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.