Columnist Joe Gannon: Sorting out the kerfuffle of ‘genocide art’

  • Doris Madsen, holds her piece “400 Years Later #4,” that has become the subject of criticism from Jason Montgomery resulting in the cancellation of the Northampton Arts Council Biennial show. gazette file photo

Published: 10/8/2021 2:33:50 PM

Now that “painting gate” has broken over the valley we have a chance to ponder — not so much cancel culture, not so much about white appropriation — but do we Americans know how to talk and think anymore?

Never one to fail us, good ole Northampton, in the form of its arts council, first heard a not unreasonable complaint about the parameters of what constitutes art, heard one cry of racist appropriation, and stampeded themselves into not only canceling one piece accused of “genocide art,” but then decided, what the hell, let’s cancel the whole show!

Oh, the red meat thrown in the middle of the arena! Ready. Steady. Fight.

But rather than unearthing some nefarious existential dilemma about race, history and identity, it is more a first-class example of why folks just can’t get much done and the general state of confusion in the American mind.

Sure, back in the day when we wanted to rattle power, we called them/it/him racist to put them on their back foot. It was a tactical move and we all used it regardless of affinity.

What we have lost utterly is the understanding that consciousness is a process — consciousness raising is also a process, a product of nurture not nature. The point today is to curse those of less consciousness and kick’em ’til they educate themselves.

So, an artist who did not get into the show raise the alarms about some “old white lady” who he seemed to say had just discovered genocide in American history, and so, I guess, was making art as a “homework” assignment?

We saw this debate begin a few years ago when a Black artist stood before a painting of the murdered Emmet Till, done by a white artist. Her protest was to block the view of others over her objections to a white artist’s appropriation of Till’s body and suffering for her own “white” reasons. The accusation then was also a kind of “genocide porn.”

We have seen this in writing too. Just before COVID hit, a book by a white author about Mexican immigrants landed with a million-dollar deal and tons of critical clapback over this white author’s advance compared to that of writers of color warning about the people they actually know. The white publisher thought white people would go for a novel about brown immigrants if written by a “nice white lady.”

So there is that, you gotta hand it to us, white folks can screw up opening a folded napkin! And one of the good things about “Noho” is it regularly manages to grab a bit of the national zeitgeist.

So, an artist who did not get into the Biennial show appeared at a meeting and stopped the Arts Council in its tracks with the accusation that another artist was engaging in “genocide porn” when she painted a piece with the Mayflower in the center and ghostly images around it. I rather liked it. The ghostly images reminded me of cave paintings, and the Mayflower in the center, like a watermark, made me think how we too would fade into obscurity like the makers of those fist hand prints millennia ago.

The pointy horns of this dilemma seem to be what to do when “losers” come together to get the game cancelled, as it were. I hope the Gazette might run the art piece and the poem that were reportedly rejected by the council alongside the piece that was accused of being genocide art.

And that is not a false charge. Like it or not we live in a country where almost every interaction between people of different races must be strip-mined for traces of racism. It sucks, it’s tedious, it is even boring, but that is one place white folks can step up: if you don’t like that “old white lady” getting cancelled, well maybe white folks’ job now is to take that on the chin.

But does that mean the world is now in the throes of whoever talks the loudest, claims racism first, or dare we say it, confuses their egotism with politics, aesthetics and race?

Until white folks can work out what racism is, then yes maybe! Why not?

Regardless of the details of this kerfuffle, it is true that white folks have a habit of “discovering” something well known to oppressed people and then dedicating their lives to it like they are the Greatest Generation when they are only the Latest Generation to arrive so tardily to our historical reality.

We whites do have to own that. When the “white lady writing about Mexican immigrants” dispute arose, I thought I’d strip mine my own work for signs of appropriation. It is easy enough to do today: find those sites and articles written by writers of color for white writers on the very topic at hand. Largely what I found was good advice built around one notion: white authors using characters of color who are not real, have no actual agency nor agenda of their own, they are there only to give something to a white character.

In other words, the warnings were about the bad writing that inevitably results from cultural appropriation. Some of the writers had very specific advice: Do not describe a black character’s color unless you do so for all characters for example.

Mostly the advice was to think harder and deeper about why I, as a white writer, would include a character of color. But not one of them said writers should stick to characters of their own race. None.

So yes, it is on white artists to first investigate, educate, and consciousness raise yourself before crossing the color line. There must be a solid reason why such a choice is necessary. Not because you’re being shouted down by possibly sore losers but because you now know that doing so leads to better art, better writing and better thinking.

Joe Gannon lives in Easthampton, can be reached at

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