only such meager means of enjoyment).

What is the final conclusion that readers might take away from Goslow’s article? That the liberal art establishment is in fact full of good and caring people who would be so bold and brave as to stoop to snap shots of poor blacks for the titillation of their wine sipping, cheese-huffing Yankee friends and (more importantly) that there’s really no concrete action to be taken by them because the “people of such poverty” are quite satisfied in their “squalor.” In other words, they have absolved themselves of any further responsibility in solving these problems and, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced the stereotypes that perpetuate the policies that create the problems in the first place. The patronizing and exhibitionist attitude of the entire project is a disgrace and pales in comparison to genuine photographic projects such as the L9 Center for the Arts which not only documents conditions but also actively participates in uplifting those suffering while highlighting the systemic source of their challenges.

By SG Staff