A Day At The Fair Revives Thorny, Old Questions
A visit to Miami Art Basel in December 2013 left no doubt in my mind that African American art and artists have now been firmly embraced by the mainstream art world. From 20th-century black “old masters” such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden to contemporary figures like Kehinde Wiley, Martin Puryear and Kara Walker, the galleries represented at Miami Art Basel offered a wide selection of works by African-American artists, and the dealers I talked to said they were doing a brisk business in works by the better known artists. DC Moore’s price for a medium-size gouache on paper drawing from Lawrence’s “Builders” series was $195,000, surely an indication of the high value dealers are putting on works by black artists with established reputations.
Yet mainstream acceptance appears not to have resolved a fundamental issue that has long been at the core of discussions about African American art. Put simply, the question involves whether art by artists of color ought to concern itself primarily with representing black life and identity in a way that consciously aims to refute the poisonous negative stereotypes of blacks portrayed in American popular culture and the media, or whether black artists should feel be as free as their white peers to devote themselves entirely to purely formal considerations, without any special regard for African Americans’ continuing struggle to gain political, social and economic equality in this country.
Or put another way, is what makes African American art valuable its historical role as a form of social protest and self-affirmation, or is its importance to be sought in its formal innovations and aesthetic uniqueness?
This is a question that has been debated since at least the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and I make pretense of offering a definitive answer. It may be there’s no single answer that would satisfy everyone. But the fact that we’re still talking about it suggests the problematic purchase of African American art’s hold on the the mainstream art market. At the very least it means that black and white collectors are likely to view the meaning and value of artworks by black artists through very different lenses, and that those differences eventually will be reflected in differing assessments of an artist’s historical importance and contributions.
Here’s one way to think about it: Most black collectors I know would love to have a Jacob Lawrence print or painting in their collection. But I have yet to meet one who has expressed any desire to hang a work by Kara Walker in their home. For instance, a few years ago when I asked a prominent black artist, and educator why he had nothing by Walker in his extensive collection, his reply was: “I couldn’t put it on the wall because then what would I tell my grandchildren?”
For such collectors, Walker’s black paper cutouts of racially stereotyped figures engaging in acts of stunning physical brutality and sexual violence are the exact opposite of the “uplifting” images of black experience many black seek in works by African American artists. Yet white collectors and museum curators eagerly seek out Walker’s images as cutting-edge examples of contemporary art making.
There are good arguments to be made on behalf of both kinds of imagery, of course, but what is striking is the depth of the racial divide separating how each is received. And this despite the obvious similarities in the two artists’ approach to their subject. Both appropriate “primitive” motifs – Lawrence from European modernism, itself a construct of African and Asian influences; Walker from the silhouette portraits of naïve American folk art. And both offer themselves as grand historical narratives chronicling African Americans’ long struggle against an oppressive system. So why are they perceived so differently by blacks and whites?
It’s telling, however, that Walker’s works command prices that far outstrip those not only of most black artists but of all except the most established white contemporary artists as well. It isn’t a question of which is “better,” or a more truthful representation of black experience in America. But the fact that those “truths” increasingly seem to depend on who is doing the looking suggests that the perennial American dilemma is no closer to being resolved in the art world than it is anywhere else in our society.
Glenn McNatt is a former art critic for the Baltimore Sun and current editorial page writer for the Sun. He continues to pursue his interest in art as an avocation.