Multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker is famously credited as saying, “There’s no diploma in the world that declares you as an artist. It’s not like becoming a doctor or something. You can declare yourself an artist and then figure out how to be an artist.” It’s a stirring sentiment on its face, intended to offer motivation for any budding creator. In reality, however, Walker has an MFA and a MacArthur Genius grant and is the child of a fine-arts professor herself. Her voice, also, had a very particular arc as she rose in notoriety. While her early work wasn’t race forward, the works that made her a household name in the fine arts world invoked unsettling — and some would even say grotesque — visuals of racial history, and the tensions introduced by those controversies entrenched her position in the white establishment, often at the odds of her pioneers in Black art.
It would be presumptive for me to say that the character of Nneka Stevenson (Joyelle Nicole Johnson), Kevin’s professional idol and motivation for entering his fellowship, is based around Walker; the fact of the matter is, trajectories such as these are more common than you would think, across creative industries. As a writer, the push for the #OwnVoices movement in book publishing, while well intended, has at times led to a caricature performance of identity in literature that, when not vetted, has allowed terrible books to go to market or books whose authors misrepresent their heritage to justify their participation in the exploitative practice. In an ideal world, you would position yourself as the exact opposite of that and maintain your integrity; but when it comes to the arts, integrity can often be a synonym for poverty. Kevin is slowly coming to that realization and working to identify what means more to him.
The musical cues in this episode truly bring the arc together, so I have to give a shoutout to music supervisor Qiana Conley, whose resume speaks for itself. Opening the episode with The Four Tracks’ “Charade” is a poignant way to frame the journey that not only Kevin but also Dan and Drew are going through at this time in their lives. Kevin is debating to stay true to his artistic eye while knowing that his benefactors are desperately seeking a version of low-grade minstrelsy — or as they insist on calling it, authenticity. Dan is striving to be a person deserving of Sydney’s future affections, leading him to present himself as a person he isn’t — a baker, an athlete, and a laidback person — and avoid the main thing he is meant to do as part of his recovery, which is confront his past failures head-on and come to terms with the consequences, even when they threaten the delicate ecosystem he has created in his NA meetings, as Drew’s unceremonious arrival does. Recently out on bail, Drew has to perform for the state authorities in the hopes that they will give him enough of a break to start figuring out how to be a provider to Zayna again, voluntarily signing up for a preliminary version of probation to speak to his moral character.
There’s masterful direction at play in the NA scene: the palpable tension and panic in Dan’s face upon Drew’s entry, the clear attempt to determine within milliseconds if he was purposely seeking retribution, Drew’s gesture of exasperation at both being unable to escape Dan and realizing he had entrusted his niece’s future in the hands of an addict. (As an aside: Drew is also sporting a classic sweatshirt in this scene from fashion label Pyer Moss, founded by Flatbush native and Haitian America Kerby Jean-Raymond). He scrambles to find a way to end the meeting and discourage Drew from returning instead of realizing that he can’t punt accountability down the road any longer; it’s an unfortunate regression to his cowardly, anxiety-ridden behaviors from season one that landed him in NA in the first place. At some point, Dan will have to acknowledge that the consequences he faced — job loss and ultimate reinstatement — paled in comparison to what he was willing to put Drew and his family, which includes his student, through to get back a semblance of his middling life. Dan has to bake from scratch because he ostensibly cannot afford to buy a cake from one of the many Caribbean bakeries that are in Flatbush; Drew is using the oven as heat, dangerous conditions that poor New Yorkers are way too familiar with that can lead to fatalities.
After a night with his idol, Kevin is convinced to make an attempt at compromising, playing within the system to the best of his ability. As Nneka told him, “call it selling out if you want to; I say, I bought in.” As she predicted for him, the reception to Kevin’s work immediately changed from inscrutable skepticism to pure elation, with the sponsors fawning over a ludicrous painting of a faceless black servant handing watermelon to a disembodied white hand. It’s the perfect kind of art that says nothing at all but has just enough indicators of symbolism to hint at a sense of depth that white curators love to be able to laud at and consider themselves tastemakers. Again, Conley’s perfect selection of Dyke & The Blazers Black Boy (from the Ghetto) really punches in the message here — Kevin is finally getting the approval he wanted, but at what cost? Both his art and his persona within the construct of the white fine arts world fit into the service of a magical negro trope, an audience that never initially conceived of serving when he started his path as a painter. Nothing makes that clearer than when he finally returns to Flatbush — a world away from the enclaves of the midtown museums — and presents his lauded work. Even for Kareem and his I’m pro-black when it’s convenient, like Nike sensibilities, the canvass painting was trauma porn taken a step too far; it may be celebrated as a revolutionary step forward for racial conversation in the art world, but to those who are still managing the very real a present oppressive dangers of day-to-day life, it is merely shock value for the sake of it.