Dressed in Sunday best, a mother and child stand on the sidewalk, the daughter enveloped in her elder's dignified composure. Looming over them is a department store that beckons with merchandise.
It's an ordinary scene but for one crucial element: The mother and daughter, who are black, are standing near the store's doorway marked "Colored Entrance."
"Department Store, Birmingham, Alabama," 1956, is one of Gordon Parks's many eloquent photographs on special exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. His works remind us that art can carry a powerful message that goes far beyond a pretty picture.
As I took in more than 200 photographs from Parks's lengthy career, his messages were clear. Many works that he took as a photojournalist for Life magazine, like the "Department Store" one, showed racial disparities. One series from the late '60s documented poverty's despair by focusing on one American family. Another set from 1948 gave an inside look at Red Jackson, a Harlem gang leader.
"There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white," says Parks, who is also a writer, in "Born Black." "It is our common search for a better life, a better world."
At times, it can be a delicate balance between a work's aesthetics and message. Does the message overpower the work itself? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, is it enough to drink in the beauty of, say, a Monet painting? The issue gains increasing attention as the arts define their role at the end of the millennium.
In the July/August issue of Symphony, a music trade magazine, John Sparks writes of the social effects the arts are being asked to produce: "There is a growing expectation ... among private and public donors, audiences, and Americans in general, that the arts must do more than enrich or gratify us on a personal level."
It helps to put the issues in focus when an artist like Parks strikes such a natural balance between aesthetics and message. His lens gravitates to subjects that speak volumes visually, emotionally, and intellectually.
Parks's works show there doesn't have to be an extra push to infuse art with more. The most effective messages are often already there.
* 'Half Past Autumn: the Art of Gordon Parks' is in New York through Nov. 1. It then continues on to 12 other American venues through 2002.
Judy Nichols is the assistant Arts & Leisure editor. Send comments to: entertainment.csps.com