This sprawling, ambitious book by Jeff Chang looks at the history of race and culture since the Civil Rights era. It’s a big topic—perhaps too big for a single book—but there’s a lot of value here.
Chang focuses primarily on race and the arts, especially the visual arts. There are chapters on ground-breaking exhibits showcasing the work of artists of color and how difficult it was for these artists to be taken seriously. If they did not adopt the values and modes of expression of white art culture, their work didn’t matter. But if they did adopt those values, would it even be their work? And would it even be accepted?
Reading these chapters, I wished I were more familiar with some of the artists and movements described, and I wished for more illustrations of some of the art itself. However, I did find some points of interest, especially when Chang describes the backlash of the artists’ work and how that criticism was used to pressure the government to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. I remember some of the examples and controversies he cites from the 80s and 90s, and it was valuable to look at them again through an older and more knowledgeable lens.
One of the things the book makes clear again and again is that art is political, and many of the disputes in our political world end up touching the art world and vice versa. Art that explores issues of identity ends up being targeted for not espousing so-called American ideals, even though “communities of color might be as invested as white liberals were in the project of making America.” And sometimes liberal allies turn toward a line of thinking all too familiar in recent months, even though this statement refers to the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988:
Plunged in despair, some liberals began to train their sights on multiculturalists, feminists, and queers, whom they said had destroyed the left with identity politics. Class, they said, was the real issue, not race or gender or sexuality. But, really, it was all of the above. Why had working-class white Americans—after half a century of strongly supporting strong government, social programs, and economic reform—turned so strongly against their own clear economic interests? What really was the matter with Kansas? It was the culture wars, stupid.
Cheng also looks at commercial art—specifically advertisements and commercials and different approaches to the question of whether it’s better to have a broad appeal or focus on a single market. He gets into the history that led up to Coke’s iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial. (It does not involve Don Draper at a commune.) And it never occurred to me that there might be a greater significance to the Budweiser Whassup? commercial until reading this.
Other types of art covered include comics and street art. The book opens with a terrific chapter on Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic. I also enjoyed the chapter about Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the Obama “Hope” poster, although I’m puzzled about his inclusion in a book mostly about artists of color.
And that gets me to the biggest weakness in this otherwise powerful and valuable book. It sprawls a little too much, especially toward the end. As much as I appreciated the chapters on Trayvon Martin, the Occupy movement, and the Dreamers (heart-breakingly timely), they started to feel a little off-topic. They all have to do with race, but the art discussion so central to the rest of the book was largely left by the wayside. His most recent book, We Gon’ Be Alright is a collection of essays on with race, resegregation, and protest, and I wonder if these last chapters might fit better there.