What the Racist, Homophobic Kehinde Wiley Backlash Is Really About

Kehinde Wiley’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum is New York’s must-see art show of the spring. I saw it opening weekend; every weekend since then, my social media feeds have been full of my friends choosing different Wiley paintings to Instagram or tweet. Meanwhile, his works adorn the Lyon’s family mantlepieces in the hit show Empire.

One of the reasons I think Wiley’s most well-known work is so beloved is because its premise is simultaneously subversive and highly accessible. Wiley is best known for painting young black and brown men, in their street clothes, styles that the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Joe Scarborough would surely scold. He finds his models on the street, asks them to choose a monumental pose from the Western canon, and then forces the audience to confront society’s most marginalized youths as kings, queens, beauties, honored nobles and tragic figures of art history, often naming his paintings after the originals. It’s a powerful rebuke to the kinds of narratives about black youth that are used to justify the killings of unarmed teens and children in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Sanford Florida.

As New York Times writer Deborah Solomon describes it,

A Wiley painting is easy to recognize. More often than not, it shows a solitary figure, an attractive man in his 20s, enacting a scene from an old-master painting. Dressed in contemporary garb — a hooded sweatshirt, perhaps, or a Denver Broncos jersey — the man might be crossing the Swiss Alps on horseback with the brio of Napoleon or glancing upward, prophet-style, golden light encircling his head.

In layman’s terms, his art is a skilled remix. He rearranges racial power dynamics, conceptions of beauty, gender, and “the gaze.” It makes us think about pop iconography and the history of portraiture, but you don’t have to be an art critic to “get” what Wiley is doing on a basic level. For anyone who’s at least cursorily familiar with Western art history, both the aesthetic and political effect of the paintings, stained glass windows, and sculptures that Wiley creates is immediate and strong. As my museum-going companion put it, he’s “storming the canon.”

After I saw the Wiley show at the Brooklyn Museum, I went online and read several pieces of criticism about his art, his methods, and the way he layers his paint. There seemed to be a serious debate over his work, which is interesting and substantive and nuanced. Yet it was inevitable, as with other easily comprehensible pieces of art that make a minority experience central — such as Selma, for instance — that there would ensue a backlash that went beyond the methods and context of the art, to attack the artist.

This backlash came when the Village Voice ran a pan of the new exhibit by a white critic, Jessica Dawson, which trades in every homophobic, racist assumption in the book. With zero evidence, she calls the sexually flexible Wiley “predatory” for finding models on the street and bringing them back to the studio, even though they are essentially collaborators who choose their own poses. “What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell,” she writes, with a barely contained sneer. “Saint Andrew grinds his crotch against a wooden cross, and in case we don’t quite get it, Wiley has painted free-floating spermatozoa across the canvas.” Furthermore, references to the “firm… African American flesh” of the paintings’ subjects and questionable use of the word “ghetto” all combine in a review that’s deeply uncomfortable at best.

Jillian Steinhauer, writing at Hyperallergic, demolishes Dawson’s non-argument, piece by piece. “Clearly, there is something about the sexualization of black men that offends or frightens Dawson,” Steinhauer, who has criticized Wiley’s international forays, writes. “From the vagueness of her writing and the broadness of her generalizations, it’s hard to tell if it’s the ‘sexualization’ or the ‘black men’ part.”

Nearly everyone in the Voice comments section, as well as other critics on Twitter, also went to town explaining the offensiveness inherent to Dawson’s review:

Beyond the details of how and where Dawson crossed the line in her generally execrable review, I think it’s interesting to ask ourselves why she, and perhaps her editors, felt the need to tear down Wiley for clicks. As with Selma, as with Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, as with Kanye and D’Angelo, Kendrick and Beyoncé, we’re living in a moment where the best work about “identity politics” isn’t being made for the glasses-wearing art kids, but for the masses. Just as Selma director Ava DuVernay has moved from the indie sphere to the multiplex, Wiley has moved from showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem to being the most visible contemporary artist with a retrospective in New York this spring. His paintings aren’t inscrutable commentaries on race, gender, and sexuality but stunning, brash, commercially viable ones. In fact, his paintings are pleasing to look at (and presumably, as the Empire references show, to own) even as they provoke us. I think that Wiley’s mass appeal, combined with his gorgeous technique and confrontational subject matter, is what provokes the backlash that arrives as a snarky mix of snobbery and bias.

Certain white critics don’t like the existence of minority-centric art with mainstream potential because it takes them, the critics, out of the mainstream. And that effect may be more challenging than anything produced by a hip, insider avant-garde.