The many masks of modern art

The crucial issue facing black American artists in the first decades of this century was whether they should remain true to their heritage and mine its genius in their art or set that heritage aside in order to enter the mainstream of contemporary European-American art.

Just a few years before, such an issue would have been totally academic. Black artists, to survive, were forced to submerge their ethnic and cultural identities into a vision of art that was historically European and inherently white. Traditional African art forms and styles were judged inferior; even the factual portrayal of black American life was taboo in a period when Blacks were frequently portrayed as happy simpletons or banjo-strumming minstrels.

It is not surprising, therefore, that 19th- century black art, with the exception of a few portraits, is indistinguishable from that of its white contemporaries.And that was true not only of its surface characteristics, but also of its ability to emphathize totally with nonblack experience. The black artist not only had to paintm like a white man, he had to try his best to becomem one in his art.

But dramatic changes began to take place during and after World War I, when large numbers of blacks moved to Northern cities in search of jobs. Forced into ghettos and confronted with an alien life style, they gradually developed a new sense of community and racial identity. Racial pride and racial self-reliance, while by no means universal, slowly began to assert themselves. Social and cultural independence ceased being a hopeless dream and became part of a working goal.

Out of this atmosphere of cultural regeneration emerged the 20th century's first important black movement devoted to the arts. The Harlem Renaissance, while primarily a literary movement, also gave major impetus to the visual arts in its demand that black art honestly reflect black experience, and in its call to all artists in all art forms to portray black life with dignity and without stereotype.

A form of cultural pluralism was advocated. Blacks were not only urged to look to Africa for their roots and their inspiration but also to accept their Americanism. To attempt, in fact, to enrich American culture by bringing to it whatever was rich and fertile in their own unique background and experience.

The problem lay in carrying out this program. How could the black artist affect such a process if the white art establishment continued to see movements in that direction as little more than self-serving attempts to graft Afro-American imagery upon traditionally European-American pictorial styles and forms? Or insisted upon seeing black themes as exotic and "foreign," and thus outside the legitimate concern of serious contemporary art?

The black was in trouble no matter which way he turned. If he focused his art on his black experience, he was ignored by the art world for his "provincialism." If, on the other hand, he tried to ignore his heritage to the extent of not using it i n his art, he felt rootless and without cultural identity.

What the Harlem Renaissance (and the Harmon Foundation, established in the early 1920s to aid and encourage black artists) managed to do was to give collective support to attempts to resolve this dilemma. Means to circumvent or to dissolve the impasse were examined and discussed, and ideas -- as weel as strong creative individuals -- gradually emerged.

Among the most important of these creators was Aaron Douglas, the leading figure of the visual arts during the Harlem Renaissance. His highly effective murals celebrating black experience were both true to his heritage and in line with contemporary formal experiments. This is particularly true of his murals for the New York Public Library illustrating black history, which, white painted in a style that drew its inspiration from African sculpture, were also totally "contemporary" in design and execution.

Murals were also an early form of expression for Hale Woodruff, who has been called the father of modern black art. His murals at Talladega College, in Alabama, remain among the most powerful pictorial expositions of black history to be found anywhere. And his murals at Atlanta University, simpler and more personal than those at Talladega College (which still owe a formal debt to the Mexican muralists Rivera and Orozco), make their point with a quiet directness that appears almost primitive -- although Woodruff war far from being a primitive, as his later excursions into various forms of abstract art testify.

By the mid-1920s the black middle class, while large enough to have created an intellectual elite, was still incapable of fully supporting black art. And what support it was able to give was almost totally undermined by the Great Depression. To survive, artists were forced to quit painting or to join the WPA -- either to paint murals for public buildings, or to create other forms of art according to federal specifications.

In many ways, however, the WPA was a blessing in disguise, for it served as a broad base for a national sharing of the black experience through murals, easel paintings, sculpture, and the graphics arts -- and as a training ground for many artists who would later achieve greater prominence in more individual work.

Social Realism, an art movement concerned primarily with social issues and human values (and spawned to a large extent by the Mexican muralists), took center stage during the '30s and early '40s. Although the Midwest Regionalists, Benton, Curry, and Wood, stole most of its thunder, black artists like Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, played a highly significant part in making this more than a largely rural and regional movement.

On the whole, the black artists of this period created art for their fellow black Americans rather than for the art establishment. In one way they had little choice, since neither galleries nor major collectors were interested in their work. On the other hand, once they realized that their art gave them a respected identity within their own community, they began to take pleasure in sharing their creativity with that community. And by doing so, by focusing their talents on shared realities, hopes, and ideals rather than on purely formal matters, they helped lay the groundwork for the reemergence of black consciousness after World War II.

Self-determination through self-expression became the crucial issue for black artists in the late '50s and '60s. As this could only be accomplished by the clarification of their own aesthetic principles and goals, black artists once again began to band together to fashion new ideological directions. As a result , the black artist of the past two decades has felt more at ease with his heritage than was the case earlier in the century. Black experience and purely formal experimentation were seen to be not necessarily at odds with each other. And many young artists, proud of their race and culture as they might be, felt free to throw in their lot with international modernism without any sense of betrayal of racial identity or loss of integrity -- and without any suppression of that imagery or subject matter.

That this should have taken so long speaks badly of our narrowness and insularity. That it has happened at all entitles us to some degree of hope in our future.

The next article in this series appears on February 24.m

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