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How do you draw the line between a work of art about racism and a racist work of art?

In January, chair by Bjarne Melgaard that consists of a black woman in bondage came under fire when Garage magazine editor Dasha Zhukova sat on it for a picture, a photo op that too clearly personified white dominating black. Last month, a Danish project that used blackface (and also other types of face painting) to make people look like they had ethnicities other than their own was pulled from an art festival because it was deemed racist.

Now, in a recently canceled exhibition in London, that blurry line between racist art and racism is making a lot of people extremely angry.

"Exhibit B," a performance created by South African director Brett Bailey, was scheduled to run until Sept. 27 London's Barbican. The show featured black performers caged and in chains, referencing the horrific human zoos that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries, where white viewers would go to watch the "exotic" people. Due to aggressive protests of more than 200 people, the Barbican closed "Exhibit B" early. They issued the following statement: 

We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work. "Exhibit B" raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive.

Does the Barbican have a point? Even before the protests got out of hand, "Exhibit B" had sparked an online petition that was signed by 23,000 people demanding that the show be closed. One of the petitioner's arguments was that black people do not need to be reminded of the terrible history of racism against them, including human zoos.

In a detailed defense of "Exhibit B" for Gawker, which duly outlines the arguments on both sides, Rich Juzwiack responds to the petitioner's outrage:

So maybe black people, or this particular black person doesn't need to be reminded of the overt hallmarks of white supremacy, but maybe this sort of literal translation of it could help those who otherwise ignore it. Not that art has any responsibility to help anyone do anything but think (and even that may be placing too much responsibility on it).

"Exhibition B" is not meant to be a human zoo. It is a performance of a human zoo, played out by performers, not slaves or enslaved black people. It is meant to provoke, and in doing so, make people reflect on racism in the present (especially those who are happily ignoring it, as Juzwiack's argues). What the outraged public is forgetting is that this performance is not real.

"Exhibition B" is so disturbing because it blurs the line between reality and fiction—that's where its power comes from. Its closeness to reality and its blurring of that line makes viewers uncomfortable and shifts a previously-held perspective, which is what all good art should do. When Bailey set out to make a piece of art about human zoos, he definitely wanted to make people's skin crawl (although probably not to the point of protest). By shaking our complacently, "Exhibit B" is meant to make us think about racism as it's manifested today. After seeing the show, remembering (through reenactment) how horrible a group of people were treated, who wouldn't think more about contemporary forms of racism?

[via Gawker]