Sigh….

These controversies [artists Marina Abramovic and Vanessa Beecroft] involved different contexts, but both arose from well-off white European artists participating in a very long tradition of fetishizing otherness. Whether in an old diary entry or not, Abramovic treated a nonwhite peoples’ physical features as not only repulsively exotic but deterministically so—a bodily manifestation of some soul-level difference. Beecroft did something similar. She suggested that race is not socially constructed but intrinsic, though she wished that through art she could mutate her DNA. She fantasized about blackness being a fun costume that she, sadly, has not been allowed to wear—a point of view insensitive to the reality of racial inequality and that is probably shared by some people who put on blackface.

Interestingly, both Abramovic and Beecroft stand as some of the art world’s most high-profile collaborators with hip-hop. Abramovic participated in Jay Z’s 2013 performance-art piece and music video for “Picasso Baby,” though she later falsely accused him of not holding up promises to donate to her charity. Beecroft has been a full-time collaborator of West’s for years, designing his fashion shows and music videos and wedding decor. If West finds Beecroft’s views on race objectionable, he hasn’t said so. These partnerships have obviously been creatively fruitful for the rappers, have elevated the artists’ public profiles, and could perhaps been seen as signs of the art world’s notorious insularity easing.

But these two recent statements raise the specter that less has changed in Western art over the centuries than might be thought. The stereotypical dynamic of what happens when white artists set out to draw inspiration from people they consider “other” is made plain in the story of Paul Gauguin, who moved to what he called the “primitive and savage state” of Tahiti and then exaggerated and fetishized aspects of its people to enormous later acclaim. In 2016, many might assume there is more sensitivity at work when, say, Beecroft turns an image of a Rwandan refugee camp into a Kanye West clothing display. But perhaps that’s a damaging, uncritical first reaction, somewhat like Abramovic’s impressions of Aboriginal people in 1979.