Black Art: Ghettoizing Art or Creating Space?
By Shantay Robinson
Since African Americans have been creating art they could retain credit for, there has been the controversial moniker, “black art,” attached to their work. While many artists throughout time have pleaded for the art establishment to recognize them as American artists and not black artists, the label black art still floats widely throughout conversations about art that is created by African American artists. Though scholars and writers have used the term black art to describe the artwork of African American artists, there are also those who think just because an artist is black doesn’t mean they are creating black art. When we think about landscapes, abstract sculptures, and other works that are not overtly figurative, there is the question of whether or not the label black art is appropriate. In conversation with other art scholars there is disagreement on whether the label should be used at all. Some scholars believe that black art is distinctly a thing, while others feel like the label limits. What is black art? When a professor states, “Oh, you’re creating black art” what does that mean? And is that proclamation different from the museum and gallery exhibition spaces that use the term to designate space exclusive for black artists?
Dependent upon who is doing the defining seems to determine whether the term black art is derogatory or not. When in conversation with an art professional, he likened adopting the term black art as similar to black people manipulating the word nigga. While there are some similarities between the appropriation of the word nigga and the term black art, I argue there is more to the term than meets the eye. Adopting the term black art to describe particular works by African American artists allows for some definition of the kind of artwork being displayed or discussed. Similar to the word nigga, the term black art has been used by the art establishment to dismiss or diminish the work of African American artists, as white people have altered the word Negus to demean black people as ignorant. Appropriating the word nigga, allows people to use the term to become akin with other black people and create sacred space. Much like the word nigga, black art allows for the creation of sacred space for black artists to share works that relate to or relay the African American experience. There are still many African Americans who think the appropriation of the word nigga is vulgar at the least. They don’t believe that using the word empowers black people. But doesn’t using the term black art activate space for black artists to thrive with their own particular attributes in consideration?
Though it is thought that not all black artists create black art, in order to really understand how space is activated for black artists we need to consider what black art actually is. Is black art essentially different from art by Europeans or white Americans? What are we calling black art? Is it art by Africans throughout the Diaspora? Should black art of the U.S. be lumped together with African art or art from throughout the African Diaspora? Is it necessary to categorize black art in order to make space for it in the larger artworld? Does making space for black art bastardize and ghettoize black artists? Is black art simply art made by black artists? Would a label similar to other cultures like Asian, Latinx, or folk art be similar in the ways that they describe particular art movements? Is black art a separate category of art and would the artists that belong to this category also be able to fit into other art categories? Are we speaking of black art by black artists whose work function in similar ways? Is black art speaking to and of the black experience? Who would be considered a black artist and why? Before we dismiss the term black art as useless and demeaning, it is essential to understand what is meant when the term is used.
When the first black artists to practice professionally in the United States began creating artworks, their patrons were largely white abolitionists. Edward Mitchell Bannister and Robert S. Duncanson catered to their audience by painting commissioned portraits and landscapes. To describe them as black artists would be describing their race more than it would be describing their artwork. They didn’t create work that reflected the black experience. An artist like Henry Ossawa Tanner who practiced several years after might be considered an artist who created black art because his paintings depicted life of black people in the U.S. Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, like Aaron Douglas, were encouraged by Alain Locke to speak to the black experience, and so artists coming out of that time created artworks that spoke particularly of black life. Artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and rose to fame because their works were particularly black. While many black artists were reacting to and creating art based in the black experience, they also wanted to be considered American artists because at the time, efforts were made to discredit their ability to create art at the level of the greatest white artists and exclude them from public exhibition spaces. The term black artist was used to separate them from the larger art establishment. Before the 1960s the term black art was primarily used pejoratively, but during the Black Power Movement black artists embraced the term black art to identify themselves as distinctly different from the work of white artists. Art created during The Black Arts Movement was radically different from the art being created in the larger art establishment. Black artists were practicing art that spoke loudly and unapologetically of and to the black experience.
Moving into contemporary times the term black art has been embraced by many cultural producers in an effort to create a space for the work of a variety of black artists. But in many cases the term black art is used to identify the race of the artists in the exhibition. This is, in effect, a ghettoization of black art. To lump artists together based on their race without looking at the art they are creating does not give enough credit to the work. But to concede that there is something significant about the traditions that black artist work in is empowering. It allows connections to be made in the curating process that make for meaning about black art. While the term is still under consternation, the term allows us to curate exhibitions of artists who exist below the radar of the art establishment and who work in similar ways. This is not to say that black artists intrinsically share commonalities. But many do work in particular traditions that are historically black relating to spirituality, culture, and history. The subject matter of many black artists allows them to be curated with like artworks. Though some African American artists work in particular traditions, some African American artists do not produce black art. Ideologically some works of black artists fit with other works of black artists.
While it wasn’t the intention of early African American artists to have their work categorized as black art, perhaps the work actually shouldn’t be considered black art. Perhaps Bannister and Duncanson should belong to another group of artists relating to different or more European aesthetics. But when we think about Tanner, there are ways to relate him to other African American artists. And while Tanner could be displayed in exhibition with other African American artists, his work is not so singular that it could not be displayed alongside his European or white American contemporaries. The reason art history and art criticism were developed was to categorize and make sense of art. Though black art is depicted as such for categorical purposes, the categorization should be based on the art, not race. When categorizing black art, the purpose should be to look at the subject matter, themes, or other particular determinants in order to establish if the art is really speaking to and of the black experience. Of course, there is no monolithic black experience. The work within the category of black art will vary significantly but what they have in common is their relation to black people and the black experience.
Although the term black art might have emerged from a demeaning and discriminatory sort of categorization, the climate of the country at other times were a bit different from what we are experiencing now. Though many things are the same in terms of racism, discrimination is less overt. Black people are able to visit any art museum they would like to visit whereas in the past that was not the case. Today, there are exhibitions and efforts from museums to cater to black audiences especially in cities with large black populations. And while this is true, and many museum staffs are only now being integrated with employees of varied races, there is still work to do. And part of that work requires thinking about black art and what that means. How and why is it okay to have an exhibition of artworks by black artists? What curatorial efforts go into black art exhibitions aside from determining whether the artist is black or not?
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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