In recent years, a number of U.S.-based artists have taken on the subject of anti-black violence in their work, bridging a rich legacy of socially-engaged art practice with #BlackLivesMatter, the latest rallying cry for black freedom and racial equity. A considerable amount of these artistic responses occurred in the final years of Barack Obama’s two-term presidency, a period during which notions that we were beyond race proliferated. An uptick in fake news, misogyny, and white nationalist sentiment in the age of Trump, however, has since dispelled these post-racial notions and forced difficult discussions about the limits and possibilities of aesthetic practice. This backdrop has energized some of the most pressing controversies concerning art and visual representation in the long first decade of the twenty-first century, an era defined by hope and change on the one hand, terror and anxiety on the other.
Ongoing racial antagonisms within and beyond the art world, namely the lack of racial equity in the museum field along with the rapid reproduction and circulation of images of black death, have further exacerbated the link between aesthetics and politics. On this front, present-day black and non-black artists such as Kara Walker, Dana Schutz, and Sanford Biggers have grappled in various ways with how the past comes to bear on the present and art’s capacity to mitigate racial trauma. Taken together, recent art by Walker, Schutz, and Biggers articulate a set of ethical questions artists, curators, and critics face when presenting complex formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and institutional change. Who is permitted to represent blackness and in what ways? How do we account for contemporary artists’ engagements with distant and recent histories of black bodily trauma and subjugation? What are the matters of race and identity now? In many ways, these questions are not new. So why do they persist, and what does this persistence teach us about the nature of racial progress?