Why Black American Art Matters Right Now

Image by jurien huggins.

In the mid-twentieth century, when American art first became internationally significant, Marxist-based theorizing was extremely important. The two leading critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Shapiro, the most important art historian who took an interest in contemporary art, all came from the depression-era New York communist milieu. And often their successors also adopted leftist theorizing. In the 1970s, T. J. Clark, the most influential young art historian, was a member of Guy Debord’s Situationalist International. And the very important academic journal October, founded in 1976, which was named for Eisenstein’s film about the October Soviet Revolution, extended Greenberg’s influence.

One influential Octoberist presented a stark opposition between the ‘good’ politically critical works and the ‘bad’ conformist art. But the curators and collectors made no such distinctions. And so inevitably these critics’ political worldviews appear safely isolated from practice, the Marxist theorizing just a way to promote works which they admired. Since much admired contemporary artworks inevitably became property of the very wealthy or the best endowed museums, there was an obvious conflict between this leftist politics and art world life. For several generations, new artistic movements appear, and the canon was repeatedly radically revised, but these basic ways of thinking were not revised. On reflection, that’s maybe unsurprising, for isolation of criticism from commercial practice meant that it had no consequences.

Just recently, however, that situation has changed drastically in an entirely unexpected way. When I started publishing criticism in 1980, almost all of the art I saw and wrote about in New York was by white men. The many Black artists were not prominently discussed. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1997 that I first reviewed a Black artist’s show. Starting soon after World War Two the American armed forces were integrated – to use that old fashioned verb. And then Black players appeared in Major League baseball and African-American stars in opera. But the art world, which took a while to support women, was very slow to support Black people. In the past couple of years, however, in a long overdue development rather suddenly that has changed. Black artists (many of them not young), curators, writers and even collectors are in the news. And the theorizing of Greenberg and his successors at October has been entirely superseded.

There are two familiar opposed ways of understanding contemporary art, both originally creations of early modern German philosophy. Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgment (1790) offered a universal theory of aesthetic experience. What defined Enlightenment culture, Kant argued, was the capacity to be self-critical. His theorizing was the source of Greenberg’s wildly influential distinction between old master art, which merely presents its subjects, and modernism, which does that self-critically. And G. W. F. Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1820s) presented an historicist analysis of art as cultural expression. For Hegel, art expresses the philosophical, political and religious values of its culture. The artworks of Egypt, ancient Greece, medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Golden Age Holland and modern Germany differ, because these societies had different worldviews.

It may seem strange to appeal to Hegel for discussion of contemporary American Black art, for all of his examples are all Euro-centric. (Egypt inaugurates European tradition.) But in the mid-nineteenth-century Ernest Fenollosa discussed Japanese art in Hegelian terms. Any culture may express itself in its art. The most important amendment to Hegelian theorizing is W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which relates the much discussed analysis of the master/slave relationship, from The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), to the double consciousness of African-American culture. The slave works at the direction of the master, who appropriates the products of his labor. And because the slave works, he achieves a real advance in self-consciousness, and so dialectically eventually triumphs over the master. It’s not clear whether Hegel describes slavery in Greek antiquity, or in the modern world; or, indeed, whether he had any historical period in mind. Indeed, Marx found here a prescient description of the proletariat’s triumph in the future communist revolution. The American Black, Du Bois wrote, has “no true self-consciousness,” but is always looking at himself “through the eyes of others. . . The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.” And so: “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.”

Du Bois’ analysis suggests how to theorize our art world. Because African-Americans have a highly distinctive history and social position, they express themselves by making distinctive visual art. And so their goal, then, is to synthesize their experience as Blacks and as American artists. There are two ways that someone can know what it is to be Black in America. They can read the vast literature, look at the relevant films, listen to the appropriate music and talk with Black people. Or they can be Black. Any philosopher can understand Du Bois’ Hegelian analysis. But obviously there is a difference between grasping that argument and being aware of its implications directly. And so one goal of criticism is, if possible, to bridge this gap for the Black and non-Black publics.

Affirmative action was concerned to promote people according to ability, paying special attention to traditionally underrepresented groups. That Kantian way of thinking was in principle blind to race and gender. If, however, we accept Du Bois’s argument, then there is more to the story. Anyone can understand any culture. But that said, as the discussion of double consciousness underlines, there is a difference between being inside and outside of a culture. And so there is an unavoidable tension in our theorizing about contemporary art. Cultural expression matters. And there is a certain universality to art, because anyone can, perhaps only with strenuous effort, understand any art from anywhere. At the start of The Story of Art (1950) Ernst Gombrich, who was an anti-Hegelian, says that there is no such thing as ‘Art’, but only artists. But then of course he proceeds to tell the story of art. Might his procedure provide a useful guide in our fascinating, conceptually complex situation?

Here I am all too conscious of the vast distance between my abstract philosophical account and everyday experience. How can recognition of the multiplicity of selves identified by Du Bois function in the practice of art criticism or the life of the art world? And what are the larger political consequences of this way of thinking? To these important questions, I have as yet no answers. But I do see that right now contemporary Black art matters.

*The quotation is from W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). This essay was inspired by the discussion of Du Bois in Malcolm Bull, Seeing Things Hidden. Apocalypse, Vision and Totality (1999). I thank Marianne Novy, Seph Rodney and Barry Schwabsky for criticism of earlier drafts.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.