Gallery L5, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
I can recall a spat between two people where one was accusing the other of lying. "I didn't lie! I just, you know, didn't tell you everything."
The accuser raised an eyebrow and declared in a pointed voice, "Omission is as bad as lying, you know."
Whether our motivations are benign or malicious, we have all been guilty of the sin of omission. We tell stories and leave out details because they're "irrelevant" or because they paint us in a light that is less than savory.
Or because that's what we've always done.
I had a conversation with someone about art a few weeks ago. He asked me what kind I liked, and because I'm not educated enough to know whether my tastes fall in this style or that era, I could only articulate that I am most often moved and inspired by ancient and classical artwork. Modern/contemporary pieces generally speak to me less often.
"I hate classical art," he replied.
"Oh? Is there anything specific you don't like? Or is it more of an issue of aesthetics?"
He didn't want to answer. His expression was frustrated, and the "Ugh" that tumbled out of his mouth told me he was fatigued by the topic. He indulged me, though: "It's just too...White."
For a moment I wondered whether he meant the overall color and tone was too white or too bright. Then like a bolt of lightning it struck me that he was talking about race. This gentleman, a person of color, was lamenting about the Whiteness (not whiteness) of classical art. Or more accurately, he was lamenting the utter lack of color.
Because this is a blog post about the sin of omission, I have to be upfront with you. I've only ever considered how White the fine arts are because someone or something has explicitly pointed it out to me. It's never been something that I've considered without prompting. This gent was one such reminder. And the inspiration of this blog post is always another. I love this piece due in large part to the fact that it is a beautiful reminder that I can admire the art that I love but I need to understand the history of omission that goes along with it all.
Racism and racial bias have never been exclusive to this country or era. If you wander through the halls of our museums' pre-modern artistry, nearly all the people of color you'll find are represented in art that hails from countries where Whites are (or were) in scarce supply.
Some exceptions apply, but they're usually unfortunate. To see one such an example, revisit my blog post titled "Final Fantasy." The inspiration for that post was a painting by Jan Steen. In it, she depicted her ideal life. She elevated herself and her family to a height equal to that of royalty at the time. Even her maidservant (her White maidservant, mind you) in the background bears the black beauty patch that servants would never have worn in real life.
But look closer in the shadows and you'll see that Ms. Steen also painted a Black pageboy. A servant relegated to the shadows, he's portrayed as a hidden thief sneaking a bottle of wine while the family takes absolutely no notice. Think about this for just a moment. This is the top-level, most positive expression of the artist's concept of a perfect reality. And even in this idealized vision the lone Black figure is still cast in shadow and portrayed as a reprobate. If her opinion of the Black community was so low in her brightest, happiest fantasy, imagine then what she thought of them in her waking life.
But let's go back to omission. We of privilege will never understand how profoundly painful it can be to witness great and fantastic works of beauty but never see ourselves. This isn't just about the paintings and sculptures that are on display in galleries. The sin of omission is alive and well today in modern media like film, television, print ads, and so on. It's quite literally the reason why a film like "Black Panther" was crucial...and so long overdue.
I recently found a Stanford dissertation about positive media representation of minorities and how that influences social opinions. The paper presented data that showed how social opinion's trend line has always skewed liberal with a steady but excruciatingly slow pace. The only times social opinion has shifted exponentially has been immediately after significant increases in positive representation in the media. Whether the minority demographic was a certain race, sexuality , or gender didn't matter. Spikes in positive representation always preceded dramatic liberal shifts in overall public opinion.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the sin of omission isn't retroactively reparable. The absence of people of color in classical art (and even in modern media) is a deep and garish scar that we can never cover up no matter how hard we try. As these great classical works of art get older and rarer, the omission of people of color will only be more and more noticeable.
The worse news is that liberal social trends don't really tell us anything about how well people are shedding and resisting the racial biases we have been force-fed all our lives. I'd like to think that it's a sign that society acknowledges on some level that racial biases exist and must end, but what people write on mail-in surveys has precious little to do with what's in their hearts and minds. It feels good to mail off a survey that insists you have great love for Black people (or gays or transgender people or women or...) but do you really?
Artists like Kehinde Wiley understand that we can't correct the past. There's no way to heal that scar, but there is a way to slow its incessant stretching. They know that in order to prevent it from cutting an even wider swath across the face of the art world, they must push positive representation as much and as often as possible. They give us beautiful and powerful artwork that features people of color and the cultures they come from. Perhaps through these artists the beautiful landscape of art will be marred less and less by the omissions that have cut so deep for far too long.