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  • Jazzmin Imani

Being a Black Artist in America



In conjunction with the growing relevance of “black art” in previously white-dominated spaces, there is also a growing dependency on the role of black artists as political resistors in American society. Throughout history, the lens on black art has been either nonexistent or heavily filtered to reduce the image, performance, or writing to a politically-charged representation of the black experience. No aspect of blackness has been left unscathed, and it seems that this phenomenon is further embedded in artistic practice and critique as more black artists become respected in their fields. In this blog, “black art” will solely refer to art done by black people, rather than a category of art-making itself. This distinction mitigates the devaluing of black art that results from calling it anything other than fine art.

First, it should be noted that ‘relevancy’ is a relative term. It was found that, over the last decade, less than 3% of museum acquisitions from 30 surveyed US museums were done by African-American artists [1]. Although this figure indicates that black art is still viewed with less urgency than art by other groups, landmark art cases like Basquiat’s induction into the $100 million-plus club or Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley’s paintings of the Obamas also follow a trend of general recognition of the validity of black artists as masters in artistic discipline. This trend is a global one, with a rise in the popularity of black art taking hold in European and Asian countries, such as the installment of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, at the Tate Modern in London in 2017. Parallel to this movement and movements before, such as the Harlem Renaissance, which is the greatest incursion of appreciation of black art in this country’s history, there have been conversations about the role that politics play in black art [2]. In an article for the Baltimore Magazine, David Driskell, an established artist and professor in the field of African-American art, states that “we as black artists have not had the luxury of just being artists” [3]. Driskell’s statement highlights that while much of the art created by black people is designed to contribute to personal reflection, represent human life rather than black life, or simply exist as aesthetically beautiful or provocative, it is often assigned political context in the same way that black actions of living—joy, anger, sadness, etc.— are constantly radicalized.

The pressure on black artists to constantly create for the sake of their race is in part a demand from broader culture. In an essay for the New York Times, Vinson Cunningham uses the term “identity writers” to describe the ways in which black people are viewed as spokespeople for their race before they are viewed as human [4]. The ways in which black people are forced to be socially conscious in order to survive is not believed to exist in conjunction with other forms of human sensitivity and experience. As a result, the question of the moral value of an artwork becomes a stand-in for discussion of the art itself. While the morality of a piece is an important lens to tap into, especially when critiquing the work that a piece is doing in America’s cultural and political climate, it cannot be the sole lens used to view black art.

Because of the rarity of public black art that exists to depict humanity prior to depicting blackness, these works elicit less of a conversation about “whether a work is good art” and instead about “whether it’s good—good for us, good for the culture, good for the world” [5]. These works then become protected from criticism, sociopolitical or historical context, and white viewers. Eric Fershtman of Sinkhole magazine expands on the danger of white viewers of black art. He uses the phrase “watching-while-white” to summarize the tokenism present when viewing work by black artists who do want to challenge the cultural and political climate and its relation to their identity as not just artists but as artists who are black and artists who are people [6]. Additionally, he suggests that white fascination with black art and the willingness to purchase black work is an attempt to garner forgiveness and avoid true engagement with the struggles of black people. Oftentimes, this action doesn’t promote black art because it ultimately benefits white-controlled artistic institutions. Jackie Copeland notes that although Amy Sherald and other contemporary black artists (and female, nonetheless), are succeeding in major galleries, the validation is all coming from white-owned museums and white dealers, even though these artists have been valued by black communities for years [3]. As a result, the less-established black institutions are priced out of the work due to poor infrastructure and lack of support for black galleries.

At the core of its conceptualization, black art is a way for black people to escape historical stereotypes of a race of people who are incapable of creativity and the mastery required of fine art. In essence, art history is riddled with racism and elitism, resulting in a segregated art world today that does not understand black art’s function in society. Driskell summarizes it best in his words “black art is American art, and that is the larger context” [3]. He adds, “and don’t leave out women or Asians or Latinos. They, too, in the words of Langston Hughes, ‘sing America.’ And they sing it with a great song” [3]. It is important for black artists to continue telling their stories artistically—in essence, singing America. However, what many fail to understand is that part of black life is living; partaking in human experiences and feelings is part of being black because being black is human, just like black artists are artists and black art is still art.

References

[1] Halperin, Julia. “African American Artists Are More Visible Than Ever. So Why Are Museums Giving Them Short Shrift?” Artnet News, September 18, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/the-long-road-for-african-american-artists/african-american-research-museums-1350362.

[2] Atlanta, Patrice Worthy in. “The Roots of the US Black Art Renaissance: 'It Wouldn't Have Been OK in Any Other City'.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 23, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/oct/23/the-roots-of-the-us-black-art-renaissance-it-wouldnt-have-been-ok-in-any-other-city.

[3] LaRocca, Lauren, and Ken Fletcher. “Black Artists Are Finally Receiving Recognition in The Mainstream Art World.” Baltimore magazine, January 25, 2019. https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/2018/9/5/black-artists-finally-receiving-recognition-in-mainstream-art-world.

[4]“Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race?” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 20, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html.

[5] Morris, Wesley. “Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 3, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/03/magazine/morality-social-justice-art-entertainment.html.

[6] Fershtman, Eric. “The Problem With White Praise of Black Art.” sinkhole. sinkhole, June 4, 2018. https://sinkholemag.com/culture-features/2018/5/30/the-problem-with-white-praise-of-black-art.

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