In a recent essay, cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg issues a challenge for a fresher, more nuanced approach to talking about the political elements of culture. Simply assessing whether a piece of art contains certain ideas, which are either uniformly beneficial or harmful, is insufficient. Judgments like “Game Of Thrones is misogynist and misogyny is bad, therefore Game Of Thrones is bad,” are at best superficial and at worst wrongheaded, she argues, since they capture only a piece of what happens when people engage with art. Rather than merely identifying the ideas at work in any particular beloved artwork, she writes, “I am interested in knowing why we love it.”
Rosenberg’s essay could hardly be more appropriately timed to coincide with the publication of Jeff Chang’s excellent new history, Who We Be: The Colorization Of America, a work that takes it upon itself to trace how art has influenced and reflected the massive social changes of the past 50 years. Chang’s previous book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, is about the evolution of hip-hop, but it’s really a social history that uses music as the external manifestation and signpost of massive cultural shifts. Likewise, Who We Be tracks the development of the art world, or rather the development of several art worlds—from the insular but far-reaching circle of newspaper cartoonists to the Whitney Museum Of American Art, practically its own castle in the rarified universe of New York’s art scene.
Chang’s argument is, simply put, a full-throated defense of multiculturalism—a vision of America as composed by the innumerable local and broader cultures that produce something greater than the sum of their parts. Acknowledging that the word has become dirty for many—signifying an empty commitment to what’s being deemed “diversity”—Chang attempts to reclaim its legacy by tracing its evolution through a variety of social and, more importantly, artistic movements. Chang’s compelling picture of multiculturalism isn’t just, or even primarily, an aesthetic idea—asserting oneself as a multiculturalist makes political demands, and suggests something about the way America has increasingly been forced to admit a variety of perspectives, and about how we should deal with race as a political fact of life. Chang captures how we increasingly respond to art that blurs cultures while keeping their boundaries somewhat intact as it reflects who we are and who we aspire to be. The use of the word “colorization” is potent—it indicates the shades of skin and the art that populates the book.
Appropriately, Chang finds his most powerful symbol of that process in Wee Pals cartoonist Morrie Turner. An early dive into Turner’s life is the strongest part of Who We Be, because of how clearly Chang’s knowledge of and fondness for his subject comes across. Selections from Turner’s work bookend each chapter, and the specificity and punchiness of the strips—the way they function practically as advertisements or slogans—are enhanced by a reader’s increasing familiarity with the artist. Wee Pals is explicitly political art, but its goal is to make us laugh rather than persuade us to buy something, providing an outline for Chang’s criticism of the cultural effects of capitalism. (One Wee Pals panel satirizes advertising executives breathing down the necks of black men, waiting for them to invent something Madison Avenue can sell as “cool.”)
From there, Who We Be drills into the work of specific artists and movements, such as the post-Chicano Movement (whose struggle to settle on a name is surprisingly powerful), the nascent Asian-American artistic community, and the evolution of Shepard Fairey’s OBEY iconography. Thoroughly researched and richly rendered on the page, these artists, who may seem insignificant to most readers, become more fully realized than many public figures. Working smaller players into a larger narrative is a difficult balancing act for any history, but Chang is able to communicate the ways in which individuals and institutions serve as representatives of massive change, telling small-scale stories and a sweeping history at the same time. (Unsurprisingly, one of the works Chang focuses on most is titled Synecdoche.)
Most readers probably won’t be familiar with much of the art Chang concerns himself with, and accordingly will question how important it actually could have been. But part of the point of the book is that traditional metrics of significance aren’t useful to discuss the broader social and artistic change that somehow got lost in the narrative of the past 50 years. Who We Be is doing the work of making them important, if only in retrospect. Hip-hop only rears its head occasionally, and then almost entirely as an adjective, a descriptor of an approach to the world that stems directly from Chang’s previous book in a way that suggests Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was more of a prequel, a necessary foundation to this massive statement about art that wasn’t created by white people.
Like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Who We Be peters out a bit as art history as it comes closer to the present—it’s simply more difficult to capture the type of sweeping trends and massive cultural movements Chang trades while being less removed from them. But the freshness of recent political events contributes to the clearest instances of the book’s reframing of American history, and is crucial to understanding its project.
An prime example of this would be Chang’s treatment of the Occupy movement and its tropes—mic checks, chaotic general assembly meetings, and especially the initial AdBusters meme that stoked the protest—which he positions as aesthetic acts instead of political ones (or, perhaps simultaneously aesthetic and political). These are more statements than advocacies for policy changes, and Chang repeatedly characterizes the demand for specific proposals from Occupy as a strategy for dismissing those proposals outright. Without a political agenda that can be understood in typical terms, Chang argues, Occupy functioned more like a piece of public art than a traditional, policy-oriented activist campaign. The idea that art is an important part of society and of history certainly isn’t new, but the freshness of Chang’s work, his comprehensive scholarship, and his accessibility in this discussion are striking.
This seemingly effortless approach to the past helps expose a more serious intersection of art and policy. Chang dives deep into the crisis in the housing market as a manifestation and exploitation of racial tensions (in a similar fashion to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations”), but those dynamics are just the tip of the iceberg. A passage investigating the way immigration categories of “legal” and “illegal” bestow moral (or immoral) status on individuals blends with the repeated discussion of conceptualism and the primacy of formal and purely aesthetic categories to create a serious argument for multiculturalism and against “purity” in art. The villains of the earlier parts of Who We Be are art critics and curators who value technique and objective artistic quality above all else, ignoring the necessary political element of that art—that it has a context.
And the context for the publication of Who We Be is, unfortunately, all too appropriately timed. Chang closes in part with a lengthy examination of the killing Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman, but not even he could predict the chaos and devastation of the Ferguson riots after the murder of Michael Brown. As it seems increasingly likely that Darren Wilson will escape indictment, setting off another round of volatile conflicts that seem to divide broadly along racial fault lines, Who We Be is at the height of its relevance and ability to answer one of the more important questions of all histories: How did we get here?
Who We Be was announced, practically as a surprise, just a few of weeks before its release. The lack of a serious hype buildup is a bit shocking, but it contributes to the feeling of immediacy, the sense that the most important thing about the book is its place in a very specific historical (and artistic) moment. Even the subtle language Chang uses, incorporating the word “incept” as a verb, is representative of the way the work itself is a product of the cultural forces he’s attempting to capture. Who We Be is a history, yes, but one that’s very consciously located in 2014—a book that demands to be read now.