Benezit: Letter from the Editor, 2020

I am honored to begin my tenure as Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Art. The opportunity comes at a pivotal moment in our political, social, and cultural landscape.  The myth that the artist’s studio is often devoid of the external world is a fallacy that has in contemporary times been debunked.  Art is a personal expression of self; many of the artists that appear in this repository have―at some juncture in their practice―utilized their artistic talents toward a collective understanding of the world at crucial moments in time.

Explicit, subtle, muted and mutable, no artist moves through this world untouched by the human condition.  Empathy―radical empathy, and the inherent critique that it brings to a moment, an event, and a situation―is key. Artists enable the public at large to enter and engage in the most contentious of debates, from a woman’s right to choose, to social inequality, genocide, and the economic systems that threaten to consume and enslave.

In short, among the classic and iconic artists featured in this reference, I am eager to incorporate those artists who have taken a stand, who have engaged with the world through the most expressive and comprehensive manner of image, line, and form. Moreover, in this newest iteration, I have engaged a number of writers to generate material on artists who have been previously omitted from the dominant narrative–essentially making room for women and artists from an array of racial and cultural backgrounds who have contributed significantly to the art historical discourse. As we publish in the year ahead, I hope readers will find a greater expanse of artists, particularly from the mid-20th century to the present, who have shaped or who continue to shape our understanding of our contemporary selves. After all, I am a curator of contemporary art and within that framework, I do believe that we are literally writing history as it happens!

Although most of these artists can be found in the market, I have made a conscious decision to also include those whose practices have deeply influenced that of other artists and as such may sit outside of the market, but are nonetheless impactful in the field.  Like my predecessor, I hope to strengthen the dialogue between cultures and generations.  Moreover, the issues that continue to plague museums as a public trust–the lack of representation by women and underrepresented communities–are hopefully addressed with this new class of inductees. The premise is that if the center cannot thoughtfully engage those still on the margins (language from the 1990s), then it is time to readjust the lens.  That said, the new inductees that include John Akomfrah, Ruth Asawa, Kader Attia, Rina Banerjee, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Tania Bruguera, Mark Bradford, William Cordova, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Leonardo Drew, Rosalyn Drexler, Genevieve Gaignard, Ken Gonzales-Day, Brad Kahlhamer, Deana Lawson, James Little, Rodney McMillian, Carlos Martel, Donna Nelson, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Jennifer Packer, Sheila Pepe, Dario Robleto, Roger Shimomura, Ming Smith, and John Waters, have in their own way pushed both mediums and conversations forward.

Many are now being acknowledged for their impact, and we can clearly trace not only their determination to shift the conversation away from the status quo as with work by Asawa, Drexler, O’Neal, Shimomura, and Waters, but also to lay the invaluable groundwork for a new generation to expound and expand the perceived limitations of binary discourse.  Subsequent generations have been preoccupied less with that discourse and have taken up questions around the limitations of genres, moving the needle ever forward in determining the boundaries of painting, photography, and craft as seen in the work of Gaignard, Lawson, Nelson, Packer, and Pepe. Performance also plays a major role as the 21st century has come full circle to the ability of performance to realign disciplines into a melding of imaginative forms.  As such, performance as a standalone form and as an interloper has permeated genres from photography to craft.  As I continue to settle into my tenure, I hope to punctuate these additions with interviews and profiles of a few of the artists featured.  I am also keen to embrace folk artists as they make their way into the mainstream thanks to the efforts of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the many scholars, curators, and artists who refuse to allow these amazing artists to fade into the landscape of history.

I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Emily Pazar and Alodie Larson for such a warm welcome to Oxford University Press, as well as to all the authors who have generously contributed to this new edition of Benezit.

Valerie Cassel Oliver
Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


Read the previous letters from the editor:

September 2017 
September 2014 
December 2013
October 2012 
October 2011