“Accuracy Is Not Truth” ~ Eugène Delacroix
Left: Samuel J. Miller, Frederick Douglass (c. 1852). Private collection.
Why Black Art Matters
The tumultuous universe of the visual arts coheres around a dual organizing principle: what have you got to say and how do you say it? This narrative underpinning has been true for as long as we have allowed art to occupy more than a mere decorative place in our experiential universe. Some would argue that prehistoric cave paintings and early Renaissance religious works mattered equally to their respective communities for their devotional and mystical properties; that is, their power to transport the viewer to a higher, spiritual plane. xxxxxx
Not again, until the advent of Modernism in the late 19th century, have we expected so much of art—that is to not only entertain our sense, but enlighten us along the way. Case in point: the hushed, contemplative atmospherics of most museums, where respectful distance from displays and whispered commentary help set the stage for some ill-defined, museum-going epiphanal moment. The Western art we cherish is never down-and-dirty. It doesn’t seem to belong in the street, but rather, in the sanctified halls and sterile, closely-guarded rooms of our cultural institutions.
Right: Henry Ossawa Tanner, ‘Venice’ (1897).
Let’s be honest here. The rarified world for fine art, whether producing or collecting—in all its forms—has largely been the domain of the privileged class, mostly white and mostly moneyed…until recently. Record auction prices paid by anonymous foreign buyers for great masterpieces, fueled by global market forces, are still headline-grabbing, but increasingly common. But there is another phenomenon gaining traction in the marketplace; that is the increasing interest in Black art, both current and past. This trend may be driven in part by the ongoing search by collectors and dealers for new, affordable segments of an otherwise overwrought and overpriced commodity called ‘collectable art.’ But is it also, I believe, a reflection of increased awareness and appreciation for the extraordinary contribution of Black artists over recent decades—an appreciation made more tenable by a liberalized view of cultural contributions to the American cultural lexicon by a previously overlooked, often marginalized group of artists.
Left: Hale Woodfruff, ‘Returning Home’ (c.1935.)
Some would argue that recent setbacks in public perception of Black communities, precipitated by isolated, high-profile, civil rights incidents, have been injurious to public perception of decades of gains in American race relations. But compared to where we were just fifty, thirty or even twenty years ago, race relations as a social issue have moved the ball a significant distance down the field. We still have a long way to go, but taken in isolation, the market for Black art is now undergoing a renaissance of its own. The question is whether we have entered what some would call a ‘Post-Racial,’ or post-Black’ era in American cultural and politics. Debate runs hot and heavy as to whether this is a real phenomenon, or whether it even matters as we consider the impact of work by modern and contemporary Black artists.
Right: Jacob Lawrence, ‘Memories of Nigeria’ (1965).
Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. Some Americans believed that the election of Barack Obama as president and wider acceptance of interracial marriage signified that the nation had become post-racial; while others believe that groups such as the Tea Party movement in incidents like that in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and at the SAE fraternity at Oklahoma University prove it has not. Arguing against the reality of a post-racial America is Touré, who wrote in a November, 2011, New York Times article entitled, “No Such Place as Post-Racial America,” “’Post-racial’ is a mythical idea that should be as painful to the mind’s ear as fingernails on the chalkboard are to the outer ear. It’s an intellectual Loch Ness monster. It is indeed a monster because it’s dangerous. What people seem to mean by ‘post-racial’ is: nowadays race no longer matters and anyone can accomplish anything because racism is behind us. All of that is false.”
Left: Romare Bearden, ‘Reunion’ (1971).
I would argue that if there is one bright spot on the post-racial scene, it is the world of fine art. Increasingly, museums are mounting and featuring exhibitions and acquisitions by Black and other minority artists. Some of that activity may be of a self-serving nature, aimed at attracting larger audiences in communities where cultural and racial diversification is ‘calling the question’ of how best to increase foot traffic into the building. But, whatever the motivation, the effect is the same: diversified boards and curatorial presence in museums and galleries are expanding representation by minority artists in important institutional and private collections around the county.
Right: Charles White, ‘Head of a Woman’ (1970s)
Another setting where an awakening is occurring is in auction houses, where regularly scheduled African-American artists’ work is attracting larger multi-racial crowds, with pricing a reflection of interest in, and enthusiasm for work being produced by both well-known and emerging Black artists.
Responding to a question about the ‘Post-Black’ art movement and its impact on the marketplace in an interview with this editor in 2012, Nigel Freeman, Director of African-American Fine Art, at Swann Auction Galleries, in New York City, said “There is a group of young African-American artists who have emerged quite rapidly on the scene, given the number of previous generations that labored without the recognition they deserved. The Post-Black generation is thematically and emotionally connected to those who came before, but their work is quite different. Cultural values have changed and they have much more content available to work with. I would include such artists as Kara Walker, Radcliffe Bailey, Glen Ligon, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas Wiley, to name a few.”
Left: Kara Walker, ‘African-American’ (1998).
He continued, “’Post-Black’ art would suggest to me that race is less a factor in determining the importance of their work, but ethnicity, Black culture and the impact of the art on the viewer becomes an effective means to promote awareness and, ultimately, it can open a dialogue between blacks and whites—which can only benefit the community at large. Black art is now being judged by its merits alone. That represents tremendous progress from where we were just a few years ago.”
Right:Kehinde Wiley, Triple Portrait of Charles I (2007), Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Kehinde Wiley.
Black artists have something important to say. If Black art matters in the unfolding American narrative then, it can serve as a vital bastion against the kinds of bigotry we have all experienced. If we have not yet reached a “post-racial’ plateau in our broader cultural landscape—a place where the level terrain of cultural parity allows for dialogue and acceptance—then our nation’s Black artists are our most important ground guides as we continue to seek that “promised land” of mutual respect and understanding.
My best and thanks for reading ARTES,
Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor