The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity

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  • The Afro-American Artist: A Search for IdentityAuthor(s): Elsa Honig FineSource: Art Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 32-35Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 15:32

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  • The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity Elsa Honig Fine

    Today the black militant is trying to forge his

    image on the American cultural scene. Not content to be a pale imitation of white middle class society, all too fre-

    quently the goal of his brethren in the earlier decades of this century, he wants to be judged on his own terms, by his own values and standards. He no longer feels inade-

    quate because of his peculiar speech patterns, hair tex- ture or body structure. He is forcing additions and

    changes in the curriculum in the high schools and uni- versities. Refusing the role of the "invisible American," the black is demanding recognition and compensation for centuries of subjugation and discrimination.

    The black musician has left his imprint on the American culture. The black painter is trying to do the same. These questions are often asked: Why is there not a black visual art tradition comparable to the black musi- cal tradition? And what is the role of the black visual art- ist? Where do his traditions lie, with the American cul- ture or with his African heritage? And what should be the unique contribution of the black artist? Should he

    express his inner emotions in his art, or does his responsi- bility rest with his people? These are not new concerns.

    They are questions that have troubled black intellectuals for nearly a century, reaching their climax during the

    Negro Renaissance of the 1920's, and reemerging with the militancy of the sixties.

    The system of slavery, especially the domestic and rural form, forced rapid assimilation on the African

    Negro. The plantation was a social system all its own, and the isolation and intimate contact with the master's

    family forced the white man's language, religion and values on the black man. And the plantation owners' bio-

    logical urges forced the white man's blood upon the blacks. These offspring, who often served as "house nig- gers," became the elite of the plantation and scorned the boisterous "common field hands." Mimicking their mas- ters, they accepted their "restrained manners and conser- vative standards." The middle-rank of slaves included the artisans, the cook and the gardener, who knew their place, and enjoyed special privileges. It was from the common field hands, with their bent and tortured bodies,

    MRS. FINE, B.F.A. in painting from Syracuse University, M.F.A. from Tyler College of Fine Arts, Temple Univer-

    sity, is a candidate for the Ed.D. (emphasizing art history and art education) at the University of Tennessee where her husband is a Professor of Clinical Psychology. She be- came interested in this neglected area of American art when she decided to apply for a teaching position at a

    predominantly black college in the Knoxville area. m

    thrust together in the intimacy of the slave quarters, en-

    during the burden of overwork, that the black folk arts

    emerged. The Negro folk culture became the American

    peasant culture. With their rejection of the poor whites, and their paternalistic acceptance of the Negro, the southern plantation system became the "closest approxi- mation in American social history to the conditions and social climate of peasantry." When the black migrated north, he carried his traditions with him. Since he was never allowed to become part of the great American "melting pot," his folk culture was not dissipated. Rather, the enforced segregation served to strengthen and enrich his expressive style. Today, the Negro folk culture, as communicated through the blues, the spiri- tual, jazz, soul music and rhythmic dance movements is an integral part of the total American cultural

    experience?.' When, in the late nineteenth century, Negro visual

    artists began to emerge, they were mocked as the epitome of pretentiousness by whites as well as blacks, as art was considered the "ultimate expression of a civilized peo- ple." Although black Africa boasted a long tradition in the arts, the American Negro, cut so abruptly from his roots, was unaware of it. Stripped of all expressive mate- rials, the captive blacks expressed their creative urges through their bodies, through song, speech and move- ment. In Africa, weaving, metal work, and sculpture were the dominant arts, and "African art skills were technical, rigid, controlled and disciplined; characteristic African art expression is, therefore, sober, heavily conventional- ized, and restrained. The American African arts are

    freely emotional, exuberant, and sentimental." The Afri- can used subtle colors; the Afro-American's affinity for

    extravagant color is an emotional reaction to his repres- sive American experience.2

    Visual art expression in Western culture is an essen- tially middle-class endeavor. The aristocrat could be a connoisseur and a patron of the arts, but working with one's hands denied this tradition. Painting as a fine art grew out of the artisan class, which eventually became the middle-class. The peasants and the primitive pro- duced folk art; the fine arts are a product of leisure, secu- rity, and education. Ever since Edmonia Lewis, a black sculptor, attended Oberlin College in Ohio, 1859, the Negro artist has followed the white man's course in seek- ing to develop his art. While he has certainly been sub- jected to the indignities of a black in a white society, his training and experience as an artist have been the same as the white artist's. Educated in the best schools at home, frequently benefiting by travel and study abroad, the serious Negro artist responded to the rapidly chang- ing art movements of the late nineteenth and the twen- teeth centuries as an artist, and not as a black artist.

    Margaret Just Butcher writes that "we must not ex- pect the work of the Negro artist to be different from


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  • that of his fellow artists. Product of the same social and cultural soil, the Negro's art has an equal right and obli-

    gation to be typically American at the same time that it strives to be typical and representative of the Negro. Ul-

    timately the American Negro must make as distinct a contribution to visual arts as he has made to music."3

    The difficulty in this statement rests in the last sen- tence. Negro music developed as the folk expression of an oppressed people who were denied all other means of creative experience. Music and dance spring from the grass-roots; art is a function of middle-class life. Although black painters have been participating in the American visual art scene for over 100 years, their contribution has been minimal compared to their dominant role in Amer- ican popular music. The inadequate representation of blacks may be due to the inferior education that has been foistered on them. John T. Scott, instructor in art at Xavier University, states that "because of no education in art (or very poor education that functions negatively), the lower-income bracket Negro is visually illiterate."4 About 60% of the Negroes attending college go to pre- dominantly Negro colleges. The art instructors there are lower paid, lower ranked, and they exhibit their works less than do their colleagues at non-Negro institutions; usually they are graduates of schools with facilities simi- lar to those they are teaching in.* Slide collections and

    library resources are limited at the predominantly Negro schools, as are print collections and exhibit space. In other words, the students arriving at these institutions usually have an inadequate background, and with lim- ited facilities and poorly prepared teachers, their chance for professional competence is remote.5 There probably will not be a truly great Afro-American artist until Amer- ican society completely accepts the black man.

    When the fad for African sculpture, stimulated by the paintings and sculpture of Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Matisse, reached America the question was raised as to the relationship between African primitive art and the productions of the Amercian Negro. At first the primitive artifacts were regarded as awkward attempts at realism, but with increased observation, sophisticated European critics discovered that the distortions were "not a crude attempt at realism but a skillful re-working of forms in simplified abstraction and deliberately emphasized sym- bolisms."6

    Many Negro artists resented this forced identifica- tion with African, claiming the American experience was

    stronger than the racial one. Alain Locke, an early advo- cate of black consciousness, hoped for the development of an Afro-American art idiom based on the discovery of Af- rican art. In France and Germany several artists were said to have been liberated by this new aesthetic; unques- tionably African Negro art had influenced the oeuvre of

    the early twentieth century artist. But for them, accord-

    ing to Locke, it was just an "exotic fad." For the black American artist, asserted Locke, since there was an "his- torical and racial bond between themselves and African art . . . [it] should act with all the force of a rediscovered folk-art, and give clues for the repression of a half-sub- merged race-soul."7

    This search for identity by the black artist in Amer- ica has been a continuous process. The nineteenth cen- tury artist often sought solace in Europe, which is more color-blind than America. Many twentieth century artists have done the same. But the search continues. Who is he, and whom does he represent? The poet, Paul Dunbar, in responding to a query in 1906 as to the difference be- tween white and black poetry, claimed that: ". .. their

    [the blacks'] poetry will not be exotic or differ much from the whites. For two hundred and fifty years the en- vironment of the Negro has been American, in every re- spect the same as that of all Americans."8

    Langston Hughes urged his brethren to portray their blackness in their art. Expressing at that time the black slogans current today, such as "black is beautiful," "black pride" and "black power," and the feeling of the separateness and uniqueness of the black experience back in 1926, Hughes wrote, "We younger artists who create now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame. If the white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful.''9

    Afraid of being identified with the caricatures created by the white artist, Negroes usually shunned Negro subject matter. When a Negro was portrayed in a less than appealing manner, whether the depiction was honest or not, the Negro middle-class protested. When Eu- gene O'Neil caught what W. E. B. DuBois called the "Negro-temper" in "The Emperor Jones," the educated blacks rebuked him, and they in turn were chastised by DuBois, who wrote that the Negro should feel secure enough to "lend the whole stern human truth to the transforming hand of the artist." At this time, DuBois developed his "Truth in Art" theory which appealed for honest expression in art, rather than using art as propa- ganda. As early as 1913 he viewed the black as "primar- ily an artist," and later wrote: "We are the only Ameri- can artists."1o

    A black cultural regeneration, labeled the "Negro Renaissance," or the "New Negro Movement" was in evi- dence in the large northern urban centers by the mid- twenties. The shape and direction of the movement was debated by the leading Negro intellectuals of the day. Alain Locke continued to urge the black artists, lacking a tradition of their own, to adopt their ancestral arts. He continued, "We ought to and must have a school of

    Negro art, a local and racially representative tradition.""


    * On this problem see ART JOURNAL, Winter, 68/9, p. 228 and Summer, 69, p. 432.-EDITOR.

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  • By this time, discouraged by constant rebuffs from white society, DuBois' attitude had changed. Writing in Crises, the official publication of the N.A.A.C.P. ("Crite- ria of Negro Art?" October, 1926), he expressed his anger at literature such as Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, that treated the black man as a caricature, a buffoon. "Truth in Art" be damned, "I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda." At a 1926 N.A.A.C.P. convention, DuBois argued that "the Negro artist . . . must turn his art into conscious propaganda, because for the Negro, though not for white America, art and prop- aganda were unified by their common devotion to truth, beauty and right."'2 By 1931, when he was advocating a

    separate Negro society and flirting with the Communist

    party, DuBois declared that the role of art was to lead so-

    ciety in fulfilling its highest ideals. Art was to serve the

    people, and the Negro artist would be judged according to racial, and not artistic standards. DuBois seemed to be

    parroting the Communist aesthetic, which has produced a school of "social realism" in art, thereby thwarting the

    great achievements of modern art in Russia that were so visible in the first decade of this century.

    Other intellectuals, in disagreeing with Locke and DuBois, argued that the latter's philosophies would only further segregate the blacks. A split developed that threatened to enfeeble the new movement. The dichot-

    omy, as described by James Porter,* had one group con-

    tending "that to avoid imitation of white tradition the

    Negro must deny everything that might be construed as derivative from white experience;" and the other insist-

    ing "that the Negro should encompass all experience, not



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