“Black Artists, Collectors, and the new Black Art Boon–What’s to Come of This?” by Debra Hand
By Debra Hand
In the mainstream art world, Black artists are in. Mega Galleries boast their names like luxury brands. Auction records are being broken. Museums are breaking attendance records with their exhibits, and international biennales/art fairs are proudly showcasing their works. Major art magazines, once unconcerned with the subject, now trumpet the subject as if they’re experts.
It’s natural for Black people to want to celebrate this sudden inclusion, and to believe real progress is finally being made. After all, Black artists are now being seen and awarded on the highest levels of the art world.
But, to borrow a phrase from the late great poet, Oscar Brown, Jr., “What’s to come of this?”
Don’t get me wrong. I, too, celebrate this change! I’m happy to see this sudden and tremendous shift of attention beamed on Black creativity. There is nothing so beautiful as the ways in which Black people improvise something from nothing, and that long-perfected skill deserves to be included on the forefront of art history. But I celebrate this merger only to the extent that it will serve Black culture constructively. Where it will undermine it, we must remain vigilant. So, as we move forward into this newfound fame, let’s also be clear on the entire picture.
I’m sure that anyone familiar with the mainstream artworld would agree that this cordoned-off ecosystem of high stakes investors and gatekeepers is far from perfect.
As is, it is the least place to rely upon for creating or distributing moral or social consciousness—the two things that are critical to maintaining Black culture. It is well known that the mainstream artworld is a place where greed runs amok, and where literally “garbage” can be sold for millions—fattening the pockets of wine and cheese chomping investors—while Rome burns in the background.
So, if you’re trying to change the world through art, contribute to the sustaining of Black culture, or if you’re looking for a place to expand your social consciousness, looking to the mainstream artworld is equivalent to looking to a chain of big-box stores for spiritual guidance. The stores can certainly sell you a book or two about expanding your consciousness, but their one and only goal is to sell you that book for a profit—not to help build your character, culture, or anything else. During the business transaction, your well-being doesn’t factor into the deal whatsoever, and they couldn’t care less what happens to you and your relationships after that book is delivered. This is not to say that everyone in the mainstream artworld is operating from a place of greed. There are many who are working to change the world through art, but they are also up against these same forces.
By and large, the well-being of Black culture will not factor into the increasing profits generated by the increased sales of Black art in the mainstream artworld. In this mega-market, Black art is largely nothing more than a new category of commodity, and the marketing campaigns are already being written and pumped into mainstream consciousness. Black collectors are already being told which Black artists are most relevant and worthy of their attention. Yes, the experts have spoken.
How is it that Black collectors are not the ones leading these conversations and making those calls?
How are Black collectors NOT being consulted as the experts on what represents them culturally, socially, politically, etc. The answer is simple. This is how business works, and the mainstream artworld on each and every level is a business. The ones who build the stores get to label, market, and sell the products their way. Matter of fact, they get to influence what gets made in the future because big profits generated by one product encourage copycat producers.
Pretty soon, copycats and knock-offs saturate the market with no further thought given to the original creator. Sounds familiar? Think Black music. And that’s the stage Black art is entering within the mainstream art world. But can Black culture endure another blow like this? And how can Black collectors maintain the lead they have now?
There are some Black collectors who have long been out here, establishing platforms that promote the virtues and importance of Black art as a component of culture. Collectors like Joan Crisler, Pamela Joyner, Daniel Parker, or groups like Diasporal Rhythms have long done the work of building the protective barrier reefs needed to maintain the cultural ecosystem, and to keep Black artists afloat.
These are the kinds of collectors who understand that, for us, the collecting of Black art must be more than instruments of investment or business ventures. Black art has (and always must) serve us culturally. It is a direct reflection of where we’ve come from and how we’ve come through it. Black art is a creative byproduct of our survival and existence. Our collective creativity is literally an artifact of our journey through America.
If we allow Black art to be reduced to nothing more than a big-box commodity, we will lose part of the foundation that upholds us culturally.
Black art should always mean more to us than merely a quick profit. We should continue to support Black artists, to revere their processes of free-form imagination and creativity. We should continue to applaud artistic skill building, and the expressing of our humanity through collecting our stories, and passing along vital perspectives as a means of sustaining ourselves through the American experience. Our sacred rituals of creative expression should not be sacrificed in order to go running after the promise of rising price tags in the mainstream artworld.
Leaving behind our true creativity to chase price tags set by others, or to fit in with their ideals of what great art should look like, is a price too high for us to recover from in the end.
I once saw Harry Belafonte speak. He talked about his close friend Martin Luther King, Jr. and how MLK, when considering the imminence of integration, said, “I’m afraid we’re integrating into a burning house.” Harry Belafonte asked, “Well, what should we do?” MLK’s reply: “I guess we’ll just have to become firemen.”
What I hear in those words is this: We don’t have to just proceed into the destructive scenario that exists and allow ourselves to become consumed by it. We can proceed into the situation, carrying the tools necessary to not only protect ourselves, but to also affect change. We can take culture with us, rather than be told to check it at the door while the mainstream artworld takes over the narrative from here on.
Unless Black artists and collectors move forward with intention, inclusion by the mainstream (predominantly White-male-run) artworld will quickly become “dominance” of Black art by the (predominantly White-male-run) artworld. And the mainstream artworld will eventually be deciding what Black art should be, rather than Black art evolving organically from the concerns, perspectives, and creativity of Black artists, Black collectors, and Black culture. And if you think the mainstream artworld’s version of Black humanity will be uplifting, here’s something to consider: After more than 400 years of being in America, Black art and Black artists are just being considered worthy enough to join the club.
Trust me, the mainstream artworld is the least trained at understanding our value as humans, let alone our artistic masters and the complexities of Black culture.
There is already a trend developing where a lot of Black art being sought after represents a disfigurement of the Black image. There seems to be a preference for images, not of Black Beauty, but rather for contorted images that say, “This is how you said I looked to you. Isn’t it awful?” Perhaps this acts to relieve some sort of guilt in the mainstream artworld, to invite Black artists to let it out, and to say out loud to them that “You demeaned us with Black face, and here are some replicas of the images you made of us.”
Of course it’s awful how we’ve been treated. Of course Black face was horrible and our images have been utterly demeaned historically in America. But we have the paintbrush now. Their narrative said we were sub-human. Now it is our turn to tell the story. Should our narrative be only about what their horrid narrative of us was? Or should we be concerned with promoting our truth? If so, what is that truth, and how can that truth help us become stronger as a cultural group? There must be something we can create that is not just a reenactment of the monstrous mirrors they once crammed our images and narratives into.
If disfiguring the Black image was their tradition, then dis-configuring those untruths needs to be ours—especially as we enter into the mainstream artworld as artists, collectors, and investors.
I will say these two things over and over because it’s so important to understand. One: The business of art and the business of maintaining Black culture are two very different things, even when these two activities overlap. Two: Art is the connective tissue of Black culture. In an article years ago, I compared someone telling you what art you should appreciate to someone trying to tell you what music you should love. Some choices we get to make should remain sacred. Art is one of those choices.
If our artistic ideals don’t emerge from us, but rather are dictated to us from the outside, then we are no longer sustaining our own culture. Instead, our artists are reduced to mere idea generators for every other cultural group, including the manufacturing of world culture, while we remain outsiders to the billion-dollar industries created by those ideas.
Even in places like Bhutan, where a boy of previous generations would have been on a fast track to a life in the monastery as a Bhutanese monk, you can now find him as a teen on the city streets, grouped together with his hoodie comrades engaged in fierce dance and Rap battles made from dance moves and cadences straight outta Compton, the Bronx, Bronzeville, or any number of Black communities. Black culture is the most dominate culture adopted on a worldwide basis. Rap has even been invoked in the attempted overthrow of dictatorships.
All of today’s pop music is merely a hodgepodge of R&B, blues, rap, and funk. With R&B and jazz having also begotten the world of rock & roll along the way. Just as all of these musical forms, including country and gospel, can have their roots traced back to Negro spirituals, so, too, can we trace Black music to its place in Black culture as a functional component of our survival—of keeping us together as a cultural collective and uniting us through the challenges of being Black in America.
Black music, evermore a staple of Black culture, also once had as its primary goal the service and upliftment of Black culture. As a component of Black culture, Black music functioned on a much deeper level than our artists creating merely for the purpose of pursuing Grammys and certified platinum records. It led us through Civil Rights marches, comforted us through horrific loss, united us in common struggle, and renewed us for the protests ahead. However, the merging of Black music into mainstream culture came with a price.
The pursuit of prizes, profits, and accolades can quickly obscure an artist’s vision. Controlled by others, Black music became gradually contorted into an art form that, although in part remains elevated by devoted Black artists still working to serve Black culture, there also remains whole other genres of Black music that are working to destroy it as a source of strength. By and large, the greatest investors and profiteers of that music are non-Black. What saves us culturally and keeps a balance in check are the artists and producers who have not defected for the sake of money only.
As price tags skyrocket for paintings and sculptures by Black artists—and as the prizes and awards are dangled by the mainstream artworld—will we, as artists and collectors, remain devoted to preserving and sustaining our culture? Or will we be lured along the path of chasing prizes, name brands, and money to the point where our greatest artists are left to starve while the ones willing to contort our images into savage caricatures (for the musings of outsiders) collect million-dollar laced doggy treats for their performances?
The question is, will the conscious Black collectors remain devoted to the upliftment and sustainability of culture?
Now that the mainstream artworld is opening to them and the chances for external validation increases for Black visual artists and collectors, what will be the price to us as a cultural collective? How will Black culture be affected? Right now Black art is still a sacred part of Black culture. Today, Black artists survive because Black collectors continue to purchase the works they love, works that reflect their stories and sensibilities. The mainstream artworld did not want these works, so, up until now, Black art has remained authentic and “unco-opted” by the greed that is prevalent in the mainstream artworld. But now Black art is taking center stage.
Again: “What’s to come of this?” Perhaps we should take a moment to think about the parts we want to play in the answer to this profound question. We already know how this could play out. As mentioned in “Black Artists and Collectors Are Facing Their Most Critical Decision in American Art History by Debra Hand,” we’ve seen this play out many times before with Black music, Black dance, and Black fashion.
We see the effects every single day: White dancers pop-locking their way across the TV screen to the booming beats of rap songs while corporations advertise everything from cell phones, car insurance, and back-to-school kids clothes. And YouTube simply will not allow you to enjoy a clip of a Black performer without using the popularity of that artist’s work to first force-feed you 2-3 commercials of White people smiling and pushing products. If you click-on Tupac’s video “All Eyez on Me,” YouTube will first divert all those “eyez” to dish soap ads and the like. In the afterlife, Tupac remains in forced-labor. On a non-stop basis, YouTube and Tik Tok supply the world a steady and bountiful banquet of Black artistry to feast on while Black artists starve.
In the mainstream art world, luxury status is being imbued on Black art because this is a world where anything that can generate large sums of money gets added to the list as a commodity. Even a major auction house is advertising sneaker drops and streetwear. So, “What’s to come of this?” We’ve seen the answer before. We just haven’t yet seen it with our visual arts, but now we will…unless Black artists and collectors simply refuse to defect.
If Black artists and collectors can remain committed to culture, the deciding factor of Black culture will remain Black people, rather than those who have no moral or conscious stake in the culture and who couldn’t care less about Black culture beyond the profits potentially generated for their shareholders.
Black artists and collectors can remain committed to culture by remaining authentic. If Black collectors start only buying art based on which artists are moving up in White circles, or in the mainstream artworld, both Black artists and Black culture are in trouble. Artists need collectors to fight for our authenticity and creativity. Artists need collectors to continue buying what they love and taking a stand on their right to collect what they love. Don’t let someone who doesn’t understand you culturally tell you what you should love or want.
If we start only creating or collecting based on what might sell in the mainstream artworld, especially based on what is selling there today, we will quickly lose the most authentic expressions of “us” that we have left.
So collectors please, don’t get swept off your square by this tide. Black artists can still be successful in the mainstream artworld without losing themselves. Those works will most likely be presented to you first, because they will flow first from local studios and art shows. Keep buying what you love and encouraging Black artists to create authentically. Respect their contributions, creativity, and their prices, just as you would if a mega-dealer were presenting them to you. Visit Black galleries, art fairs, and museums. Think of culture as—not just a place that feeds you—but also a place to give back to. It’s only fair that each of us bring a dish to the table we have feasted the most from.
Think of creating and collecting as a cultural activity, rather than an investment activity, and we’ll be able to complete this merger with the mainstream artworld without selling out our culture or leaving behind its true function in the process.
As always, Thank YOU for reading. We would love to hear your comments in the comments section below.
Here is another important article on this subject: Black Artists and Collectors Are Facing Their Most Critical Decision in American Art History by Debra Hand
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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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