Christopher K. Ho and Roger White Discuss "Privileged White People" and Art
Christopher K. Ho trained as an art historian before switching to studio practice, so it’s no surprise that, in the best tradition of interdisciplinarity, his art is critical, historical, and pedagogical all at once. It’s also funny — toward a serious purpose: With mordant wit, Ho picks up the threads of 1990s identity-politics art and weaves them into unlikely new patterns. For Accidental Racism, 2010, Ho directed a white, dreadlocked actor to walk around an art opening with a wooden replica of the iconic BET Awards shooting-star trophy, telling weird stories about his grandfather. In a split-screen video called Lesbian Mountains in Love, 2008, Mount Rainier in Washington State and El Popo near Mexico City exchange tender dialogue lifted from the romance novels of Nicholas Sparks. His new project homes in on the current state of affairs in the art world — or at least, the New York–centered, MFA-driven version of it in which Ho operates. “Privileged White People,” a body of work slated to be shown this month at Forever & Today on New York’s Lower East Side, constructs a deadpan ethnography of elite young artmakers in order to nudge them into political consciousness. Roger White — a privileged white painter himself — visited Ho’s studio to discuss “modest Bushwick abstraction” as a transitional phenomenon bound for either glory or ruin, and how Dawson’s Creek can make us better artists and better people.
Roger White: So what do you have against privileged white people?
Christopher K. Ho: That’s a good question. I will sidestep it by saying that I have nothing but respect for privileged white people. One concern with my upcoming show, “Privileged White People,” is that the title reads pejoratively. Few would want to count themselves in that demographic.
RW: So it’s a position one doesn’t want to occupy publicly in the art world—except that if you do, maybe you’re OK with it because it’s advantageous.
CKH: And most people do, anyway. Privileged white people are so dominant in the art world that they are invisible. No one talks about them.
RW: How did you decide to make us the subject of your work?
CKH: I’ve taught at RISD since 2000, and over the years I’ve encountered many preternaturally well-adjusted students. Their social ease impresses me. Looking back on my own early 20s, I didn’t have that at all. My sense was that something had changed between when I was in college, in the mid ’90s, and when these students were in college. It seemed to me to be a positive change. I wondered: How does well-adjustedness manifest in art? What is the visual and formal vocabulary of well-adjustedness, or of a generation of particularly well-adjusted people? That was the show’s starting point.
RW: The work is steeped in the 1990s. I’m looking at two large photographs on the walls of your studio: One is of Bill Clinton and the other is of the guy from Dawson’s Creek.
CKH: Dawson Leery, played by James Van Der Beek. I’m using Dawson and President Clinton to bracket the ’90s and to think about people whose identities were formed during that decade. Growing up in the United States between 1992 and 2000 meant growing up under a president who famously had nothing happen to him, blow job excepted. There was the Mexican peso crisis at the beginning and the Asian financial crisis at the end, but his was generally a stable, prosperous period.
RW: And what about Dawson?
CKH: Dawson is the product of an ethos that is American, and particularly of New England. He may struggle between loyalty to Pacey and love for Joey, but in the end he’ll do the right thing. His motivations are mostly wholesome and his intentions always honorable. He is the archetype of educated, liberal white decency. And he’s just self-conscious and artsy enough to be interesting.
RW: And you see him as a model for young artists now populating the art world in New York?
CKH: Yes. Dawson’s Creek and other early teen shows like Beverly Hills 90210 taught a generation how to have meaningful social relationships: how to be open and befriend, how to support and accept support. 90210 additionally reminded us that rich people are people too. Earlier television shows like Dallas and Dynasty chronicled epic feuds over generations that resulted in murder, embezzlement, and fraud. In contrast, if Dawson’s friends fought, they forgave; if one got kicked out of their home, another took them in. Dawson is fundamentally good; his displays of greed or jealousy or churlishness were momentary. I guess we’d say in artspeak that he is undialectical. Of course it’s a relationship drama, and there’s a cast of characters who have to remain friends.
RW: The structure of the narrative requires that no one be eliminated or alienated, if only for marketing purposes.
CKH: If only for pragmatic reasons. But why not, if modeling inclusivity makes viewers better people?
RW: What’s that smell?
CKH: Issey Miyake’s L’eau d’Issey. The fragrance launched in 1992. Bottles of it are propping up a piece of watermarked paper sandwiched between two glass sheets, to form a sculpture called Acceptance Letter.
RW: This is the smell of friendship.
CKH: It’s the smell of multiculturalism. Scents in the 1980s were powerful and sweet. They announced the wearer’s status. Today’s scents are earthy and complex—smoky, dirty, sweaty.
RW: And scents of the ’90s?
CKH: Scents of the ’90s were clean, single-note, often floral and unisex. What they lacked in dimension they made up for in purity. CK One is the other paradigmatic ’90s scent.
RW: Getting back to the aesthetic correlate of well-adjustedness in the art world: How would you describe it?
CKH: The most pervasive example around—which may or may not be the best—is modest abstract painting. It doesn’t position itself within the cacophonous arguments that punctuated painting from the early ’60s to the late ’80s. It’s neither self-critical in any modernist sense nor politically engaged in any avant-garde way. It sidesteps these options that, for a generation and a half, guided art.
RW: In your recent essay “The Clinton Crew: Privileged White Art,” in which I was indicted...
CKH: In which you were mentioned, yes.
RW: ...you discuss the work of a number of painters working abstractly, and describe the possible trajectory of their practices, using a diagram. It’s based on the semiotic square, most recognizable to art fans from Rosalind Krauss’s essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” Can you walk me through it?
CKH: For decades, the sway between the personal and the political guided advanced art. On one end was personal expression, on the other political engagement. In the ’80s, identity politics combined—the proper word would be mediated—the two. It concerned both identity and ideology. Artists since the ’80s have largely remained within this binary and its mediating point—that is, until this last generation. Which is why, when you see their art for the first time, you’re like, “what the fuck?”
RW: It’s confusing because it’s illegible under established criteria.
CKH: Exactly. Now, what I would like to think happened is that the binary between the personal and the political generated a shadow: a secondary binary between ethics and civics, which is a weaker version of the first. Together the two oppositions form a square—the semiotic square—and intimate three additional mediating points: between politics and ethics, between ethics and civics, and between the civic and the personal. NGOs like Habitat for Humanity and the Peace Corps mediate politics and ethics. They’re instruments of diplomacy and reek of imperialism, but those involved actually care—they are ethically unassail-able. And situated between the civic and the personal are community-based works and social practice, forms that have exploded since the ’90s.
RW: And the mediation of ethics and civics?
CKH: That is where I’d like to locate privileged white art. It’s the mirror of identity politics, generated from the shadow of the opposition that generated identity politics in the ’80s. It’s a kind of identity politics that we’re talking about.
RW: It’s an identity politics for people in the position of privileged whiteness.
CKH: If these people claimed any other position, it would just be obnoxious.
RW: It would be a false subalternity. The other choice would be to speak, as an artist, from the point of view of the oppressor. There are plenty of people who do that—
CKH: Either ignorantly or ironically. But why not consider what is positive about privilege?
RW: Your show will also include the typescript for a screenplay.
CKH: It’s a two-hour pilot for a TV series I created called Trout College, modeled after WB dramas like Dawson’s Creek. It takes place in 1996 at an idyllic liberal arts college in New Hampshire. An unlikely love affair between Anya, a diplo-brat from El Salvador, and Liam, a handsome local jock, forms the core narrative. Around them a diverse group of students undergo political awakenings: Anya’s older sister Maria Cristiani—their dad is the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States; charming, closeted Cabot Bowditch; Cabot’s best friend from Groton, Mason Lee; and pianist Efram Huntsman, an adopted Ethiopian musical prodigy who stops playing for mysterious reasons. Events beyond the college’s walls bring characters into collision in different ways and refract through the lived experiences of friends and lovers. A revolution in El Salvador concludes Act I, and a school shooting starts Act III. Throughout, the interpersonal accompanies and contours the ideological.
RW: The category of narrative may offer a solution to this quandary of a mirrored identity politics: that after unpacking itself, privileged whiteness must find a productive way to talk about something else. Your Brechtian screenplay suggests one possibility. The conventions of storytelling offer different positions from which to speak. Within the narrative, there’s an author, a narrator, and characters. Those positions aren’t fraught because they’re just conventions of the form.
CKH: Narrative provides a hierarchy that is not hierarchical. And in this particular case, as fiction, it’s not traditionally polemical—it’s imaginative rather than argumentative.
RW: It demands emotional involvement and identification with the protagonists.
CKH: It’s a way that art can have content, and can deliver that content, and can be talked about and argued about and discussed.
RW: Turning to that content: What’s the significance of setting the screenplay at a liberal arts college?
CKH: College is where many people first become politically astute or aware. If the project we’re talking about aims to articulate a paradigm for art that is beyond the political or socially transformative, then it’s important to return to the point of origin.
RW: In order to see alternative paths?
CKH: In order to see what may have been overlooked. Trout College’s motto—and the inscription on the watermarked paper in that sculpture—is Fortitudine ad Urnam, or “Fortitude until death.” The mottoes of New England prep schools are directives like “For whom to serve is to rule,” “Not for oneself,” and “After instruction let us move on to pursue higher things.” To be sure, these issue from positions of privilege—an American interpretation of nobility. They are also undoubtedly well-meaning. What if art acknowledged and embraced such values as content? Fidelity, fellowship, honor, sympathy—these would constitute content. Does that make sense?
RW: It does, it does. But I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Do you think that, on a level of politics beyond the interpersonal within art, those values are still beneficial? Because that’s where we typically run into difficulties with this idea of the well-meaning liberal subject.
CKH: I have an answer, but I actually want to ask you.
RW: Well, getting back to Clinton: He is beloved and it was a stable time, and since his presidency he has been a benevolent political actor, more so than most. But at the same time, he was instrumental in laying the groundwork for an ordering of the world that is hardly empathic. nafta, extreme deregulation, the Sudanese baby-formula factory! The stability and inclusiveness he presided over was built on a lot of unrecognized exclusions.
CKH: My sense, too, is that this kind of apolemical, apolitical stance, in art or in actual politics, or with people, seems decent or good at the time but opens up a society, or an art world, or an aesthetic sphere, to possibly negative influences. The danger of the modest abstract painting that we’re seeing now is that it doesn’t dig its heels in, it doesn’t take a position or work for or against something. As a result, who knows what will follow? It may be the most undisciplined kind of art with the most insidious politics without discernible ethics. But I hope that modest Bushwick abstraction signals a paradigm shift, and that this shift will soon become decisive and dimensional, even if we remain blind to the details now.
RW: So in this sympathetic reading, it’s a transitional phenomenon.
CKH: In the best-case scenario, it is. I have a question for you: If narrative is the carrier for whatever the content of this post-political art is, where is the narrative, for instance, in your abstract painting?
RW: Maybe narrative is one possibility, and another involves perception, or affect. Looking at a picture and reading a story are complementary modes of engagement. They can house critique or affirmation equally, and neither is reducible to those functions.
CKH: Or, we’re not literally looking for narrative in abstract painting—because then we would be looking for history painting. We’re looking for something analogous.
RW: What is this pink thing under my chair here?
CKH: It’s a chunk of Himalayan rock salt. I’m doing another series of watermarked paper, and they’re going to be propped up with those. The salt will be etched with emblems derived from various boarding schools.
RW: Is this another ’90s thing that I missed?
CKH: You shave it over food. You can warm it up and put salmon on top of it.
This article was published in the January issue of Modern Painters.