A Rising Generation of Art Historians & Critics
Youth Speaks! Introducing Essays by Four Rising Art History Scholars at Boston University
Jeffrey C. Stewart
Youth Speaks! I invoke Alain Locke's clarion call of the 1925 Harlem issue of Survey Graphic that launched the Harlem Renaissance for more than rhetorical reasons. For Locke believed in something called "Negro Art," not an essentialist claim to prominence by phenotypically similar artists, but an area of knowledge understudied and under-theorized in American art history.
The agent opening up this terrain for deeper investigation in the 1920s was youth − young, talented, black poets, writers, and yes, visual artists, who staked out the notion that race was not something to run from, but something to embrace, interrogate, and reveal as part of one's humanity. Their concern with visualizing race as a creative project was nurtured by the broader Harlem Renaissance, a black arts movement before the Black Arts Movement, that, in effect, gave us permission to see ourselves as others see us and love ourselves just the same.
Unfortunately, no large social and cultural movement like that Renaissance husbands the maiden efforts in this collection. But that absence also frees this young generation of mainstream university-trained art historians, whose first efforts at publication are collected here, to redefine what constitutes African American and African Diaspora art history today without the obligatory discourses of movement politics. Their chosen task is to utilize the epistemologies of what might be called a "critical race art history" to examine how the visual constructs and reconstructs a post-medium race consciousness in America.
These articles, therefore, are more than modest. In a contemporary historical moment when the discussion of African American and African Diaspora art has all but disappeared from mainstream art history, these art history graduate students at Boston University reveal something we have long known but failed to really understand − that art as a dialogic process pulls us into a special kind of conversation when the subject is race. Youth reminds us, therefore, that our work is not yet done.
Julia Neal's article on her immersive experience of Isaac Julien's nine-screen, traveling installation, Ten Thousand Waves, carries forward this AfroDiasporic emphasis on art's representation of a people by exploring the problem of the subject position of the contemporary art viewer: who is the implicated Other who consumes art, and how does that positionality get constructed and dematerialized through the art experience?
Julien, an AfroBriton, eschews a documentary approach, in his answer, by telling the story of the Morecambe Bay death in 2004 of 23 Chinese immigrants who drowned off the coast of England mythically—interweaving the Chinese legend of Mazu, the goddess protector of fishermen and sailors, with that of the 1934 silent film, The Goddess, a woman who became a prostitute to support her son, in an ocean-swelling multi-sensory installation environment. Neal suggests film may be the most effective art form at bridging the prison house of identity art, because it dematerializes the viewer's subject position, the single viewer's gaze. Being "enveloped in darkness" destroys the boundaries of our perception of a Diaspora not unlike the African one of labor, poverty, and sexual exploitation. Darkness becomes a metaphor for freedom to reconstruct one's attachments, one's longings, ultimately, one's desires, with the ocean values that sweep over us like an aesthetic sea. (This article appears in the right column of the homepage.)
Anjuli Lebowitz's "Telling the Story of the Eye," expands our taken-for-granted notion of what constitutes African American art. Here, there is no question of a Negro artist or essentialist notions of who and what is a Negro art, but rather the essentialism of abolitionist democracy that, in effect, could only access the tragedy of rape through the lens of miscegenation and its outcomes − mixed race slave children labeled "white." The visual unveils the moral the sin at the heart of antebellum Southern paternalism. Lebowitz's article suggests photography arrived in the 19th century just in time to expose the hypocrisy in both Northern and Southern approaches to the Negro. (This article appears in the right column of the homepage.)
Rachel Tolano's article on photography and The Negro in Chicago publication on the 1919 race riot reveals a different kind of documentary politics− how photographs, almost snapshots of the riot, anchor our understanding of one of the signature events in twentieth century racial history. Here, the gaze of that of the modern urban sociological imagination rather than nineteenth century sentimentalism. Tolano's analysis suggests that Charles S. Johnson’s sociological narrative was really caption to these photographs, texts to texts, with the originating photographs emerging as the far more complex and rich texts than the words fumbled with to capture an horrific event. Tolano's analysis of the placement and employment of the photographs reminds us that a couple of years later, Johnson emerged as a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, where his aesthetic facility in playing image and text off of one another enabled him as editor to leapfrog Opportunity Magazine over The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Indeed, Opportunity under Johnson even challenged the supremacy of the Survey Graphic in making the sociology of the period graphic. Tolano's article on The Negro in Chicago contains some clues why. (Upcoming article.)
Julia Neal's article on Benjamin Patterson, the enigmatic black member of the radical mid-20th century art movement, Fluxus, breaks the usual canon of "African American art" to interrogate deeply the work of an African American artist who refused to produce art that could be called racial. Trained as a classical musician, but repeatedly refused work in American orchestras, even that of the liberal Leopold Stokowski, because of racial segregation, Patterson became a radical experimentalist on a trip abroad that took him to Cologne and into the company of such musicians as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and George Brecht. Benjamin's Variations for Double Bass was, along with Philip Corner's Piano Piece, the opening act for George Maciunas's early Fluxus performances in Germany. Benjamin's beating of a cello with various objects and eventually turning it on its spindly neck did not just attack classical musical form− it rendered the bass completely useless as a means of producing "high culture." Excoriating any reference to race in his work, Benjamin used a series of "Happenings"-like stage performance to show the utter ridiculousness of the claim to high-mindedness of aestheticism by producing culture as nonsense.
Using music as "a painter's palette," according to Neal, Patterson suggested that his audience try and hear the aesthetic rather than simply visualize it. Flipping the bass upon its neck, creating games of art between people and objects, choreographing a dance that was impossible to follow all disrupted the reverence for art held by Harlem Renaissance artists earlier in the century. Benjamin Patterson's work was not overtly racial− but its underpinnings were, as Neal's personal interview with the artist seems to suggest. He refused to be the "black artist," but deconstructed the claims to universality by the defenders of the "Art" in a series of performances that became scintillating acts of aesthetic honesty. By bringing this little known innovator of the Fluxus art movement into the discussion of African American art, Neal suggests he was more than a highly idiosyncratic performer − he was an artist who was "revealing" what was "concealed within charged emblems of culture." Her work opens up the possible study of migratory black artists as the unseen, and in some respects un-validated leaders of artistic movements defined as white in traditional art history. (Upcoming article.)
Melanee Harvey's "When Our Brushes Shook" shifts our attention from photography and performance pieces to painting; but she refines our sense that black aesthetics incorporates an intellectual history of trauma and triumph over disasters, natural and human. Harvey's article raises a fundamental question − what is the special calling of the self-consciously black artist who does not descend into essentialism or special pleading? Harvey's answer is the art of the Caribbean disaster, and especially Haiti, where art performs a universal function − that of catharsis, reflexivity, and rebirth. In her article, art emerges as a kind of diaspora − a metanarrative of movement away from pain and toward reconstruction of the subject through art and exhibition. "When Our Brushes Shook" also suggests that there is a particular exhibitionary complex operating in the display of art that sings the AfroDiasporic blues of black humanity. Such exhibitions teach us how peoples reclaim their lives after being devastated by natural and human disasters, and teach the viewer how to empathize with them. Seeing their struggles scripted in powerful paintings teaches us how they define their humanity− and how we should define ours. That exhibitionary complex is not that far away from what Lebowitz suggested earlier −the use of the image to inspire the viewer to take action, to participate, dialogically, in creating a different tomorrow. (Upcoming article.)
Youth prompts us to begin again −to question of the boundaries of our gaze, to problematize the implicated Other of our art, and to dematerialize our own subject positions as critics and scholars to dialogue with people through art. The former slave becomes a work of art--but also a discarded migrant in our moral imagination. The documentary becomes the text, and the anti-art becomes the hands of a Diasporic musician that attack music for its collusion with modern-day slavery. The Chinese immigrant becomes the 21st century bearer of labor and post-imperialism, but also the sexual icon of the Asian Goddess who serves. Black performativity has been unleashed in these articles from its bounds of merely interrogating the black subject to constructing a new one − the 21st century subject immersed in the struggle for freedom, then and now, who learns how to navigate those treacherous waters with an aesthetic as well as a moral compass.
Jeffrey C. Stewart, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara