A Necessary Conversation: Holland Cotter’s Take on Marginalization In the Art World

The New York Times’ arts section is quite well-known for its consistently excellent writing, its massive readership, and its fairly famous reviews from critics of art, literature, theater, and more. I’ve sort of always been aware that while the best way to understand art is to go forth and experience it myself… but growing up in Georgia, I haven’t always had direct access to major art spaces, or at least to anything happening outside of Atlanta. The New York Times wasn’t (and isn’t) a perfect substitute for experiencing art myself—and frankly, can be a little bit capricious and pretentious when deciding what does or doesn’t qualify as art deserving attention at all—but it has always been a source for me when I go looking for information about what’s happening in terms of art around the world. To clarify, the Times is not a niche publication. They are unlikely to report on new experimental art in fringe galleries, or emerging artists, unless something really pushes boundaries, or is clearly exceptional. It’s certainly not run by artists, or explicitly for artists the way that many art publications are. But their massive readership means that the Times is and has always been an excellent source if I want to understand what’s going on in the art world as written about for large-scale consumption—or in other words, if I want to know how current traditional art critics want the majority of educated Americans to think about modern art.

The New York Times’ art section is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a collection of writing abut the arts, mostly centered around New York City, but often—and especially recently—looking at topics worldwide. Various reporters and editors may choose to highlight artists of many backgrounds, and in many genres—not just visual art, but theater, books, and architectural spaces as well. That said, the ‘art and design’ subsection, and specifically, the “Critic’s Notebook” column within that category, deals mostly with examining gallery shows, galleries, workshops, and display spaces.

Looking through the October 2020 section of Critic’s Notebook, a piece by Pulitzer-winning writer Holland Cotter caught my eye. The article—“ Honoring Latinx Art, Personal and Political: El Museo del Barrio celebrates its own electric history, and present, in a show about the Puerto Rican workshop Taller Boricua”—stood out to me for several reasons, the first being that it doesn’t particularly match that New-York-centric gallery space review that the Times usually covers (though El Taller Boricua is in East Harlem, they are not a traditional gallery space). The review certainly is not apolitical, and it isn’t trying to be. And it’s nowhere near as mainstream a subject as I typically expect from the Times. It’s clear that Cotter is still trying to reach that same audience—largely well-educated, liberal-leaning, American passive intellectuals—but is using the platform of the Times to hammer home a couple of points much harder than the paper usually dares.

Cotter’s article, as the title indicates, is a mid-length piece about an archival exhibition at a Puerto Rican workshop whose focus is entirely on race, politics, and resistance throughout history. But it’s more than that—Cotter leans fully into the historical and art historical significance of such an exhibition, pointing out that with a couple of notable exceptions (he references Basquiat) the art world has been distinctly unkind to Latinx art. El Taller Boricua exists specifically to provide a platform for underrepresented artists from marginalized backgrounds, pushing back against the very white, often thoroughly Eurocentric view that the art world often espouses. Cotter acknowledges the fault of the art world in that marginalization, calling it “racist, and classist, and just plain wrong,” and praising Taller Boricua, calling what they do a “necessary job,” and noting the vast history that must be addressed, writing that “ If El Museo did nothing more, from this time forward, than focus its attention on Latinx art and its complex past and electric present, it would have its hands, and its galleries, more than full.”

A review like this, from one of the giants of mainstream criticism, has a distinct value in the grand scheme of art history. It’s not that Cotter is the reason why people will find Taller Boricua and pay attention to the work they’re doing. It’s not that an article in the New York Times is even that much of a ‘revolution.’ But the fact that a quintessentially Latinx institution is actively receiving attention from a major publication is something that at least helps change the direction of the conversation in the art world, and that has a distinct kind of art historical value.

I was glad to see Cotter choosing to talk about representation, marginalization, and racism in the art community, because it’s an important conversation to have, and one that the mainstream, large-scale-consumption side of the American art world has avoided for a long time.  

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/15/arts/design/latinx-art-el-museo-del-barrio.html

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