Over several years, systems of art criticism have established that the interpretation and evaluation of art should be done through social and cultural acceptance, academia, and principles of design. The opposing factor within art criticism is one’s partial subjectivity, which art critics use to direct their judgments. With the combination of an established set of rules and subjectivity, methodologies provide a basis with which to critique artwork. A problem of art criticism, and the art world at large, lies in the hierarchal agreement of artistic values revolving around criteria based in European paradigms. This is a burden mostly borne by Black artists. Black artists work is being automatically associated to racial narratives and causes. In order to achieve success or attention, Black artists are expected to with align their work with themes that are circumscribed to them. In her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine quotes youtuber Hennessy Youngman, who suggests if a black person paints a flower it becomes a “slavery flower”.
True artistic freedom for the Black artist would involve liberating the Black artist’s visual language from the historical paradigms established by White critics. It would mean liberating the Black artist’s work from reaching requirements or expectations instituted by interlocking systems of supremacy. One may be wondering, does this mean “art for art’s sake” or complete abstractionism? Not necessarily. I am not suggesting that the art should be separated from the identity of the artist or that the Black artist necessarily desires for their art to be aligned with the way we intake art from other demographics. For example, we can examine the life of Romare Bearden. Bearden is well known for his groundbreaking collage work and prominence as an artistic leader during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Due to his pale skin tone, Romare Bearden was an African American artist that could have easily passed as a white man. In his youth, he was even given the chance to do so when offered a position on an all-white baseball league but refused. However, he used his artwork to explore themes of the black experience, and humanity at large. Sebastian Smee of the Washington Post writes, “Bearden succeeded magnificently, largely because he wasn’t interested in simplifying reality. He would have loathed the idea of depleting the imprint life left on him just to make it fit the requirements of a political worldview. It would have betrayed his understanding of identity itself.” In an interview from the 1970’s, Bearden mentioned he would simply describe black art as art made by black artists.
In “Blues People”, an influential study of African American music, Leroi Jones distinguishes how the meaning of art historically differs between European and West African origins:
The discarding of the religious attitude for the “enlightened” concepts of the Renaissance also created the schism between what was art and what was life. It was, and is, inconceivable in the African culture to make a separation between music, dancing, song, the artifact and a man’s life or his worship of the gods. Expression issued from life and was beauty.
In her essay, An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional, bell hooks writes, “we talk about the need to see darkness differently, to talk about it in a new way.” Darkness refers to hook’s Blackness and it prompts the question at large: Can we successfully integrate Blackness into discourse or institutions that are equipped only with a predetermined language? There is confusion concerning whether or not there is another way to make space for these discussions, a reality where these discussions are deemed as equally important and accessible as it’s counterparts is possible. We cannot successfully talk about black art in an institution structured by white expectation. To properly value the creations of Black artist in America, one must challenge the setting that the art work is placed, one must challenge one’s own mental constructs of what design principles the artist is integrating or rejecting, one must be willing to consider aesthetic values that are not the status quo. Perhaps if a new basis with which to look, experience, and critique aligned with the cultural origins of Black art, we will reach a closer understanding of a new way to process and respond to art at large. If we are able to replace our usual lens with another that includes its own body of rules and functionality of art, we will be better equipped to experience the artwork of various peoples in America.” I was interested in the idea of why and how I could create a new story, a new narrative in art history and a new narrative in the world. And to do this, I knew that I had to see the way in which artists work, understand the artist's studio as a laboratory, imagine, then, reinventing the museum as a think tank and looking at the exhibition as the ultimate white paper -- asking questions, providing the space to look and to think about answers.”
Art provides an outlet to explore new forms of cultural dialogue. Moving forward, the way in which we experience, consider, and discuss art must continue to evolve. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it may never be possible to condense the art of a black person to “art for art’s sake”, even if it the intention of the artist to have it perceived as such. James Abbott Whistler, a white American painter known best for his Post-Impressionist contributions championed the “Art for art’s sake” mentality "Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone...and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like." Based on this definition, it would seem that art for art’s sake is impossible to achieve if you are a Black artist in America.
The pain and beauty, the simplicity and complexity, the victories and tragedies that paint a picture of what it means to be Black in America will almost always be inseparable from the art’s presence. Accurate and appropriate criticism and value of Black art only be accessed when an awareness and denouncement of interlocking systems of supremacy occurs.
Ken Johnson’s review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, published in the New York Times, is an example of white analysists missing the mark of critically receiving Black art. In his review Johnson claims, “Black artists did not invent assemblage…In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” Johnson also critiques the usage of moral themes that are supposed to be absent during the modern climate of the art world, “The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.” Johnson also felt as though non-black viewers would be estranged from the show. “If I am right that most of the work in “Now Dig This!” promotes solidarity, then this poses a problem for its audience. It divides viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture. Those who identify may tend to respond favorably to what those viewing from a more distanced perspective may regard as social realist clichés, like the defiant fist.” David Levi Strauss responded in “When Formalist Criticism Fails”, a review published by Art In America. He responds not just by casting disappointment on Johnson and The New York Times, but also voicing the frustrations of himself and many other readers, viewers, and artists. Strauss expresses where critical responses have failed in the past while suggesting the future growth and direction that is needed. “The real controversy arose from the frustration of recognizing that the institutions of the art world and the language still used there can slide back all too easily into a pre-1960s de facto racism and sexism, built on the old received assumptions of formalism, and that it is still necessary, in this day and age in America, to make an argument for the social function and effects of art,” Strauss said. “What is needed now is a new critical language, beyond that of an unconscious formalist supremacy a language in tune with the needs and desires (and aesthetic history) of a New America.”
Perhaps when viewing art, we can begin to interpret and value art based on its metaphysical language, whether it is foreign to us or not, rather than relying on the predetermined formal analysis. Rather than trying to take on side of the coin over the other, rather than trying to keep the parts that are commodifiable while denying the others, rather than trying to assimilate blackness into the “art world”, we can instead invent new alphabets, new pedagogies of art education and art criticism. We can instead begin to broaden the breadth of valued perspectives, insights, and cultural values that take more than one narrative into account.
image by Pamola