On the Latest Ken Johnson Shit Storm: Are “Bad Boy” and “Soccer Mom” Comparable Terms?

by Paddy Johnson on November 7, 2014 · 2 comments Rise Up

Michelle Grabner, Installation view, James Cohan. Image via: NYTimes

Michelle Grabner, Installation view, James Cohan. Image via: NYTimes

It’s been two weeks since New York Times critic Ken Johnson penned his review of Michelle Grabner’s show at James Cohan and debate over whether he used sexist language to dismiss it still rages on. The most problematic passage of the review exists in the last paragraph of the piece:

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

Since we first responded to the article, Art City has written two responses, one focused on the controversy, and another that offers more background and context for Grabner’s work. Art F City complained complained that Johnson had mischaracterized the introductory video as being overly focused on domesticity—he intentionally omits the sections in which she discusses math and philosophy.

Artist Amy Sillman added in her letter to the editor that Johnson should not have assumed Grabner was unaware of the position she was occupying in the video’s domestic scenes—in fact there was an obvious impudence to the work. Sillman’s greatest disappointment, and ours as well, is that the editors of The New York Times let this pass.

Ken Johnson responded to Sillman on Facebook in a four point post. I wish he hadn’t taken such childish swipes at Grabner in this post—suggesting that Grabner has race issues herself doesn’t negate the issues in his own article—but it’s still worth a read if for no other reason than it’s a response by the author himself.

And then come the summaries and the responses to the response: Jillian Steinhauer on Hyperallergic likes Johnson’s response but still thinks he’s sexist. Mary-Louise Schumacher at Art City, Bad at Sports sum up the debate, while whole lot of people on Facebook continue to discuss.

A few responses to the Facebook responses on the responses:

  1. Those who support Ken Johnson agree with his sentiment that the work was bland, as if that were the issue people were upset about to begin with. No, the issue is that he implied that being a soccer mom was at the root of this exhibitions problems. It’s a personal attack.
  2. Edward Winkleman lauds Michelle Grabner for not responding only to learn she did so on an AFC thread. I don’t see the issue here. It’s not like an artist earns more integrity by staying silent when they see that a critic has overstepped their role.
  3. Kelli William does a good job digging up articles in which Johnson was hard on men. Ken Johnson in the NYT, Art in Review: Gedi Sibony and Josh Smith. April 28,2006 Johnson on Smith:”Nominally a painter, Mr. Smith roughly paints his own name in large, blocky letters over collages made from newspaper pages and photocopied ephemera or on stretched, store-bought printed fabric. These works are totally uninteresting visually, so the point–a stunningly sophomoric one– is presumably to mock the bourgeois overvaluation of the big-name artist’s signature. ” This is interesting mostly for the pull quotes, but it’s not an effective argument. Negative reviews of men aren’t evidence that sexism isn’t an issue for the critic. (If I write a negative review of a white artist does that mean I can use a known pejorative term to describe a black artist? Obviously, the answer to that is no.) These reviews only demonstrate that Johnson has made negative evaluations of men.
  4. Bromirski also takes note that Roberta Smith uses the term “bad boy” often, which he finds similarly sexist dismissive, and infantilizing. He does not take issue with its use either. This is the one argument I’ve seen lodged supporting Johnson that I find convincing. I’m not sure it nudges my conclusions in a different direction—if anything it makes me question the use of “bad boy”—but I respect the logic that brought Bromirski to his own.


gregorylent November 7, 2014 at 2:38 pm

did the work sell?

Paddy Johnson November 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm

LOL. Good question.

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