Why Black American Art Matters Right Now
In the mid-twentieth century, when American art became internationally significant, Marxist theory was extremely important. The two main critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Shapiro, the most important art historian who has taken an interest in contemporary art, all come from the communist milieu of Depression-era New York. . And often their successors also embraced leftist theories. In the 1970s, TJ Clark, the most influential young art historian, was a member of Guy Debord’s Situationist International. And the very important academic journal Octoberfounded in 1976, named after Eisenstein’s film about the October Soviet Revolution, extended Greenberg’s influence.
an influential OctoberIt presented a sharp opposition between “good” politically critical works and “bad” conformist art. But curators and collectors have made no such distinctions. And so, inevitably, the political worldviews of these critics appear safely isolated from practice, with the Marxist just theorizing a way to promote the works they admired. As much-admired contemporary works of art inevitably became the property of the wealthiest or best-endowed museums, there was an obvious conflict between this leftist politics and the life of the art world. For several generations, new artistic movements appear and the canon is repeatedly radically revised, but these fundamental ways of thinking are not revised. On reflection, this is perhaps unsurprising, as isolating the criticism from business practice meant it had no consequences.
Quite recently, however, this situation has radically changed in a completely unexpected way. When I started publishing reviews in 1980, almost all the art I saw and wrote in New York was by white men. The many black artists were not discussed prominently. Indeed, it was not until 1997 that I saw for the first time the performance of a black artist. Shortly after World War II, the United States Armed Forces were integrated – to use that old-fashioned verb. And then black players appeared in Major League baseball and African-American stars in opera. But the art world, which has been slow to support women, has been very slow to support black people. Over the past two years, however, in a long-awaited development, that has changed quite suddenly. Black artists (many of whom are not young), curators, writers and even collectors are in the news. And the theorizing of Greenberg and his successors at October has been completely replaced.
There are two familiar and opposite ways of understanding contemporary art, both of which are the origins of the creations of modern German philosophy. by Immanuel Kant The criticism of the judgment (1790) proposed a universal theory of aesthetic experience. According to Kant, what defined Enlightenment culture was the ability to be self-critical. His theorizing was the source of Greenberg’s hugely influential distinction between ancient art, which merely presents its subjects, and modernism, which does so self-critically. And that of GWF Hegel Lectures on aesthetics (1820s) presented a historicist analysis of art as cultural expression. For Hegel, art expresses the philosophical, political and religious values of his culture. The artworks of Egypt, ancient Greece, medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Golden Age Holland and modern Germany differ, as these societies had different worldviews.
It may seem strange to call upon Hegel to discuss contemporary black American art, since all of his examples are all Eurocentric. (Egypt inaugurates the European tradition.) But in the middle of the 19th century, Ernest Fenollosa spoke of Japanese art in Hegelian terms. Any culture can express itself in its art. The most important amendment to the Hegelian theorization is that of WEB Du Bois The souls of black people (1903), which recounts the much-discussed analysis of the master/slave relationship, of The phenomenology of mind (1807), to the double consciousness of African-American culture. The slave works under the direction of the master, who appropriates the products of his labor. And because the slave works, he achieves real progress in self-awareness, and thus dialectically ends up triumphing over the master. It is unclear whether Hegel is describing slavery in Greek antiquity or in the modern world; or, indeed, if he had a historical period in mind. Indeed, Marx found here a prescient description of the triumph of the proletariat in the future communist revolution. The American Negro, writes Du Bois, has “no real self-awareness”, but always looks at himself “through the eyes of others”. . . The story of the American Negro is the story of this conflict, – this desire to achieve self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. And so: “He simply wishes to allow a man to be both Negro and American.
Du Bois’s analysis suggests how to theorize our art world. Because African Americans have a very distinctive history and social position, they express themselves by creating distinctive visual art. And so their goal, then, is to synthesize their experience as black people and as American artists. There are two ways for someone to know what it is to be black in America. They can read the vast literature, watch the relevant movies, listen to the appropriate music and talk with black people. Or they can be black. Any philosopher can understand Du Bois’s Hegelian analysis. But of course there is a difference between grasping this argument and being directly aware of its implications. And so one of the goals of criticism is, if possible, to bridge that gap for black and non-black audiences.
Affirmative action aimed to promote people according to their abilities, with particular attention to traditionally underrepresented groups. This Kantian way of thinking was in principle blind to race and gender. If, however, we accept Du Bois’s argument, then there is more to the story. Anyone can understand any culture. But that said, as the discussion of double consciousness points out, there is a difference between being inside and outside of a culture. There is therefore an inevitable tension in our theorizing of contemporary art. Cultural expression matters. And there is a certain universality in art, because anyone can, maybe only with hard effort, understand any art from anywhere. At the beginning of art history (1950) Ernst Gombrich, who was an anti-Hegelian, says that there is no “Art”, only artists. But then, of course, he continues to tell the story of the art. Could his procedure provide a useful guide in our fascinating and conceptually complex situation?
Here I am only too aware of the immense distance between my abstract philosophical narrative and everyday experience. How can the recognition of the multiplicity of selves identified by Du Bois function in the practice of art criticism or in the life of the art world? And what are the wider political consequences of this way of thinking? To these important questions, I have no answers yet. But I see that right now contemporary black art is important.
*Quote is taken from WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). This essay was inspired by Du Bois’s discussion in Malcolm Bull, Seeing Things Hidden. Apocalypse, vision and totality (1999). I thank Marianne Novy, Seth Rodney and Barry Schwabsky for their reviews of previous versions.