Listening to Echoes: Racial Violence in Contemporary Art History

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Taking its cues from recent scholarship on the crisis of anti-Black violence, this essay revisits a constellation of art world events related to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King: Anna Deavere Smith’s 1993 performance Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a one-woman play about the riots sparked when King’s attackers were acquitted; the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which included the amateur videotape of the beating that had featured prominently in news coverage and during the trial; and a roundtable discussion about the Biennial that appeared in the journal October. Using the concept of the echo as a figure for a temporal “ongoingness,” I argue that racial disparity exists within art historical and art critical assumptions about time. By virtue of the echoic nature of police violence against African Americans, racialized subjects often have a different relationship to past-ness than white subjects, and thus the capacity to mark events as historical is a privilege to which not all subjects have equal access. Similarly, the ability to deploy the category of the contemporary in positive ways is differentially distributed. Inspired by Darby English’s suggestion that we listen for what “fights meaning” in works of contemporary art by and about African Americans, the essay harkens to the repetitions of the echo to reveal the ways in which time itself is racialized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8-23
Number of pages16
JournalArt Journal
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022

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© 2022 College Art Association.


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