Krista Thompson “Of Shine, Bling, and Bixels” and thoughts on class and aesthetics
For the record: I now want to be besties with Krista Thompson, the 2009 winner of the David C. Driskell Prize and Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University. Her recent High Museum lecture, “Of Shine, Bling and Bixels: Toward a Post-Soul Art History,” blew me away with its analysis of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley‘s work and the ways in which it references both pop culture and Renaissance symbolism.
If you have seen portraits of hip-hop stars featured in VH1′s Hip-Hop Honors series, you are familiar with Kehinde Wiley’s work. His portraits feature contemporary black male subjects — famous and not — in poses that replicate or give a nod to Renaissance-era portraiture.
Wiley’s portraits, Thompson says, use a hyper-luminous light source. He often oils the faces of his subjects to bring out their ‘shine.’ Wiley then places them against backgrounds pulled from 1950s era wallpaper or 1990s Martha Stewart wallpaper patterns. At once, she argues, Wiley references both Hype Williams’ shiny video aesthetic that ushered in the ice and bling era of hip-hop and American mass consumption and consumerism.
By posing these men against backgrounds of wallpaper, I think Wiley is also commenting on the ways in which we relegate black men to the background of politics and power, though they are in the foreground of contemporary pop culture. Thompson also suggests that the use of wallpaper — very domestic, very feminine — is also a way in which Wiley (who is gay) plays with notions of black masculinity.
Kehinde Wiley and the Renaissance
Thompson also tied Wiley’s work to the use of light and sheen (or shine) in Renaissance Era portraits, particularly those from the Dutch school. As she explained, oil paint was a new medium in the late Renaissance. It appeared at the same time luxury goods were arriving in Europe from abroad. Painters from the Dutch school, in particular, used light and sheen to capture the opulence and sumptuousness of these new fabrics and products and wealth.
But the faces and flesh of white European male subjects? Shine and light were never used. Shine was used to emphasize objects, not people. Yet black and African subjects from the period were frequently portrayed as ‘shiny.’ I believe Thompson argues that this was a part of the objectification and ‘othering’ of blackness that was part-and-parcel of the burgeoning trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Classism, bling and Black Folks
What struck me, however, was a comment Thompson made in response to a question from an older, obviously middle-to-upper middle class black gentleman in the audience. He asked (if I recall correctly) about the ethics of hip-hop’s conspicuous consumption culture of at a time when black folks are in such dire straits.
Thompson said, roughly: “We don’t see a driver of a BMW as consuming in the same way as someone who’s wearing a shiny watch, even if that watch cost $10.” It is about, she said, who we think should consume and who shouldn’t.
In many ways, bling and the related “ghetto fabulous” aesthetic are about visibility and asserting power through visual, material display. It’s in contrast to values of restraint and a comparatively modest display of consumption that are hallmarks of middle-class aesthetics. It’s expressed in the differences between Facebook and MySpace users. Among black people, it often plays out along generational lines.
Let me suggest that the bling aesthetic is a way for poor and/or urban black people to claim and stake visibility in a period when both white and bourgeois black flight rendered them silent and invisible.
Much of the visibility of the Civil Rights Movement — the ‘soul’ era if we use musical shifts as our markers — came from respectable Negroes: college students, preachers, prim-and-proper women of high moral character and community standing such as Rosa Parks.
I am stealing a point from feminist critic bell hooks here by arguing that the Civil Rights Movement was, in many ways, a movement of the black bourgeoisie. The goal was about access to middle-class mainstream (read: white) society and its trappings — equality of opportunity, rather than cultural transformation or revolution. When the movement stalled, thanks to the contributions of integration, bourgie-Negro flight and Reagonomics, poor and/or urban blacks disappeared, except in demonized forms (‘Welfare Queen,’ Willie Horton, etc.).
Enter hip-hop and its aspirational consumption patterns and conspicuous display. Looking rich is as important as being rich. After all, how fly can your $800 Louis Vuitton bag be if I have one too? (Don’t worry about the fact that I got it on Canal St.) How fly can your $3,000 Rolex be if my $25 rhinestone watch is way blingier? I mean
I got a quarter tank of gas / in my new E Class, and
Got everythaaaang / In my mama naaaame but
I think this is where my point ties back to those raised by Thompson in her lecture, and Wiley’s work. Consumption on display is a way of asserting and displaying power and prestige — something which the aesthetic of bling at once adheres to and subverts.
More about Kehinde Wiley
- Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Black Light’ series, the focus of Thompson’s analysis
- A Q&A with Wiley by M.I.A. in Interview magazine
- Kehinde Wiley in New York Times Topics
- Kehinde Wiley’s profile on ArtNet