The Trouble with Calling it Black Art

Girl with the Bamboo Earring by Awol Erizku In a discussion this month hosted by the Schomburg Cen...

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Girl with the Bamboo Earring by Awol Erizku

In a discussion this month hosted by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, writers Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talk about their encounters with blackness in America. Adichie was born in Nigeria and Smith was born in Britain. Of course, W.E.B. Dubois’ idea of double consciousness came up as well as their views of what “black” is in America. In the discussion, Adichie said, ”Black matters because of racism. It’s existential, a constructed reality, not biological. We can’t control how the world views us.” This is coming from an African who had to adopt the cultural implications of blackness as a college student in America.


So when I think about blackness, I have a hard time defining black art, which is why it makes the Museum of Modern Art’s latest announcement cloudy. The week before last, the MoMA hired Darby English as a consulting curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. His role is to “strengthen” the Museum’s black art collection. English is a scholar of American and European art with a specialization in works made by black artists. He holds a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from Williams College and a Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. The MoMA has added more black artists to its collections in the past five years, but the Museum must have been aware of the implications that a focus like this would make in the art world. I must admit that the tightly crafted statement from the MoMA did settle some of my fears. It reads: “Among the first tasks he will undertake is an analysis of the Museum’s collection of works in this area, as well as the publication of a critical reader bringing together key texts documenting black artists’ work and its historical reception.”



Historically, black artists have been marginalized for various reasons: racism, subjectivity, education. Segregation, fetishism and lack of cultural history and acknowledgement have added to the misunderstanding of art by African-Americans for the majority of art history in the United States. The mixing of mainstream and minority cultures was not permitted until after segregation, at least when it came to visual arts. When black artists were included in the cultural conversation, critics denounced their work limiting it to adjectives such as “barbaric” or “primitive” because it did not mimic the formalist or structuralist paradigms of European or American periods. Many critics refused to acknowledge the various forms of art making that were new and unfamiliar to them. Diaspora experiences were sometimes lumped into the black art experience, mistaking the influences to be homogenous.

Authorship has proven to be a hindrance in the judgment of art by blacks. When Time covered the Atlanta Annual of 1945, critics could not review the exhibition of art by African-Americans outside of the context of race. The works were either discredited or pigeon-held to the confines of the generalities held about the creativity of a wholly understudied population. One could argue that the perceptions of African-Americans were seen as wholly inferior, but blacks in the South may have been even more stigmatized due to the prolonged history of slavery and the social and political realities of Jim Crow. A mixed bag criticism of ethnic groups in the art world came from famed art critic Clement Greenberg. In an essay on painter Paul Klee, Greenberg wrote that Parisians "opened our eyes to the virtues of oriental and barbaric art. It became possible to find valid art anywhere in history and geography.” Here he highlights that the creation of art is possible wherever and is not reflective of a monolithic culture where art is only reflective if change is made in mass. He in turns validates ethnic art, he added, it is "simultaneously quite obvious if you think about it … and non-obvious, since most whites don't think about it… It implies that art becomes art – or becomes intelligible as art – only through its representation within specific institutions of art.”

In the 1980s, the black art scene was still mostly segregated in New York. According to Art F City, artist Lorraine O'Grady acting as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire would dress in a gown made from 180 pairs of white gloves when she crashed art openings. She would lash herself with a cat-o-nine-tails-cum-bouquet of chrysanthemums and shout out poems that railed against the complacency of black art to highlight segregation in the black and white art worlds. “That whole segregated art worlds business was such an unnatural thing and we had to take such unnatural attitudes in order to oppose it,” O'Grady said in the blog.

Lest we not forget Thelma Golden’s legacy in mainstream and niche art institutions included advocating for diverse points of view and subject matters in the art world at both the Whitney Museum in the 1990s and since at the Studio Museum of Harlem. As director and curator at the Studio Museum, Golden defined a movement in the black art community. She launched the term "post-black" into the lexicon in 2001, characterizing the work of young artists she had selected for the Museum’s "Freestyle" exhibition. Golden's defined "post-black" as "a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions." The new genre was given to artists who were adamant about not being labeled as 'black' artists, though their work dealt with the idea of blackness. The intention is for black arts to be integrated into western art history instead of treated as a special interest if the work is race-related.

What’s has been proven most recently is that some critics in the art world just don’t get black art, which I can assume makes it hard for some organizations to be more inclusive. In 2012, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson reviewed the show Now Dig This! at PS1. His criticism was that the works alienated viewers who weren’t black in 1960s Los Angeles. Johnson wrote: “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 clich├ęs, like the defiant fist.”

Writer and critic David Levi Strauss responded to the controversy in a feature in Art in America called “When Formalist Criticism Fails.” Here he attempts to offer both an explanation of the past and a need for change in the future. “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.”

To say black art critics can only understand black art is as unfair as to say that white art cannot be understood by black people. Simply, to critique black art specifically and minority art in general, the reviewer must be aware of the multiplicity of art history. The reviewer must understand that art history is not monolithic. American history is complicated and American art history has long been exclusionary and mocking of African-Americans’ contributions to visual culture. And don’t get me started on this year’s artistic debate about cultural sensitivity when a photo was published on a fashion website of Russian art promoter Dasha Zhukova sitting in what is now dubbed the “racist chair,” a work by Bjarne Melgaard on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day.

Getting back to English, in the blog Hyperallergic, Jillian Steinhauer, called it “attempting something like museum affirmative action, making up for historical blind spots… It’s also interesting because it raises questions about the way museums treat black artists and their work, which in turn expose the complications of turning a race into an artistic category. When MoMA says that English will work with curators on acquiring and showing “black artists,” what does that mean — African-American artists? Artists of the African Diaspora? African artists? Any and all artists who are black? If the latter, does English really have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth?”

What can’t be argued is there is a gap in the archive of blacks contributions to the arts in the gallery and museum systems and in academia. The lack of representation of black artists in the dialogue of art history is still missing Kimberly Drew told Afropunk.com, last year. It wasn’t until she encountered Romare Bearden’s work at Smith College, did it lead her to really focus in on black contemporary art. “I yelped. It was really embarrassing,” she says. “I’ve been trying to recreate that feeling for others ever since.” She later created her Tumblr page that curates Black Contemporary Art. It has more than 150,000 viewers. She also assists in the communications department at the Studio Museum of Harlem. “My interest in black artists stems from my interest in blackness. Studying art can be a very daunting task for the black scholar. You’re taught to apotheosize certain artists and worship their work in a vacuum. You learn about Pablo Picasso, not Wifredo Lam. You learn about Andy Warhol, not Jean-Michel Basquiat. You learn about Marcel DuChamp, not Adam Pendleton. I’m committed to finding Black artists, supporting them as best I can and making sure that everyone has access to their work.”

Divisive perceptions of Americans with African ancestry run deep through American history. Art history has largely discredited the works of black artist or marginalized them. Due to these factors, the influence and impact of black art has been disregarded, ignored and those who advocate for inclusion have been met with challenges. For African-American art to remain a part in the cultural conversation it must first be recognized and be viable. Inclusion in American art history, art archives and interdisciplinary study are key to shaping the education of critics to ensure the livelihood of black art and African-American artists.

In “Terms of Art: Looking at the American South, the Studio Museum Considers the Insider-Outsider Divide” in GalleristNY, Randall Morris of the Cavin-Morris gallery, which specializes in showing artist who are self-taught, says, “African-American art has always come last…The work got dispersed out and collected a lot, but the research didn’t catch up with it. … People are finally doing the research that should have been done in the first place.”

This diversification of holdings maybe a little less than altruistic. There maybe a larger factor at play here. Back in 2010, the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) issued a report stating this: “This analysis paints a troubling picture of the ‘probable future’ — a future in which, if trends continue in their current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society.” Could it be true that museums only want to diversify because they are losing money or needing it? This starts to feel like an all-call for anyone who has money to spend.

I support tactics used to get people into museums and interested in diverse perspectives of art. The influence of contemporary art has been noted in the pop performing arts recently, but I am more concerned with the future of the classification of black artists. Last year, in Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film,” he said, “When art started becoming part of the galleries, there became a separation between culture and even in hip-hop, people where almost like art is too bourgeois. We are artists. We are alike. We’re cousins. It’s really exciting for me, bringing the worlds back together.”

In the 10-minute performance piece at the Pace Gallery that mimics Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present (2010), Jay- Z performs “Picasso Baby” in front of noted celebrities and artists including Abramovic, Jemima Kirke, George Condo, and other black artists such as Rashid Johnson, Wangechi Mutu and Lorna Simpson. Jay-Z has been criticized lately for all his dabbling in the art world. In Drake’s Rolling Stone interview in February, he said: “It’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references… I would love to collect [art] at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny.” For separate reasons, Drake also dissed Kanye who collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft on his 2013 Yeezus tour. In 10 years or 20, will these collaborations be considered black art performances? Where will contemporary collaborations fit in the archive?

Next, I wonder where I fit in. A writer by trade, there is a section for me at the local Barnes & Nobles called African-American. I guess you will eventually find my book of essays between the Rev. T.D. Jakes’ Woman, Thou Art Loosed and the James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man  deeming they are of the same cultural significance to those interested in the black experience. As a whole, I am excited that more artists will be invited to the table; I just hope the “black artists” won’t all have to sit together.


Jennifer Jefferson is a freelance journalist living in Atlanta, Ga.

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