1969 HARLEM ON MY MIND
Cultural Capital Of Black America ...
The White Vision, and Black Aesthetics
= No Compromise
The transforming 60's led to the troubled 70's ...
The late 1960's were fraught with changes. Young whites were eager to shed the restraints that were imposed upon them by their parent's generation. All values and social norms were being overthrown. As much strife as there was, it was also a time of fun, that brought with it the possibilities of new ways of self expression.
(Left: Young people near the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. Below: Black Panther families)
Young blacks saw life in a different way, they saw light emerging from the end of a long dark tunnel and they were making their way to the light. Coming out of the civil rights movement, the average person wanted to use the promises made to them to gain entry into the American Dream. The black artists' agenda went beyond a house in the suburbs -- they wanted to push their way through the doors of the cultural institutions. They felt America should embrace their artistic vision.
The Media, empowered by the Nixon / Kennedy debates of 1960, was on steroids. "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide" of the election, and no one could afford to ignore the potential power of television. Coupled with emerging technology, everyone was given the platform they needed to add their voice to the world stage.
This policy of access resulted in people watching TV as the main source of news and entertainment. Advertisers were poised to show them a world of consumer goods and entertainment. We were becoming media babies and it fed our addiction to fun.
(left: Jessie Maples from Tell It Like It Is)
I can't hear a word you're saying, only the echoes of my mind . . .
Thomas Hoving, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Allon Schoener, the Curator, were not thinking about the African American visual artists when they conceived the now infamous, blockbuster/landmark exhibit, Harlem On My Mind, Cultural Capital of Black America. Even though they were willing to listen to what the Black Artists were saying, they could not hear them.
When Hoving was offered the job as Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at the age of 35) he boldly told trustees of the Met, that the museum was, “moribund,” “gray” and “dying.” Despite his bluntness, he got the job.
Hoving had a vision that called for blockbuster exhibits, he envisioned modernizing the museum the way he changed the city parks system. Hoving was the former park's commissioner under John Lindsey and he earned the title "The Clown Prince of Fun City." He felt that “great art should be shown with great excitement”. Having worked with Ron Delsner whose name is on some of the greatest shows in rock ‘n’ roll history -- Delsner, convinced Hoving to bring rock ‘n’ roll concerts to Central Park. The glitz of showbiz appealed to him and he would bring this glitz to the Museum.
Hoving hired Allon Schoener, Visual-arts Director of the New York State Council on the Arts, to serve as Curator for the show. Schoener was famous for his unprecedented use of multimedia, such as blown-up photographs, film projections, and amplified sounds. Schoener was selected by Hoving, as a way to shake up the museum’s flatness with a fresh, innovative exhibition.
Allon Schoener, who currently lives in LA, recently replied to art critic Holland Carter in his article, “Lessons Learned From a Disgraced Show,” appearing on page one, August 20, 2015 of the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure Section. Schoener contended that aspects of the criticism were hard for him to understand because it did not reflect his intent. Schoener offered this statement about his intentions.
"The Harlem On My Mind exhibition was conceived as what I called 'a communications environment.' I would describe it as a place in which visual and aural media were utilized to convey a message. This exhibition provided me with an opportunity to implement my philosophy – redefining the museum experience from observation to participation. This is a concept that was radically new at the time, but has since become conventional.
As a communications environment, the exhibition did not host any traditional works of art as would normally be presented in art museums. It was an articulated documentary display of photography, films, recorded Harlem voices and music. For this reason, there were no paintings and sculptures, and other traditional 'works of art' at all. "
According to another New York Times article in 1968, Schoener was focused on avoiding traditional display techniques. He was trying to overcome the shortcomings of his previous exhibition, by improving visual and audio mechanical devices making it like a documentary, using newspaper articles and many photographs.
Schoener was honestly obsessed with multimedia, in 1970 he helped secure a grant for Videofreex, a ten-member collective vanguard that produced several thousand videotapes, installations, and multimedia events and trained hundreds of video-makers in the brand-new medium. Allon Schoener felt he was the artist of Harlem On My Mind and multimedia was his craft to express his art. In reality what he envisioned was so innovative for it's time, but it was also problematic to execute. Concentrating on the problems of the exhibit was going to be complicated by the protests that would follow.
Gallery Views, “Harlem On My Mind” exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969
THE RACE CARD would prove to be the wild card and it was about to hit the table.
The exclusion of art from Harlem on My Mind was a concern for members of Spiral as an issue of racial inequality and lack of self-representation in the art world.
Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis met with Schoener to express their dissatisfaction with the multimedia format of the exhibition, particularly with the concept of using photographs as the primary means of representation. At that time photography was not considered by the black visual artist as a valid art category.
(above left: Romare Bearden - no photo credit right: Norman Lewis - Geoffrey Clements, photographer)
The Harlem On My Mind Exhibit opened the Metropolitan Museum of Art to charges of cultural racism.
Because Harlem artists wanted to be included in the Metropolitan exhibition, they would have to challenge the Museum's standing policy of: artists of color could not exhibit. By allowing Hoving and Schoener to proceed with their momentous exhibit, the Museum unwittingly opened themselves to charges of cultural racism. This would overshadow everything and set off a chain of events that would drag the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art into the conflict as well.
The Spiral group could not move Thomas Hoving and the Museum from their position. So the BECC formed quickly to answer the challenge.
The above members gave a proverbial thumbs down to negotiating and a fist up to disruptive protest against the Met Museum. They adopted the tactics of the black power movement to achieve attention for their cause. People were beginning to be media savvy and the learned to play to the cameras. Confrontation was the only way to combat the northern institutional racism and ensure media coverage. Andrews formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) in his studio on January 9, 1969, the first BECC demonstration against the exhibition was on January 12, 1969.
THE PROTEST WAS ON
Everybody involved in the Harlem On My Mind exhibit, had a different agenda. Without consensus on either side the exhibition got lost in the controversy.
THE MEDIA'S REACTION . . .
New York Times art critic John Canaday explained that the exhibition, “presents a subject vastly complicated, easily subject to distortion, and just now so highly charged emotionally that to evaluate the show objectively is going to be impossible for most people.”
(left: photo credit: Jan vann Raays)
THE MUSEUM GAVE FALSE HOPE TO THE BECC
On January 18, In response to the effectiveness of the demonstrtions, Hoving announced that the museum was developing plans for an exhibition of contemporary Black art in February. He expected a second exhibition of contemporary Black painting and art would follow shortly after the first. This statement was powerful enough to stop the BECC from further demonstrating. These shows however never took place. This demonstrated the Metropolitan’s lack of commitment to their word. The exhibitions' cancellation left in its wake a sense of distrust on the part of Black artists in Harlem.
THE BECC DEMONSTRATION HAD A DOMINO EFFECT
Despite the lack of the desired results, the BECC methods were adopted as very effective. The BECC turned it's attention to another mainstream institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, to address the exclusion of Black artists in their exhibitions.
This attack on multiple fronts made the BECC highly visible and brought attention to the exclusion of Black artists from mainstream museums, but it also spurred on other groups to attack the NYC Museums with their grievances.
The 60's turned into the 1970's ...
everything went very wrong for AMERICA -- people wanted liberation!
EVERYBODY WAS PROTESTING AND IT WENT BEYOND THE QUESTION OF ART. . .
EVERYONE'S FIST WAS IN THE AIR
everybody had beef with someone and the streets were in turmoil.
EVEN THE WHITE PEOPLE GOT INTO THE ACT OF TAKING IT TO THE STREETS.
What started out as a simple voiced desire to be included in an art exhibit about Harlem, was now lost in a sea of protesting voices. Suffice to say, the Black artist never got their show at the Met.
Waiting in the wings poised to take center stage was, THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT, a younger generation of politically motivated Black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians, and writers. They were the most violent in their expressions of ethnic conflicts and they were not looking to assimilate into white institutions -- They wanted a place of their own.
Next: PART 3: THE FATE OF BLACK AESTHETICS
From Amiri Baraka to Thelma Golden and what has happened to HARLEM -- THE CULTURAL CAPITAL OF BLACK AMERICA.
Read Part 1 of this series entitled: HARLEM ON MY MIND - 50 years Later would Reggie still be protesting?
Black Art In America™ (BAIA) will feature works by Reginald Gammon at the Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem which span 50 years -- drawing attention to his contribution to the visual arts.
(Left: Harlem On My Mind by Reginald Gammon, 1969)