Morrison: “Art Criticism: A Pan-African Point of View”
New Art Examiner, 1978
Reprinted in: “30 years of the New Art Examiner,”
Northern Illinois University, publisher, 2011,
Funded by the NEA
ART CRITICISM: A PAN-AFRICAN POINT OF VIEW
by Keith Morrison
Are there ideas native to Black artists that critics overlook? The question has been asked many times before but the answers have not led to change that the overwhelming number of Black artists would consider to be even remotely satisfactory. The shortage of published criticism of the works of Black artists would lead to the assumption that there are no art ideas—no aesthetic tradition characteristic of Black people and that therefore, that which is commonly known and written about a handful of Black artists is all that needs to be known. Because of the assumed absence of a Black art character, most critics have felt free to judge Black artists, according to the traditions of American-European art criticism.
The problem is that there continues to be no consistent publication of art criticism in major art journals written by Black critics, interested in art from a Black person’s perspective. No doubt, White critics have the ability to write about ideas’ that relate to Black culture, but very few have the interest.
A recent article in the Village Voice (Sept. 11, 1978, p. 113) explores the effects of this problem, by pointing to the continued scarcity of exposure of art by Blacks and stating that less than half a dozen Blacks are spread among the best known New York galleries. The author, April Kingsley, states that “the majority of the recent work that I’ve seen by Black artists is powerful.” Ms. Kingsley comments on the great number of major Black artists who are without a gallery anywhere and states bluntly that as good as their work is, no one will care until it is shown at Marlborough, Emmerich or Tibor de Nagy. In speaking of sculptor Mel Edwards, she states that “Nothing comparable to Edwards’ dense, masklike reliefs out of welded tool and automobile parts has been done since the early work of David Smith, and there is no counterpart to the rhythmic coordination of counter-balanced masses in his large sculptures, with their intimation of vernacular architecture despite the level of their means. Most work in this vein (by Michael Steiner, Joel Pearlman and Tony Rosenthal, for example) is technically good, formally pleasing, but emotionally empty. Edwards’ work, however; is rich in metaphor, implication, and connotation, with no loss of plastic vigor.”
And so the article goes on, cataloging many Black artists without critical or gallery support. What is the reason or reasons for this disinterest in what Black artists do? It is racism (conscious or subconscious) to be sure, but it is also more than that. I believe that much of the reason lies in the fundamental assumptions underlying the very basis of art criticism. The assumptions have to do with the notion that art is culture-free, and it is these assumptions that have led to an inadequacy of modern American art criticism.
I believe that all art, including “Modern Art,” is culturally based and that will probably seem absurd to the great multitude who have been indoctrinated with the notion that all great art is “universal.” I wish to challenge this doctrine of universality since I do not believe that it is based on universal evidence: It seems to me that what is called universal is most often a cultural dominance, rather than synthesis of two or more cultures. American and European-controlled art publications commonly hold that Michelangelo and Picasso are universal, though nobody has bothered to ask the Eskimo whether he agreed. And, of course, so-called “modern art criticism” (a term that is full of arrogant implications) is based on traditions and reactions to Western art criticism and culture.
Any art history book makes this point excruciatingly clear. I mean, does it not seem an odd coincidence that no non-Western artist is among the most famous one thousand artists you ever heard of? Does it not seem an odd coincidence that the only non-Western cultures to make good art are either dead cultures or ones that are economically poor and politically non-threatening? Does it not seem an odd coincidence that no non-Western people alive today can produce art that is as good as American or European art? When was the last time that you saw a contemporary Pakistani artist on the cover of Art News? Obviously, God in his infinite wisdom has bestowed all of the world’s talent on White people.
Modern art criticism continues to ignore the horrendous fact that it is fundamentally White art criticism—and mostly middle-class White male at that. A few respected critics such as Lucy Lippard (see Changing Dutton, NY, 1971) and Amy Goldin (see “American art history has been called elitist, racist and sexist. The charges stick,” Art News, April 1975 pp. 48-51) have been writing against the tide, but the ocean of modern art criticism continues to flow. One is left with the realization that our Western critical framework does not provide for a comprehensive understanding of the values of the Black artist.
So I dismiss the notion of universality as being unworkable or, at best, premature. I submit instead what seems to me to be a more workable hypothesis, the idea that art exists essentially in a cultural content.
I do not use the word culture in the strictest Margaret Mead (bless her!) sense, since few if any people continue to live in the same total isolation of yesterday’s Samoa. Nowadays, there is obviously much cross-cultural fertilization and neutralization throughout the world. So what I mean by “culture” are the remnants of culture that continue to set groups of peoples apart. These remnants of culture continue to provide substance for artistic differences in points of view and aesthetic sensibility and “taste.”
Aesthetics, of course, is not taste, but that branch of philosophy that analyzes the nature of taste. Principles of aesthetics may be universal but taste is regional or cultural. From their own cultural contexts people involve themselves in matters of aesthetics; the hierarchy of preferences that they evolve is what is considered taste. The phenomenon of describing and analyzing taste is what we call art criticism.
Art criticism—unlike aesthetics—must be made useful. Art criticism has no value unless it is meaningful to the culture as a whole. Art criticism must therefore describe objects in a broad enough way so that a large group of people or a culture as a whole can find the description useful. This is because the ultimate aim of art criticism is to promote ideas for the artists and audience of a culture to act upon.
It should therefore seem that I consider art criticism to be an aspect of sociology, and I do. However, sociology in its broadest sense is a passive science, the analysis of systems of how people behave. But art criticism is not passive, neither is it a science. Instead, it is a culturally biased construct designed to elucidate points of view that are of central interest to the cultural values of its origin. Rather than being sociology, art criticism is a social activity and as such it is an aspect of politics.
When I say that art criticism is an aspect of politics, I do not mean that it is the result of an elected mandate, but that it is a public (rather than private) function and that it is useless unless it promotes a point of view that can have a common meaning for a large group of people or a culture as a whole. Further, I should distinguish between art criticism and propaganda (although it is often difficult to tell them apart). Art criticism is honest interpretation of relationships between art objects and a culture’s values: propaganda is a willful distortion of that relationship.
Yet it is obvious that we live in a time when most cultures are aware of one another and of their influences upon one another, and this, of course, has come about because of the facilities of modern communication and because of the analyses of modern sociology. But in spite of the modern factors that have caused cross-cultural fertilization, the impact of many cultural differences remains dramatically evident in many aspects of life and art. Although modern communication would suggest that a synthesis of art—at least abstract art (but more on that later)—should come about, and that a universal art could be achieved, this has clearly not been the case, judging from the limitations of our dominant critical framework over the last one hundred years.
For example, the 19th century French artists were strongly influenced by aspects of Japanese prints that relate to flat space, color and composition cropping similar to the then-emerging art of photography. In other words, the 19th century French were interested in the Japanese print to the extent that French and Japanese cultural values coincided. However, there remained many aspects of Japanese art to which French art criticism was apathetic. And of course, some of the art ideas that they had in common they each used for quite different reasons. Certainly, the spatial characteristics of the Japanese woodcut did not result from an interest in light and photography.
A similar analogy is found in how Western Africanists such as William Fagg have interpreted West African objects as “cubist” sculpture, or in how just about every major Western art critic, following in the context of Braque and Picasso, have put West African objects on the static pedestal to be viewed like a traditional European statue. It is only with the recent interpretations of scholars such as Robert Ferris Thompson’s African Art in Motion (U.C.L.A. Press, 1974), that African objects have been written about in an African context.
I am saying that European art criticism has been self-centered. However, this is neither unusual nor undesirable—if you are European. To the contrary, history suggests that ethnocentric art interpretation is not only the norm but an apparent prerequisite for definition of a culture’s character. The Renaissance greatly admired Greek art but redefined it to fit aspirations of 16th century Italy. Michelangelo turned Greek realist images into super-Christian figures and Raphael turned a pagan Aphrodite into the Holy Virgin. In the 19th century, Gauguin’s visions of the South Seas were really an imposition of a European sensibility upon exotic subject matter.
Similarly, Americans built Washington D.C. according to their interpretations of the pure, white visage they fantasized to be the glory of ancient Greek architecture. They were ignorant of the fact that ancient Greek architecture (and sculpture) had been painted many bright colors and had jewel inlays, and that time had washed away the paint and thieves had stolen the jewels. It is a cruel joke of history that rain and thieves should have laid the foundation of the nation’s capitol.
It is bizarre to imagine the White House daubed with orange and blue paint, or the statues of Washington and Jefferson mired and gold with green inlay eyes. The notion ridicules the very image of North America and the structure of temperance and restraint upon which so much modern American art criticism is based. A red and green Thomas Jefferson would symbolize that the United States had become a pagan state. Nixon would resurrect Watergate and the Daughters of the American Revolution would stage a shootout. All of which is why the old concept is still maintained as the basis of much of America’s attitude toward art and thought, though North Americans now know what ancient Greek architecture and sculpture looked like. For the old concept fits better into the value structure that has been built than does the authenticity of history; America is America and Greece is Greece and ne’er the twain shall meet. I am not saying that American or European art criticisms are lies, but rather that they are designed to suit values of Americans or Europeans. And this is an attitude that would seem useful to any culture’s better understanding of itself.
As I have, implied, the art criticism of all cultures is self-serving and a culture’s tendency, to make its ideas dominant over other ones seems natural enough. It is this dominance-seeking nature that causes criticism of one culture to select from another and to put values of the exotic culture into a framework of its own. If I may paraphrase Voltaire, criticism is the Professor Pangloss of art for it allows us to rationalize our values as those which exist in the “best of all possible worlds.” Indeed, you can create for yourself a “best of all possible worlds” when you control all major art publications, movies, television and radio. With that kind of control you have the perfect guarantee that you can hear only what you wish to hear, whether this is what you intend or not.
I am not building a case for a White conspiracy, but for a better understanding of the causes of political and biased criticism which seems to be a natural condition of all cultures, even those cultures that are tolerant of other ones. We should note that tolerance and acceptance are not the same. For while it is easier to tolerate the presence of exotica as harmless objects, the interpretations of this exotica into a framework of art is a more formidable task. It is interpretation that is the dominant force that gives an object its definition as “art.” In other words, interpretation always falls within a cultural context, as Marcel Duchamp well recognized. For a urinal becomes art only in the context of a museum established by people who are preoccupied with the problem of whether art is form or function. And the problem of Duchamp and his urinal has been a regional problem, not a universal one. If artists in Uganda are interested in that problem, it is most probably because they have had to read Art News to pass courses in White American universities. If the editors and boards of governors and financiers of Art News and Art International were Black or Vietnamese, rest assured that the face of “universal” art criticism would not be painted just White but also Yellow and Black.
The overwhelming of one art criticism by another with more communications media control has been acceptable because people of different cultures lived farther apart in the past and had no reason or basis to test theories of cultural supremacy or universality. But in today’s world, when cultures have come in conflict, cultural comparisons and hypotheses about universality are put to the test. For the first time in history there are many different peoples with similar formal education and therefore a more meaningful basis upon which to test the existence of a truly universal hierarchy in art. Today, for the first time, the conditions widely exist for two persons with similar academic education but different cultural biases and political interests to look critically at the same art object and arrive at two different and equally valid kinds of criticisms about it.
Note that I have not said different in degree: I said different in kind. For at the heart of the matter is not simply whether an object might be interpreted as good or bad but whether it might be interpreted as art by one culture and be totally meaningless as art to another. The problem, therefore, has to do with recognition of pluralistic dialectics in art criticism.
It is at this juncture that recognition of some of the neglected values of Black art lies. Perhaps it is easier to understand this neglect in relation to figurative art. For example, an easy answer to the question of why American criticism has ignored Charles White might be that White people do not care to see the Black faces that he draws hanging on their walls. But the problem seems more subtle in relation to abstraction, since the assumption has been that abstraction is non-objective, without subject matter. The ultimate question, therefore, is whether an abstract shape can have different meaning to different cultural contexts. I believe that it can and does. I believe that what we perceive to be the non-objectivity of Mondrian is really our respect for a revelation of an ultimate Dutch formalist tradition. I believe with Duchamp that inside the White American-European museum his urinal becomes a formalist proposition and outside the museum it remains an ultimate symbol of malfeasance. Ironically, Duchamp’s urinal is more ”universal” outside the museum than within it. And so my proposition, of course, is yes, that abstract shapes can have different meanings to people, in different cultural contexts.
Many of the neglected aspects of Afro-American art are based on ideas which are used in a similar way by most Black artists throughout the world. This seems true in figurative art as well as in non-figurative, art, although I am writing only about non-figurative art. This common linkage is what I would call a Pan-African heritage since the obvious source, is Africa from which all Black people have come. And so by Pan-African I mean that which has been called the “Black Diaspora” or scattered existence of Blacks all over the world who share common cultural linkage.
If Pan-African abstraction has had no written identity in major publications it is only because it has riot had the means for its own advocacy. Pan-African abstraction has been invariably put into an American-European context rather than one of its own. This follows the tradition that says that the ideas of Saul Bellow or Jean Paul Sartre are truly universal but those of Richard Wright or Chinoa Achebe are regional, since Black life and experience lacks the potential for universal thought. In art, for example, during the 1930’s Elizabeth Catlett’s angular sculptures were said to have been derived from Picasso and both were interpreted in the context of a modern European art. From a Black person’s point of view, they both should have been put in a Pan-African framework for both of their ideas came from Africa. Black critics of the time, such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois exposed that kind of cultural distortion very eloquently. However, it should be noted that not all Black artists can be thought of in this way. For example, I am not aware of anything particularly “Pan-African” in the work of Richard Hunt or John Dowell. And of course Black artists are influenced by other ideas just as anyone else. I myself have been influenced by Stella, Kelly, Rothko and a host of European associations. So I make a case not for total reassessment, but for an art criticism that includes and gives parity to Pan-African characteristics.
As I said, I am here restricting my scope to abstract painting, though strong arguments could just as well be made for figurative painting, sculpture and other aspects of the visual arts. But space being limited, this abstract painting framework is presented merely as an example of the possibilities of a Pan-African character. The characteristics of Pan-African abstract painting that seem to me to be most pronounced have to do with the following four associations: silhouetted two-dimensional form; use of textile as direct means of expression; expressive pattern and a preoccupation with bright color. These categories are my own and are necessarily broad in a paper of this limited scope.
Early in this century, Afro-American artists realized that their works still retained strong African qualities, and coming out of the bitter disillusionment of reconstruction, Black artists agreed that they had to look to their African ancestry for identity. In the 1920’s and ’30’s, many Black thinkers and scholars articulated views that confirmed the idea of Africanness. A few of these were W. E. B. DuBois, James V. Herring and Alain Locke who were professors at Howard University, poet Langston Hughes and Hon. Leopold Senghor of Senegal who developed ideas about “Negritude.” Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, was perhaps the most prolific writer of that time on the subject of “Negro Art.” His articles appeared in many publications including the American Magazine of Art (Sept. 1931); Opportunity Magazine (Dec. 1925); Encyclopedia Britannica (14th and 15th eds.); and The Arts (Feb. 1927). However, it was in his landmark book, The New Negro (Boni, New York, 1925; reissued by Atheneum, 1969), that he developed a philosophy of art in which the concept of a “Black aesthetic” was first articulated. In his now classic essay in The New Negro, “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” Locke argued for an Afro-American aesthetic based on a return to an African legacy. Many Black artists and poets of the time had already been doing this and now they embraced their ideas with even more fervor.
To my mind, the most significant early return to Africanness in painting had to do with a redefinition of silhouetted form. Among the many artists of the 1920’s and ’30’s whose works characterize the early interest in two-dimensional silhouette were such artists as Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglass and Richmond Barthe (the latter in his relief sculptural forms). One could use Douglass’ art of the period as a model example of the idea of silhouetted form. This silhouette sensibility has, as its essence, flat shapes that appear as though they were shadows on a flat surface, relating to one another in lateral and horizontal patterns. The use of this kind of silhouetted form is something that Douglass mastered. In recent talks with Douglass, I was fascinated with his continuing fervor about the supremacy of what he referred to as Egyptian-type design. Like so many Black intellectuals, he continues to think of Egyptian ideas largely as indigenous African ideas.
This point of view is conspicuously absent from most White publications and an interesting Black response to it is Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization (Third World Press, Chicago, 1974). Black intellectuals are always symbolically conscious that the Nile flows north; that ideas as well as materials emptied into the Nile Valley from the Black South and across the Sahara from the Black East. Whites have so often written without serious regard for this fact and therefore without much recognition that Egyptian ideas might have more naturally traveled from the middle of Black Africa to the Nile Valley. In fact, for centuries White authors developed theories about trade and thought patterns in Central West Africa on the assumption that the great Niger River flowed Westward. The White world was therefore shocked a little after the year 1800 when a young Scots surgeon named Mungo Park explored his way through the Sahara to the upper parts of the Niger River and then wrote in triumph that he had seen the Niger “. . . as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the Eastward.” The italics were his own (see Basil Davidson, Lost Cities of Africa, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1959).
Black scholars long have been aware that the more than two thousand African Rock paintings that have been found in such regions as Tassili, Fezzan, Tanganyika, Zimbabwe and the Kalahari, preceded Egypt by thousands of years and were the obvious force behind Egyptian two-dimensional design. Many White scholars agree and have done research to confirm this view and at the forefront of these has been Leo Frobinus and, more recently, Burchard Brentjes whose book African Rock Art (Clarks N. Potter, Inc., N. Y. 1970) argues the case resoundingly. Black intellectuals are ever aware that so many other things about Ancient Egypt including people and rulers were Black, as opposed to the Hollywood image of a Nefertiti who looked like Elizabeth Taylor, of pharaohs who looked like Richard Burton and Rex Harrison and of a Nile, flowing south from an Egypt which was a Eurasian movie set on the tip of Africa.
It is in this perspective of a Black intellectual view of Africa that the early work of Aaron Douglass falls. And consistent with this view, Douglass saw Egyptian two- dimensional painting as being directly related to West African two-dimensional design.
In the silhouette, Douglass saw not only a two-dimensional device for expression of his figurative imagery, but a visual schema in which the background became an equally silhouetted and plastic shape in such a way that it was difficult for the viewer to consider the background of the painting less important than the foreground. In this way, Douglass succeeded in creating a truly comprehensive abstract arena in spite of his figurative subject matter. For what was most dramatic about Douglass’ work was the poignant and mysterious character of his shapes which evoked a psychology of rhythmic tension. Douglass’ strongest achievement was to make the psychology of the silhouette the potent expression of the subject matter it portrayed. As such, he made the psychology of the silhouette its own characteristic expression.
Horace Pippin, too, was interested in the silhouette, although in a less severe way than Douglass. Nevertheless, it is the silhouette that Pippin used as the pictorial device to organize his paintings. The tradition of the silhouette has been explored by succeeding generations of Black artists including Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Ellis Wilson, Charles Alston and Romare Bearden. Of these, Lawrence is closest to Douglass in the sharp angularity of his shapes, the simplification of his compositions, and the dramatic supremacy of the silhouette, used in such a way as to make foreground and background equally important and dynamic. While William H. Johnson was also preoccupied with the silhouette, he developed a sense of linear abstraction that broadened the scope of Pan-African two-dimensional art.
Along with Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden remains one of the two most distinguished Black painters whose figurative images strongly relate to a tradition of two-dimensional abstraction. Bearden uses the silhouetted shape and the background-foreground reversal dynamic to give his photographic images a simultaneity of existence that literally and ironically mirrors Black life from New York and Mississippi through the valleys of the Niger and the Nile. Bearden has done quite a bit of writing himself, but more on that later.
Many of my own interests in the silhouette are allied with the ideas of Douglass and Lawrence, for they remind me so much of the forms that are so prevalent in the West Indies where I grew up. Some aspects of the works of many other Black painters seem to fall in this tradition, including Malcolm Bailey, Bernie Casey, Emilio Cruz, Alvin Hollingworth, Joe Overstreet and Thomas Sills.
I consider the use of textiles as a direct means of expression to be another characteristic of a Pan-African abstraction. By this I mean a conscious focus on the aesthetic possibilities of cloth itself. In so many works by Blacks throughout the world one sees cloth itself being elevated to a level of fetish object. For example, in Lagos, New York or Kingston today it is common to see Black people fascinated with the garments they wear because of what they consider to be the expressive power of the cloth surface and the color. For many Blacks, cloth is not just a serviceable necessity, but a kind of plumage.
I see this association most strongly in the work of Sam Gilliam. This statement will probably surprise those who have always considered Gilliam’s cloths “Gothic Drapery.” That Gilliam’s ideas are far-reaching enough to encompass Gothic associations is no doubt a testament to his brilliance. However, it should take away nothing from Gilliam to recognize that his ideas manifest sensibilities that are a very common and visible part of the Pan-African vernacular. Gilliam himself chooses to let his work stand as it is usually interpreted, so this present interpretation is mine, not his. However, Gilliam does point out that Black people tend to find great spiritual empathy with his work, and that they compare it with West African fabric design, with Kente’ cloth and tie-dyes. That is what I mean by the relationship between Gilliam’s art and a Pan-African vernacular art based on the usage of cloth.
I see Gilliam’s ideas largely in this context, as a marvelous revelation of the essence of a Pan-African fascination with the magic of pure cloth and pigment. The draped sense of Gilliam’s cloths, of course, allows for movement, like the fleeting and imprecise view of an image. The movement creates elusive macabre fantasies, like the colorful drapery of the African medicine man and dancer or the Jankunu dancer in the West Indies. Gilliam’s ideas are beyond the specific but retain their vernacular sensibility and make sense in the context of Thompson’s African Art in Motion, mentioned earlier. Thompson articulated how West African art was one of motion, with dancers, actors, charmers, sculptures, cloth and other objects all participating in an experience of movement, rather than the passivity of the museum environment.
A third characteristic of Pan-African abstraction is what I call expressive pattern. In Western Art, the notion of pattern is usually thought of as decoration or embellishment and is most often considered excessive or extraneous to the otherwise functional quality of the art object. Thus, it is said that Louis Sullivan was a great architect in spite of his ornate embellishments, and that Matisse understood form and shape despite his decorative tendencies; and that the Alhambra is a great complex of sophisticated engineering, though overly decorative, as opposed to the Parthenon which is understated, in its austere balance, or the Seagram Building in New York which is a prime example of the concept of less is more.
But what is often characteristic of Pan-African abstraction is the notion that more is more. Decorativeness is sought after and the decorative shape itself becomes the object of expression. This is distinct from the way in which the history of Western art looks at shape. To the strictly Western sensibility, a shape is a defined bit of space that creates a tension with another defined bit of space. Westerners (traditionally in their art criticism) see shapes not as ends in themselves, primarily, but as utilitarian forces that work together to make a composition. In a sense, the history of Western art has been an exposition of the possibilities of composition. Recent notions of compositionless art represent a withdrawal from a traditional Western sensibility.
Black people the world over have always been affected less by composition as a totality (with beginning, middle and end like a sonata) but rather with pattern as a random sequence of shapes whose ultimate relationship is not the finiteness of composition but to the expressive infinity of a continuum. The sonata is a good example to illustrate a Western concept of art, though it is in music. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony has strict sections that follow a sonata form. There is an introduction, development, exploration then finally recapitulation. Compare that with the approach of a traditional African drummer. He begins a sequence, adds other ideas to it and after he has exhausted an exciting enough pattern he stops. He is satisfied without a recapitulation; the notion of a tight composition is irrelevant. Again, musically one could make a similar comparison between Stravinsky and John Coltrane.
Black artists create visual art in much the same way. I am not saying that their-work is formless (for you must start and end somewhere), but their work deals with the notion of pattern as an expressive possibility in itself which can be primary and needs no other aesthetic basis for its support. One such artist whose work is prominent in Black America today is Joe Overstreet. Overstreet’s patterns obviously derive a great deal of influence from West African masks and their rhythmic patterns. While Overstreet does not paint masks, as such, he uses similar types of shapes. Also in America Ben Jones obviously uses the mask-type pattern as a part of his visual sensibility. Jones takes heads and legs and decorates them lavishly. In another way, Twins Seven Seven in Nigeria relies heavily on decorative mask-like forms.
Many contemporary African artists have a similar sensibility toward pattern. Among them is the distinguished Sudanese artist Ahmed Shibrain whose art seems to derive largely from the calligraphic qualities of Arabic decoration that have adorned Sudanese buildings for centuries. In fact, Shibrain titles some of his works ”Calligraphy” and has pointed to the visual effects of the Koran upon his work.
There is a widespread African relation to Islam and its deletion of: figurative imagery and reliance upon abstract symbolic surfaces to express aesthetic meanings. For years Alma Thomas’ ideas were not taken seriously, because they were considered too randomly decorative. Later, as painters such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Nolan developed, White critics saw her work in the context of field painting. Thomas’ strength had to do with her affirmation of the primacy of pure decoration and for me that is enough. I would imagine many White critics would find that hard to accept.
My fourth category of a Pan-African abstraction in painting has to do with bright color. It used to be popular for Whites to say that all Black artists were in love with garish color, although this kind of statement would be indiscreet today. Well, it is true, I think, that Black people usually love bright colors. It makes sense that they should.
Africa, South America, the South of the United States and the West are the areas from which most Blacks traditionally come. The sunlight and colors in these parts of the world are bright, by comparison with the less sunlit Northern regions from which most Whites come. It is, therefore, natural that the colors that so many Black artists prefer would be colors of their traditional lands, since over centuries aesthetic preferences develop in relation to the environment that one experiences. In his book Mies Van Der Rohe (Penguin, 1968) Peter Blake tells how the architect was shocked by the brightness of the light the first time he went to Italy from his home in Germany. He thought Italy was bright! I have often, wondered what might have happened had Mies’ first trip south been to Accra or Port-au-Prince.
So many Black artists thrive on really bright colors, and have the visual capacity to easily absorb and tolerate one bright color after another. Black cultures being of the tropics also tend to be more out-of-door cultures and have greater association with sunlight. A bright color is the intensity of the tropical sun scintillating from a cocoa leaf or a blood red poinciana tree. He who can appreciate bright colors earns the right to look into the sun. So it was with the Impressionists who went out-of-doors.
William T. Williams is a major Black artist who has experimented with a variety of pigments in search of more color intensity. Williams has been considered by some to be a Black Frank Stella and, as such, he has been criticized for straying beyond the Stella mold with his exuberant color. But Williams is not really a Black Stella—at least not insofar as his color is concerned; rather, his apparent exuberance is really an excellent example of a Black artist’s fascination with color.
White pioneers into aspects of bright color have been influenced primarily by non-Western associations. That was true of Veronese and many other Venetians of that time who came in contact with Middle Eastern and African cultures. Few if any Europeans used really bright color until Delacroix, who again was influenced by Middle Eastern cultures. The Impressionists worked out- of-doors to attain their sunlit palettes, so too did Bonnard; Rousseau, Gauguin, Matisse, Marc and Kandinsky borrowed heavily from non-Western associations. Of course, many other White artists in recent times have used bright colors, being influenced by urban experiences of electric lights and mechanical colors on the one hand and the 20th century visualization of psychology through color on the other. One could catalog a long list of these from McDonald-Wright, Stuart Davis, Pollock and Hoffman to Nolan, Newman, Stella and Vasarely. But still a tendency to use saturated color is really not pervasive in the culture as a whole. On the other hand, the overwhelming number of Black painters that I have known have been interested in bright color.
The question remains as to whether the spirit of a Pan-African culture can be caught sufficiently by Whites for them to write criticism about Blacks that is meaningful to Blacks and my answer, resoundingly, is yes. Yes if they are capable or willing to look beyond their own cultural biases and to realize that simply because they have controlled the forces of international criticism does not mean that their criticism is just in relation to other peoples. Whites will have to stop excusing themselves for ignorance of Black culture. Most Black artists who have been through graduate school are expected to know the history of White civilization. Ignorance by a Black of the agonies of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko or the sober vision of Edward Hopper would be considered disgraceful but the reverse is not true. White colleagues will admit almost boastfully that they have never heard of Charles White, Henry Tanner or Norman Lewis. Until Whites recognize their deficiencies toward Black culture to be that of true ignorance they will not be in a position to assess its merits meaningfully.
Most of what has been written about Black artists by Whites has been predicated on White values from the outset. This is true of the most recent book in that regard, Elsa Fine’s book, The Afro-American Artist (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, N.Y., 1973). Fine’s book draws heavily from material previously written by Alain Locke, James Porter, Cedric Dover and others, but is conspicuous in its omissions of information readily available at several Black universities and museums. In addition, she argues her case always using values of White artists as her ultimate criteria in her endless comparisons of relationships between Black artists and their White counterparts.
Any study of Pan-African art will reveal the paucity of critics and critical journals in the field. Someone must be willing to publish you before you can be heard from. Blacks have not had much success in this venture. If Black critics were editors of major art publications, what I have said in this essay would be common knowledge.
A fellow Black artist, knowing that I was preparing this paper, questioned whether indeed the artists I mentioned considered their work as I did. I told him that I hoped so, but that what the artist consciously means is not always the basis of art criticism. Criticism is not about the language of artists but the language of art. One doubts that Botticelli would have agreed with Berenson, or Grunewald with Woelfflin. We know how fiercely Whistler disagreed with Ruskin, how Albers disagreed with Greenberg and how all of contemporary art disagrees with Tom Wolfe. And on the other hand, of course, are the legions who do agree with Berenson. Woelfflin, Ruskin and Greenberg. But agreement or disagreement with criticism has never stopped criticism in the past. Criticism has always been advocacy and a path or alternative for consideration by artists and audiences. So it has been with major criticism of American and European art. So it should be with criticism from a Pan- African point of view.
Keith Morrison is art artist who teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus.
One of the earliest Black critics in the field was Alain Locke. I have already spoken of some of his writings including the New Negro, published in 1925. Yet it is important to recognize that since the time of Locke there have been comparatively few Black critical writings published. After Locke, the next significant critical landmark on the subject was written by James Porter a professor of art and art history at Howard University. Porter’s book Modern Negro Art (Dryden Press, 1943, reprinted with an “introduction” by Walter Pach, Arno Press, 1969) has long been a classic. It received wide review then fell into oblivion to the White art world, though held as a sacred source book by Blacks. Porter’s book traced origins of Afro-American art through works done during slavery to the nineteen thirties. In 1965 Porter updated an essay called “One Hundred Fifty Years of Afro-American Art,” which previously appeared in Presence Africaine (Djon, 1958), as the main text of a catalog called The Negro in American Art (U.C.L.A. Art Galleries, 1966). “One Hundred Fifty Years of Afro-American Art” reviewed the history of Afo-American art and pointed to a new affirmation of African consciousness.
Another book which lists more than 100 artists and many extensive bibliographies was Cedric Dover’s American Negro Art (New York Graphic Society, 1960). But Dover’s book borrows most heavily from Porter’s, involved little new research and omitted a great number of younger artists.
Black artists have traditionally had to do much of the writing about their own works. That was the case with Porter. Romare Bearden has himself done quite a bit of writing since the 1930’s. “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” by Bearden appeared in the December issue of Opportunity and also in Journal of Negro Life, 1934. In the October 1948 issue of Critique Bearden published an article called “Problems of Negro Artists.” Later he published “The Artist’s Imagination.” Pyramid Club Annual (May, 1956); “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings,” Leonardo (Jan., 1969); “The Artist and His Education,” Harvard Art Review (Spring 1969); and more recently a book co-authored with Harry Henderson, Six Black Masters of American Art (Doubleday & Co., 1972) and a bibliography on Horace Pippin (Phillips Galliers, 1977).
Another artist to have written extensively in the field has been Elton Fax. An artist of international reputation he has many artists. His books include 17 Black Artists (Dodd, Mead, N.Y., 1971) and Black Artists of the New Generation, (Dodd, Mead, N.Y., 1977).
There have been a number of bibliographical studies and bibliographies including Carrol Greene’s and Warren Robbins’ The Art of Henry Tanner (Museum of African Art, Washington, 1969); Carrol Greene’s The Evolution of Afro-American Artists 1800-1950 (City Univer. of N.Y., 1967) which accompanied an exhibition by Greene and Bearden. Also Greene’s Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual (Mus. of Modern Art, N.Y., 1971); Edward B. Gaither’s Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston (Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, 1970); Robert Doty’s Contemporary Black Artists in America (Whitney Museum, N.Y., 1971); Evelyn S. Brown’s Africa’s Contemporary Art and Artists (Harmon Foundation, N.Y., 1966); Ulli Beier’s Contemporary Art in Africa (Praeger, N.Y., 1968); Rosalind R. Jeffries’ Directions in Afro-American Art (Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, 1974); David C. Driskell’s Amistad II: Afro-American Art (United Chess Press, N.Y., 1975); David C. Driskell’s and Earl Hooks’ The Afro-American Collection Fisk University (Fisk Univ., Nashville, 1976) and again by Driskell: Art by Blacks: Its Vital Role in U.S. Culture (Smithsonian, Oct., 1976). Other writings have been done by such people as Samella Lewis, E.J. Montgomery, Lois Mailon Jones, Adolphus Ealy, Guy McElroy, Allan Gordon and myself.
However, it is David Driskell who has emerged as perhaps the primary authority on Afro-American art today and it is from him that much of the bibliographical information contained herein has come. His distinguished scholarship would be an invaluable source for anyone who seriously wishes to gain better information about the field.