Triangulating Racism

By Eisenman, Stephen F. | The Art Bulletin, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Triangulating Racism

Eisenman, Stephen F., The Art Bulletin

Race was disproved as a coherent scientific category by Franz Boas in 1928, but racism prospers nearly everywhere.1 Among scholars, the simple but valuable observation that race is a biological fiction but racism a social fact has gained widespread acceptance, but the research that receives the greatest public attention is that which trumpets crude correlations between skin color and test scores.2 Even writers directly engaged in examining and attacking racism sometimes end up buttressing aspects of its epistemology. While disclaiming the scientific validity of race, they may reify the term by failing to describe how it functions to legitimate a whole confluence of social, cultural, and economic inequalities. Indeed, the recognition of another person as racially different is the end result of a number of learned attitudes and behaviors that develop in specific historical and cultural settings of class and gender hierarchy and inequality. Discussions about "race in America," "race relations," "race matters," and even "racial tolerance," therefore, may tend to reinvest race subliminally with some of the very essential, somatic characteristics that past generations were at pains to disprove.3 Racism exists, to repeat the useful formula; races do not.

If social scientists are too often uncritical and ahistorical in their discussion of racism and race, art historians tend to avoid the subject altogether.4 This lacuna is significant: a mere glimpse at our classrooms, faculty meetings, and convention assemblies-not to mention our curricula and syllabi--exposes either our heedlessness or our complicity with racism. In art-historical writing no less than in faculty hiring and promotion practices, racism may in fact be the field's dirty little secret.5 The few scholars who address art in a colonial context often elide histories that ought to be carefully separated, and regularly fail to engage the past and present actualities of subject populations. The actions, policies, and collecting habits of the French in Dahomey, for example, were different from those of the British in Benin; the lives of Moroccan harem women portrayed by Delacroix were vastly different from those of Tahitian vahines painted by Gauguin.6 In a number of recent books and essays, the Dogon, Fang, Papuans, Maohi, Tonkinese, Gypsies, and Jews are absent presences all the more obvious for the sophistication of the critical vocabularies marshaled to theorize their racial "otherness."7

Yet art history has the potential to make signal contributions to our emerging understanding of the form and meaning of racism. Unlike literary studies, musicology, and even anthropology, art history has a strong tradition of being historical; it has often pursued relentlessly the particulars of local artistic, political, and religious institutions. Such specificity and complexity are what is now most needed. Racism is precisely a rhetoric which proposes that the weight of the past-of blood, soil, or nation-overwhelms the present and future; the dismantling of racism is therefore naturally a particular responsibility of historians. Racism must be distinguished from other past and present ideologies of hierarchy and apartheid, and its specific geography carefully mapped. The methods and scope of art history are thus well suited for this necessary work of excavating the histories of the various national racisms, and uncovering the roots of the present political and ideological impasse. Indeed, the history of racism may perhaps best be understood by means of a process of critical triangulation. If racism is placed between different but related historical terms, such as exoticism and primitivism, its complexity and specificity may be better revealed.


exoticism (ig zot i siz am), n. 1. Celebration of the culturally or geographically remote, together with more or less willful ignorance of historical particulars. 2. Sexual dalliance with difference and marriage to familiar. …

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