What Do We Mean When We Talk About 'Latino Art'? : Code Switch The question of categorizing art by ethnicity or gender is at the center of a very public debate surrounding a new show at the Smithsonian called "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art."

What Do We Mean When We Talk About 'Latino Art'?

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How much should art and the creative process be seen through the lens of race and ethnicity? Do these categories aid our understanding and appreciation or do they detract? Well, some in the art world are upset that a new exhibition at the Smithsonian lumps artists of Latino heritage together. The show is called "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art." NPR's Elizabeth Blair speaks to artists about race and labels.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Filmmaker Alex Rivera came across a review of an exhibition that had many of his friends agitated.

ALEX RIVERA: Well, just another night on the Internet. I was home alone. It was late at night. I was pretty stunned by what I read. In the first few paragraphs, the reviewer dismissed the notion of Latino art as a useless or meaningless category.

BLAIR: Meaningless, wrote Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott, because by throwing together works by artists of different styles, periods and backgrounds, you get, quote, "a big mess."

PHILIP KENNICOTT: If we look at the art included in this exhibition, it includes everything from a Cuban exile who spent a lot of time in Paris and worked in a very kind of cool, lovely, abstract style, to Mexican-American artists who were doing a very political kind of art in Los Angeles. And one begins to wonder if there is, in fact, a lot in common between what they're doing.

BLAIR: Other than their ethnicity. It was a lively Facebook thread with several people in the Latino arts community chiming in. Artist Judithe Hernandez wrote, for example: When was the last time the Guggenheim, Whitney or MOMA, exhibited contemporary Latino American artists? Even Philip Kennicott chimed in.

KENNICOTT: I was kind of the skunk at the party in those discussions, but I was interested because it was a good conversation.

BLAIR: Kennicott and Rivera continued the debate in The Washington Post. Someone who did not weigh in was the curator. It took Carmen Ramos three years to put together the Smithsonian exhibition which includes 92 artworks by 72 different artists who have roots throughout Latin America.

Ramos agrees the term Latino art is extremely broad. But she says, so often many of these artists, regardless of style, have been ignored by mainstream museums.

CARMEN RAMOS: We use the term Latino art as a construct, as a handle, really, to talk about an absence in the way that we think about American art and culture. That's why the word presence is in the subtitle. Presence is the opposite of absence.

BLAIR: But that brings up a larger issue: Are museums doing any artist a favor or a disservice when they group shows around ethnicity or gender rather than aesthetics? Adrian Piper believes it's a disservice. She's a conceptual artist whose work is in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She recently demanded that a film of hers be removed from a show of black performance art.

Piper preferred not to be interviewed, but she sent NPR the email she sent to the show's curator. In it, she wrote that as a matter of principle, she does not allow her work to be exhibited in all-black shows, because she believes they, quote, "perpetuate the segregation of African-American artists from the mainstream."

Sculptor and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud feels the same way. She currently has a solo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She's also the author of "Sally Hemings: A Novel." From her home in Paris, Chase-Riboud says it's time to get rid of these race-based groupings not just in the visual arts, but in music and literature.

BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD: I don't think people really understand the almost humiliation of a creative person who thinks and believes he is doing something original and doing something universal, to suddenly be lumped in with anybody or everybody who happens to have the same skin color. There's no logic to it. There's no intellectual logic to it and there's not aesthetic logic to it.

BLAIR: Chase-Riboud also thinks it also lets institutions off the hook.

CHASE-RIBOUD: So if they had one black show per year, that meant that they could go on doing business as usual for the rest of the year, which is why certain black writers have stopped publishing in February.

BLAIR: Black History Month, says Chase-Riboud, might have been created for good reasons, but now it feels like tokenism. But some in the Latino arts community insist that the show at the Smithsonian is a major milestone. New York University professor Arlene Davila says given the reality of how the predominantly white art world is set up, this is the only way Latino artists can stand on such a big stage.

In fact, Davila supports the ongoing campaign for a Smithsonian museum dedicated to Latino culture.

ARLENE DAVILA: I would love to be in a universe where we don't need to have culturally specific museums because we do have a diverse museum world that represents all of us. But I don't live in that society right now. I don't know if we're going to be living in that society even a hundred years from now, the way we are.

BLAIR: The Smithsonian exhibition, "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" is on view in Washington D.C. through February. Then, it travels to six more cities. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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