Can art amend history? | Titus Kaphar

I love museums. Have you guys ever been
to the Natural History Museum? In New York City? (Applause) So one of the things that I do
is I take my kids to the museum. Recently I took them
to the Natural History Museum. I had my two sons with me,
Sabian and Dabith. And we go into the front
entrance of the museum, and there’s that amazing sculpture
of Teddy Roosevelt out there. You guys know which one I’m talking about. Teddy Roosevelt is sitting there
with one hand on the horse, bold, strong, sleeves rolled up. I don’t know if he’s bare-chested,
but it kind of feels like it. (Laughter) And on the left-hand side of him
is a Native American walking. And on the right-hand side of him
is an African-American walking. And as we’re moving up the stairs, getting closer to the sculpture, my oldest son, who’s nine, says, “Dad, how come he gets to ride, and they have to walk?” It stopped me in my tracks. It stopped me in my tracks. There was so much history that we would have to go through
to try to explain that, and that’s something
I try to do with them anyways. It’s a question that I probably
would have never really asked. But fundamentally what he was saying was, “That doesn’t look fair. Dad, that doesn’t look fair. And why is this thing that’s so not fair sitting outside
of such an amazing institution.” And his question got me wondering, is there a way for us
to amend our public sculptures, our national monuments? Not erase them, but is there a way to amend them? Now, I didn’t grow up going to museums. That’s not my history. My mother was 15 years old
when I was born. She is amazing. My father was struggling
with his own things for most of my life. If you really want to know the truth, the only reason I got into art
is because of a woman. There was this amazing, amazing,
fantastic, beautiful, smart woman, four years older than me, and I wanted to go out with her. But she said, “You’re too young and you’re not thinking
about your future.” So I ran on down to the junior college, registered for some classes, ran on back, and basically was like,
“I’m thinking about my future now.” (Laughter) “Can we go out?” For the record, she’s even more amazing. I married her. (Applause) So when I randomly ran down
to the junior college and registered for classes, I really wasn’t paying attention
to what I was registering to. (Laughter) So I ended up with an art history class, and I didn’t know a thing
about art history. But something amazing happened
when I went into that class. For the first time in my academic career, my visual intelligence was required of me. For the first time. The professor would put up an image, bold strokes of blues and yellows,
and say, “Who’s that?” And I’d go, “That’s Van Gogh.
Clearly that is Van Gogh. I got this.” (Laughter) I got a B in that class. For me, that was amazing. In high school, let’s just say
I wasn’t a great student. OK? In high school, my GPA was .65. (Laughter) Decimal point first, six five. So me getting a B was huge, huge, absolutely huge. And because of the fact that I realized
that I was able to learn things visually that I couldn’t learn in other ways, this became my strategy,
this became my tactic for understanding everything else. I wanted to stay in this relationship.
Things were going well. I decided, let me keep taking
these art history classes. One of the last art history classes,
I will not forget, I will never forget. It was one of those survey
art history classes. Anybody ever have one of those
survey art history classes, where they try to teach you
the entire history of art in a single semester? I’m talking about cave paintings
and Jackson Pollock just crunched together all in the same — It doesn’t really work,
but they try anyway. Well, at the beginning of the semester, I looked at the book, and in this 400-page book
was about a 14-page section that was on black people in painting. Now, this was a crammed in section that had representations
of black people in painting and black people who painted. It was poorly curated,
let’s just put it that way. (Laughter) Nonetheless I was really excited about it, because in all
the other classes that I had, we didn’t even have that conversation. We didn’t talk about it at all. So imagine my surprise when I get to class and on the day that we’re supposed
to go over that particular chapter, my professor announces, “We’re going to skip this chapter today because we do not have time
to go through it.” “Whoa, I’m sorry,
hold on, professor, professor. I’m sorry. This is a really
important chapter to me. Are we going to go over it at any point?” “Titus, we don’t have time for this.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, I really need to understand. Clearly the author thinks
that this is significant. Why are we skipping over this?” “Titus, I do not have time for this.” “OK, last question, I’m really sorry here. When can we talk,
because we need to talk.” (Laughter) I went to her office hours. I ended up getting kicked
out of her office. I went to the dean. The dean finally told me,
“I can’t force her to teach anything.” And I knew in that moment
if I wanted to understand this history, if I wanted to understand the roles
of those folks who had to walk, I was probably going
to have to figure that out myself. So … above you right here on the slide is a painting by Frans Hals. This is one of the kinds of images that was in that chapter. I taught myself how to paint by going to museums
and looking at images like this. I want to show you something. I made this. I — (Applause) I made some alterations. You’ll see there are
some slight differences in the painting. All this art history
that I had been absorbing helped me to realize
that painting is a language. There is a reason why he is the highest
in the composition here. There is a reason why the painter is showing us
this gold necklace here. He’s trying to tell us something
about the economic status of these people in these paintings. Painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important. It’s coded. But sometimes, because
of the compositional structure, because of compositional hierarchy, it’s hard to see other things. This silk is supposed to tell us also
that they have quite a bit of money. There’s more written about dogs in art history than there are about
this other character here. Historically speaking,
in research on these kinds of paintings, I can find out more about the lace that the woman is wearing
in this painting — the manufacturer of the lace —
than I can about this character here, about his dreams, about his hopes, about what he wanted out of life. I want to show you something. I don’t want you to think that this is about eradication. It’s not. The oil that you saw me
just put inside of this paint is linseed oil. It becomes transparent over time, so eventually what’s going to happen is these faces will emerge a little bit. What I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to show you, is how to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily, just momentarily, to ask yourself the question, why do some have to walk? What is the impact of these kinds
of sculptures at museums? What is the impact
of these kinds of paintings on some of our most vulnerable in society, seeing these kinds of depictions
of themselves all the time? I’m not saying erase it. We can’t erase this history. It’s real. We have to know it. I think of it in the same way we think of — Let me step back a second. You remember old-school cameras, where when you took a picture,
you actually had to focus. Right? You’d put the camera up, and if I wanted you in focus, I would move the lens a little to the left and you would come forward. I could move the lens
a little to the right, and you would go back and the folks
in the background would come out. I’m just trying to do that here. I’m trying to give you that opportunity. I’m trying to answer that question that my son had. I want to make paintings, I want to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with
the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity
and the advances of our present. And we can’t do that by taking an eraser
and getting rid of stuff. That’s just not going to work. I think that we should
do it in the same way the American Constitution works. When we have a situation where we want to change
a law in the American Constitution, we don’t erase the other one. Alongside that is an amendment, something that says, “This is where we were,
but this is where we are right now.” I figure if we can do that, then that will help us
understand a little bit about where we’re going. Thank you. (Applause)

Comments 100

  • Let's start be defacing the Confederate Monuments. History is written by the winners. The South lost.

    Let's change the Southern leader's art to show them being racist dipshits, and then show them getting their butts kicked by the north.

  • I wanted to simply comment "if you want to amend history you will not have history but comfortable lies" and hit the dislike button but after finishing the video its easy to see he doesnt want to do that, theres more nuance to his point than that. I think the idea he presents is a good one but leaves many potentialy extremely controversial points of it on the air and presents the idea on a not so proper way. Knowing about the emotional reactions art can produce he should know (for example) that defacing a painting like that gives an impression contrary to his core message and for thr short attention span mayority having that image on the thumbnail sets off an automatic red flag. What a shame, its was a good message.

  • This is a profound statement about why art is so important. It can show inclusivity and bias to help us learn to improve our society. A diverse society is stronger than a homogeneous one.

  • “To destroy a people you must first sever their roots.” —Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  • the guy seems really nice but i am soooooooo tired of this black/white discussions

  • My Dear Sir,

    He's on the horse because he was President of the US. Just as you are on stage with white people in the audience because you have a unique perspective – what's your point? Everything isn't always about black vs. white. I am getting tired of the victimhood thing, and this so-called historical PTSD claim. Everyone in America has opportunity, it's what you do with that which makes the difference. You make art, people like it, it has a message – you win. Everyone is good at something, help others find theirs, don't teach them victimhood.

    Sincerely, Lance

  • Black people do the same thing through their music and television

  • He didn't changed the picture he tried to show you his perspective and,as he said many times, he wats you to focus on this one person. It's not about Changing or 'fixing' history, it's about questioning some parts of it.

  • Racist!

  • My wife likes to focus on the past too. I'm hlad she doesn't like to focus on some other guys great great grandpas past and get mad at me for what he did to some woman…

  • *Theodore Roosevelent was pretty horrible president*.

  • Stop fucking trying to erase history. Learn from the mistakes of your past or be doomed to repeat them.

  • robert statue should be amend not taken away looking at you charlottesville

  • Let's see how many people comment before watching because they were triggered by the title and a black guy in the thumbnail.

  • Amending history to suit the narrative you choose to promote is the exact same as erasing historical truths.

    History needs to be preserved as a bookmark of how far we've advanced as a people. If the speaker wants to show how society has changed he should submit his own piece rather than actively attempt to destroy or 'amend' the work of others.

  • "The editor cuts a line and someone's face fades;
    the editor says two hundred words or less, and suddenly
    a whole family goes missing.
    The spotlight isn't about the light, it's how
    it makes everything around it dark" – Dylan Garity

    This is what Kaphar is saying. He's not saying erase history. He's saying parts of it have been neglected and purposefully removed. It's time to shift the focus. Give another perspective some time in the light.

  • WE

  • I don't get it. The Frans Hals painting is already doing what Titus is calling for. The boys are the only ones looking directly at the viewer. It creates a tension, inviting the viewer to see the scene through each boy's eyes. The son is cocksure and smug while the servant boy is stoic but not cowed. He blends into the background as a metaphor for his social status. They will have different lives through no fault or virtue of their own. While the man and wife are the primary focus, the servant is a secondary focus. He's the figure closest to the centre of the painting and has visual elements pointing directly towards him. He is right in the middle of the happy family, reminding us that while the Dutch people of the day have it good, the wealth comes at the expense of others.

  • George Orwell by race weaponization.

  • More SJW identity politics trash. Regression.

  • Trying to "fix" paintings or monuments that already exist to fit today's ideals is a terrible idea. Yeah, it sucked to be African a long time ago. Whites did all kinds of really crappy stuff. And for some reason, they still get crap for it. You'll never find out about the boy in the background because when he was painted, he didn't matter. And trying to rewrite the past is terrible. If you want better paintings and monuments, make them yourself. Make something new that will express today, so that tommorow people can look back on it.

  • Seems like black people have nothing else to talk about other than race stuff.

  • It's beautiful because he made the point of amending, not erasing or altering- simply bringing the focus to the forgotten or neglect history.

  • Why did no one understand the point of this video? the video is about focusing in on the subject and then focusing back out to the full painting. not only did he paint the painting himself, he also used paint that would soon become clear, returning the painting to its original state. This video is not about erasing history, it's about focusing in on the overlooked parts!

  • what the..

  • He clearly states in the video it's not about removing or forgetting parts of history. His statement was on how we should look at more perspectives towards these historical pieces to understand it past one sided view the painter is giving us.
    If you're in disagreement with what he's saying it's you who actually wants to erase history. There's more to it than just the privileged people's point of view.

  • You can kinda feel when someone gets to be where he is just to fill minority quota

  • People were racist in the past. Thanks, Sherlock.

  • I don't understand the dislikes. This man seems well-spoken and explains his opinion well.

  • The very nature of life is not fair. Deal with it & move on folks

  • This is the definition of peak liberalism.

  • Art cannot amend history
    Just like you can't
    History is history, and if it means most artists were white because black people weren't able to get their hands on a painting brush, you cannot change that
    I could really burst out and express how angry I am right now, but you're not worth it, you're a pathetic man who wants to keep crying about his invented "missfortune"
    Black people are equal to everyone today, and keep living in the past and complaining about it instead of being proud of the fact that it's not this way anymore, makes me feel sorry for your son that he has such a stupid father who, instead of teaching him about the past and telling him it is better, fills him with hate, so he would also become a dumb SJW
    Morgan Freeman said :" the only way to stop racism is to stop talking about it"
    I feel sorry for you, I really do, and it infuriates me that Ted are giving a stage to idiots like you

  • Dude is angry about something

  • I wonder what Titus would say about the current events surrounding the removal of confederate monuments from several cities in the nation. I get the feeling that he does not feel good about it in concept, but I would like to hear his words regarding it. Would he replace the statues? If so, with what?

  • Painting is a language.
    Painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important and is coded, but sometimes because of its composition of construction and because of its composition of hierarchy, it is hard to see other things.

  • Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte was not racist or religious….and yet was so brutal that he totally destroyed Europe. Did you also know that because of him, America was inspired to fight for freedom? Did you also know that America is the strongest, youngest, most ideologically free nation ever in the history of human kind? And you freakin complain about some dumb professor who wouldn't say what you wanted? SINCE when does college help anyone? You're a punk. Punks think their opinions matter, people who CHANGE the world realize their opinions don't matter so they MAKE them matter.

  • For those that might no have watched the entire video as the though it looked like he was arguing to change history to make it more fair, that actually would be the complete opposite of his argument. He doesn't want to change the art to hide what was old, but add some kind of new art tell help explain the history behind the original art so one could understand why that art is like that.

  • Why not fixing lefties? I suggest deporting to Apefrica.

  • My main language not english whats difference between amend and change? Liked that word i may use sometime 🙂

  • 여기서 한국사람 손

  • The speaker is so awsome

  • A lot of people seem to think this man is whiting out "history" (erasing the some contextual inheritance) ; yet, worry not for the individual in red who had his whole life literally whited out with servitude and dissassoction.

  • wow.. that is the single worst ted talk ive seen

  • Can we talk about everyone complaining about the video without even paying attention to what he said. SMH.

  • Museums must make every attempt to present unbiased history.

  • If he actually did his job properly, there would be no need to deface the other figures in the painting. if you analyzed the painting correctly, you would observe and ask questions about the black child. This is just plain liberal ignorance that shames white history and white culture. I am sick of the liberalism on this channel.

  • Can yall beg J Cole to do a Ted Talk

  • He never once said all of the historical art should be destroyed. It's almost as if most of you didn't even watch the video.

  • The black child was the figure that stood out the most in the original painting. Sometimes what is given the least light is the thing that shines. But it has to shine in the way given it, not by being recast to stand more like everything else. I wonder if the speaker has realized this?

  • Generally speaking grown men are taller than grown women and little boys whatever colour they are. On the whole, I think Frans Hals was the kind of artist who usually did his best to paint what he saw. Of course, his clients would often have had all sorts of ideas about how they wished to be portrayed, and he would have needed to comply with their wishes if he wanted to get paid.

    Isn't it interesting that the painting is called 'Family Group in a Landscape'? Does this mean they consciously considered their little black pageboy to be more 'part of the family' than the rest of their household servants? A wealthy 17th century Dutch family like that would have had at least 5 0r 6 household servants, probably more. Those other people didn't get to be in the family portrait – and they were probably all, or at least mostly, white people.

    Actually the painting is probably called 'Family Group in a Landscape' now because no one knows what the name of this family is any more. That information has probably been lost along with the name of the pageboy. Whatever, it's still clearly a family portrait.

  • Anyone else have grandmothers who picked cotton? No racism just trying to take a poll

  • I believe the speaker said multiple times that he is NOT trying to delete history (by him using a white paint that would become transparent over time), but to shift the focus (when he used the analogy of the camera focus). He emphasized this multiple times. How does the conversation STILL largely concentrate on that?

    No one is trying to erase history, just honour the ones of those that have been ignored.

  • You don't have to destroy a picture to see it from a different perspective. Just use your brain and think about it from different points of view.

  • I watched the video in its entirety. I still don't get what he wants to do. Refocus like manual focus with a camera? That's a nice analogy but more specific examples would be nice. Can someone help me out?

  • Why did you invite such an aggressive guy? He had a resentment at the beginning, that turned into an anger at the end. He has some problems with perception of the world. His behavior is as all audience owed him something. He is like a resentful child. And I absolutly don't understand why when he became to throw down his brush people started applausing him. He also could have thrown it to you!

  • TED, can we stop with these race-baiting videos, please?

  • I didn't get the point… It sounded like the conversation to remove cigarrets from old movie classics because they are forbiden now.

  • What's the difference between amend and emend ?

  • How about all the slaves that built the Pyramids in Egypt. Who enslaved them ? Maybe we should take down the Pyramids now too.

  • I love how most people in the comment section didn't EVEN watch the full video. All your concerns are addressed in the video already!!!
    How open minded of you all!!!!!

  • ITT: people who think he wants to erase and revise history, despite explicitly stating otherwise.

  • omg. people are so stupid. changing history is different from amending history. you're trying to make something better. provide another point of view. he isn't trying to change the history of what happened – it happened but the narrative that has been passed down for generations is biased, skewed, probably incorrect too. he's telling ya'll to look from a different perspective man jesus christ read the damn title it's 'amend' not 'change' oh my god. you people are missing the point completely man.

  • The real irony is that only in a white nation like the US can you go from a .65 gpa to have a successful art career- you would have been labeled borderline retarded in most other countries fuckhead!

  • it's about going back to the museum with a different perspective! not about trying to change anything.

  • Omg so many dislikes for such a nice message I guess some people will never get it

  • Kaphar has a point. Blacks WERE under-represented and looked over. That was then. The roles they had and could aspire to were very limited. That was the way things were. It wasn't right but that's the way it was. Nobody is served by trying to make it something else.

    In fairness to Kaphar, skipping over what blacks managed to accomplish anyway is just as problematic.

    I'm not willing to go along with defacing past art in the name of present politics. If we're talking about making new art that shifts the paradigm, it's all good. Knock yourself out. If you want a black guy on a hose next to Teddy Roosevelt, make one worth exhibiting in the Museum of Natural History. There were black Rough Riders, right?

    One has to realize Kaphar used white paint intentionally to cover up white people. What does that say? The danger is racially segregated history. That this history of "dead white guys" is irrelevant to blacks.

  • What a great talk.

  • too cocky for such little talent. what a shame. Sculptures and arts are the ideas from that certain period of time. To use such arts to compare and contrast this century’s issues is an oversight. We embrace arts and sculptures to have a memoir: to praised and criticize our past. That would be a dislike from me mate

  • I agree with him but partially. His point about the teddy Roosevelt statue wasn't strong. Just because the past doesn't look good from your perspective doesn't make it less true. The painting with the black child in the background is a painting where the artist decided to highlight whatever he wanted to. He was not obliged to represent black people at all. It's his art.
    But, I am totally for his freedom to express his anger on those topics. His argument about amending art makes sense.
    It is not at all wrong to place a MLK statue right next to the Roosevelt statue. The people who are against the addition of extra material should understand that he has as much right to demand black statues in a public place as you have to have a confederate flag if you want it. I don't agree with the output he desires but I support his right to ask for it.

  • I want that painting

  • He's just insolent.

  • I think the main takeaway from the talk is at I don't think Kaphar has the right ideas of how to remedy any modern hurts, but he brings up some interesting points

  • This is such an underrated, amazing Ted Talk and so many of the people who disliked the video and are in the comments leaving dense comments didn't even watch it! So annoying!

  • This man is confused I agree

  • Can artist of AA heritage produce something , anything, not reductivley based on a victim natative? Go beyond black and white?

  • I got his message totally. I thought it was excellent. It's wonderful to see insight. Yes, and I also like the idea of amending depictions of history. As the sculpture Titus was depicting, amended (add) another sculpture to show the growth of equality (and equality of women) too.

  • I bet he is real good with the white out.

  • The kid is IN the painting for heaven's sake. Isn't that enough? He's part of that family. Incredible for that day and age. I believe that today there is a shift towards reverse racism. I feel I'm constantly told, subtly, that I am the cause for blacks and coloureds feeling left out, ostracised, discriminated against. Actually, I had nothing to do with it. Stop telling me I have to fix it for you guys. Over it.

  • Notice that the little boy is the only one looking at the viewers

  • Yo, shout out to Titus Kaphars cousin Nigel, he helped me change my phone plan over to T Mobile tonight and stayed after hours for like 2 and a half hours lmao

    He told me to check out his cousin's ted talk and I wanted to like it but i couldn't because it wasn't good. Pretentious and overdone. Ride that pretentious train all the way to the piggy bank lol

  • I love this video! Titus Kaphar could not have put it in a better way!!

  • This is fucking brilliant

  • Some good ideas in some of his work. However…Self professed .65 high school gpa. self-professed community college attendee for a girls attention. No wonder his son, who had no understanding of historical context of Theodore roosevelt, or the inclusive homage to [proud-looking] guides in treks to the american west and africa, can say something so elementary to inspire an ignorant, race-reductionist view of the sculpture. Then obscure the plethora of reasons an american president and rough rider would be placed on a horse and guides would walk alongside. His current exhibit at NPG contains instances where he does what he claims to be challenging…skews history to fit a fashionable narrative. I seriously think he got his white wash process and counter-narrative idea from the cover of the book “lies my teacher told me”.

  • I am quite insecure inside, and this act didn't inspire at all, any confidence in attempting to blend with people.
    I would like to leave..

  • Great video. Make sure you watch the whole video.

  • This was beautiful and has a beautiful message behind it thank you

  • Victim complex

  • One of the best ted talks. In my opinion total attention to his moved words and timing.

  • Be forward looking….instead of tearing down statues…build new ones showing the real history of the struggle. Show the contrast ! Next to the "confederate hero" everyone is offended by…build a monument to their "slaves"…the tragedy, the pain, the struggle…a family being torn apart….a slave being whipped….a slave auction…MAKE PEOPLE CRY !

  • I love his work!

  • Watching tht man put those first strokes on them made my heart start racing. Super powerful

  • To Titus: Juli and I love ya from the Vineyard at Blackfort HS.. we are amazed by you !

  • Why wasn't this video longer? this is such an important discussion in many ways. Wow!

  • He was on a horse because he was THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. So in current times, should I be allowed to fly Airforce 1 instead of Delta economy?

  • To modify old art, or history, to serve an ideology, any ideology, is wrong. If a group of people want to gain respect and have their art in prominent places, do so by making new art and working for the greater good. MLK has a statue (and a federal holiday). Rosa Parks has a statue too. They earned it, just like Roosevelt did. Granted, I don't see why Roosevelt had to have an Indian and a black man walking by him, when his statue would have been perfectly fine alone. The statues of MLK and Parks stand alone too.

    And yes, I've seen the whole video. Yes, I understood his point. I'm not just an angry white guy here to stir trouble. I'm a concerned white guy who respects history, the good bits, the bad bits, and the forgotten bits too. So I must disagree with Titus. If he really wanted to make his point well, he could have made an entirely new painting that builds on Hals' theme, but isn't a replica of it.

  • This speaks my truth!!! As a Native Artist, I've experienced the same hand-wringing from reticent Professors who didn't want to "waste time" on subjects they felt were likely to be controversial and would be meet with broad debate and divisive arguments rooted in preconceived notions. So, instead of discussing the topics that could've been life changing to a minority (of minorities) and offer a chance to better understand our history, the subject might make the majority feel uncomfortable so we ended up only discussing art through the Western World view. That myopic world view proliferates distorted, often completely false narratives of our history.
    Western Civilization's view shouldn't dominate art history or any other history. This is why race relations are still dysfunctional and are noticeable getting worse. I truly don't see any change happening until Americans have the courage to acknowledge and reckon with the ugly sides of of our history. American Exceptionalism is a lie we tell ourselves and our children for the sole purpose of not having to think about the realities of those who are still living with the effects of our truthful history. That way of thinking is untenable for those of us that are tired of dealing with those effects and view it as another burden we have to deal with to placate those who can't handle the truth.
    This also highlights the "Postcolonial Gaze" theory that has been a major part of better understanding my ancestry and seeing it through our eyes for a change. It illustrates how Western Civilization has always felt that those not of Western Civilization to be beneath them in some ways, but Postcolonial Gaze theory makes it clear that what they viewed as beneath them was actually just different cultural traditions and norms. I only wish I didn't have to spend my life learning these things on my own.

  • This is so informative and I love the way he talks!

  • I love the concept of restoring lost history

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *