N.Y. Times art writer faces his own critics in Philadelphia Sunday

A critical firestorm in the art world will touch down in Philadelphia this weekend, as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts hosts a public forum featuring the embattled art critic for the New York Times, Ken Johnson.

Late in 2012, Johnson wrote two exhibition reviews containing statements that many readers interpreted as racist and sexist. Johnson will face the public on Sunday afternoon, on the second-floor space of the Hamilton Building on Broad Street.

The offending remarks came from reviewing “Now Dig This!” an overview of late-20th century African-American artists working in Los Angeles. The petition statement, written by a handful of mostly Brooklyn-based artists, says Johnson’s dismissal of African-American art as “parochial” is based on an historically privileged, white male perspective, praising only one one artist whose work “you don’t have to be black to feel.”

The petition statement, addressed to the editors of the New York Times, also complains about Johnson’s preview of “The Female Gaze,” now on view at PAFA.  In that review Johnson questioned whether the nature of art by women can ever rise to the level of success enjoyed by that of historically acknowledged masters.

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The online petition has been signed by over 1,600 people since November, calling for the editors of Times to address what they say are ill-informed and offensive statements made by Johnson.

The forum on Sunday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will featuring Kimberly Brooks of the Huffington Post, artists Joyce Kozloff and Njideka Akunyili, and Ken Johnson himself.

It will be moderated by Gwendolyn Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She wants to use the furor to launch to talk about the purposes of art criticism, generally.

“I think it’s very confusing for people to understand what a critic’s job is, beyond saying, ‘there’s an exhibition up, and it’s great,’ or ‘it’s terrible,'” said Shaw. “Should they bring their politics to the table? Should they bring their own social position, their own gendered undersdtanding of the world, their own racial experience to the writting of criticism? The issue of, should different exhibitions be treated in different ways is one that I hope we will talk about.”

An editor at the New York Times, Jonathan Landman, has responded to the online petition, admitting that Ken Johnson’s statements should have been more precise.  He said they are provocative only when taken out of context.

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