Why it's important to bring black artists out of cultural isolation

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

According to painter, professor, and art critic Keith Morrison, the relationship between art and culture is a symbiotic one; each feeds on the other. As a result, Professor Morrison considers the major stumbling block in the path of today's black artists to be a paucity of critical response to their work. While works from the European schools have been documented, studied, and cataloged, Afro-American works remain largely untouched by the world of art criticism.

``There is not enough written information, nor enough widely articulated information about the culture of black people, for it to become commonplace.'' Morrison says. ``If more people write and talk about it, then one presumes that sooner or later it will become commonplace. As it becomes more commonplace, it becomes more acceptable; as it becomes more acceptable, it gets in the textbooks.''

To help further the process of understanding, Professor Morrison, who lectures widely on classical and contemporary art and contributes to various publications from his base at the University of Maryland, frequently addresses this void of critical analysis. For him it is a task as inescapable as the African traditions borne out in his work as a painter.

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In addition to speaking, writing, and painting, he has also set about collecting the works of black artists for exhibit.

In Boston a few weeks ago for a show of his own work at the Harrisbrown Gallery, he discussed with the Monitor a need for a wider dialogue about Afro-American art.

``Art ideas,'' he contends, whether African or American, depend upon an ``understanding of their cultural underpinning for them to be universally accepted.'' A lack of acceptance is ``not a result of a weakness in the work,'' as is generally supposed, but often instead ``a lack of cultural exposure, or education as to the meaning of the symbolism they illustrate.''

Morrison also argues that, ultimately, there is no ``black art.'' Is there ``white art''? he asks. There are artists who are black, who work with traditional African images, just as there are artists who are white who work with classical European images. And there are artists who fuse traditions. The labels are artificial and derive from ignorance of the cultural underpinnings of the works.

``To the extent that we recognize,'' says Morrison, ``that art appreciation is not a function of a particularly `high- or low-brow' aesthetic, but a result of education regarding the broader [multi-ethnic] contexts of cultural awareness and therefore not racially restrictive, we can rid ourselves of universally damaging cultural isolation.''

What is important about Professor Morrison's ideas, says Marcia Lloyd, assistant professor of painting at Massachusetts College of Art, is that they come from ``understanding the process of imagemaking. Being an imagemaker himself, he is very aware of the connectedness of formal visual issues of both the African and Afro-American visual traditions. His strong formalist work indicates a great knowledge of what has gone before, work that is really reaching beyond itself into something that hasn't been see n before.''

When Morrison came here from Jamaica to study art some 25 years ago, he knew that nothing was going to be easy. ``I didn't come here expecting anybody to give me anything. I came here expecting to take it, or lose trying. I don't get upset about the obstacles. The great thing is when you get over one of them.''

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