Essay: Choosing


Choosing: An Exhibit of Changing Perspectives in Modern Art and Criticism by Black Americans, 1925 -1985

Arna Alexander Bontemps

(Washington, D.C.: Museum Press, 1986), 60 – 63.

Painter/printmaker/Keith Morrison has also written cogently and perceptively about the work of black printmakers, as illustrated by one of his two essays in the present catalogue, but his primary emphasis has been on painting, including, of course, mixed media constructions. Though his writing has been restricted to the work of black artists, his analysis of their work and the criticism it has received from other critics forms the conceptual nexus that gives his writing its underlying unity. Things – ideas, patterns, trends, artists, events – always seem connected in his work, a linkage that even exists between apparently unrelated articles. The clarity and seeming ease with which he develops issues and perspectives is part of the explanation for this aspect of his writing; thus no matter what the topic of discussion the process of delineation conveys a sense of connectedness, But this feature of his work is merely the technical manifestation of its deeper appeal and growing influence. Beneath all the other linkages, whether real or imagined, is the sense the reader gets of being involved in a unique yet timeless and, in that context, mythic intellectual adventure, the eternal quest for meaning and value and constancy in life, set against a vast horizon of uncertainty and change. And as with all such adventures that live and endure as art and myth and cultural assumptions, questing is the thing rather than its objective or signification. We believe in the meaning of the quest – that is, in what Morrison thinks about art and art criticism – because we believe in the daring and sincerity of Morrison the quester. No other critic of black art has ever achieved in his or her writing a similar expansive aura of universality, a sense of shared experience and affiliation in the realm of creative imagination and critical thought that heightens our awareness of cultural distinctions without at the same time reducing art to a cultural anomaly. There is irony in this fact because Morrison has convincingly argued against the “notion that all great art is ‘universal’,” suggesting instead “a more workable hypothesis, the idea that art exists essentially in a cultural context.”[1]

The problem that black artist and critics have had with art criticism, he argues, is not that art criticism tends to be ethnocentric, or even that it may be inherently ethnocentric because it attempts to interpret relationships between art objects and a culture’s values, but that it too often willfully distorts that relationship. [2]

In his most significant work to date, and one of the most important essays ever written about black art or art criticism in America, Morrison, as only Locke had succeeded in doing before him, managed to redefine the central issues that have framed discussion and critical thinking about modern art by black Americans since the beginning of the modern epoch.[3]

“Are there,” he asked, “ideas native to Black artists that critics overlooked?” His own perspective on what he believes to be the shared affinities between modern art created by black artists representing different cultural experiences throughout the Pan-African world provides one of the answers to his question. These shared characteristics, he explained (and he limited his analysis to abstract painting), “have to do with the following four associations: silhouetted two-dimensional form; use of textile as direct means of expression; expressive patterns and a preoccupation with bright color.” In his effort to develop this hypothesis Morrison analyzed, often in considerable detail, works of a very wide range of black painters from several distinct cultures and time periods.”[4]

Surrounding these discussions is the larger theme of the essay – art criticism a Pan African perspective. At the time he wrote the article in 1979, the state of art criticism as it related to black artists in America or in a larger Pan-African context was, as it remains, deplorable. Is it not odd, he asked, “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?”[5]

Just as Jefferson reflected the widespread absence of knowledge and appreciation of black art two centuries ago, a perspective deeply rooted in ethnocentric assumptions about human potential, the continuing lack of interest in that art among contemporary or modern art critics reflects a similar bias – “ the notion” – that is, “that art is culture free” and that all great art is “universal.” Against the persistence of such views, Morrison offered a series of specific rebuttals: that the notion of universality should be dismissed “as being unworkable or, at least, premature”; that “art exists essentially in a cultural context”, that the idea that aesthetics is not taste and art criticism is the “phenomenon of describing and analyzing taste”; and that art criticism must be useful to the culture as a whole, must in a sense, “promote ideas for the artists and audiences of a culture to act upon.”[6]

The tragedy in all this is not that a vision is “better than”, “truer than” or more realistic than its alternatives but that had a black critic, in Morrison’s opinion, been editors of major art journals much of what he wrote in his essay (like most of what has been written here) would have already become common knowledge. Behind that tragedy, as this sketch of the history of black art criticism in America has tried to indicate, is the fact that Black Americans have always understood the need to choose –- that is, interpret and legitimatize – their own art, have never lacked the will to do so nor the diversify of perspectives necessary to insure the integrity of the process. What we have lacked is the freedom to do more than defend, preserve and promote the art and viable, stable forums in which that freer expression can be fully and systemically developed and projected. Choosing, in a sense, represents a process of self-definition, of knowing oneself and thereby shaping one’s own destiny; thus it is, and has always been, the central issue at stake in critical thinking about black art. Recognition of this fact has not always been a consistent theme in the work of the newest generation of critic/scholars, but a few, like Morrison, have raised it to a new level of significance. Moreover, the very fact of their existence as a group, including especially, their emphasis on extended, systemic analysis and interpretation, has endowed this issue with a solidity and urgency that will make its avoidance in the future much less tenable.


[1] Richard J. Powel, “Introduction,” in the exhibition catalogue, Impressions/Expressions: Black Graphics (New York: Studio Museum, 1980), 19

[2] Morrison, “Art Criticism: A Pan-African point of View.” The New Art Examiner (February, 1979), 4.


[4] Ibid. 4

[5] Ibid. 4-7.

[6] Ibid. 4