I remember growing up in a house where my parents purchased African-American and African art. As graduate students, my parents typically limited their original art purchases to emerging black artists in the local Detroit area. I can recall two paintings that had a profound impact upon me, one was an Oil painting of Malcolm X’s profile by Carl Owens and the other was a painting of the Black Madonna and Child by the muralist and labor leader Glanton Dowdell. These two pieces of art reminded me of child innocence, my introduction to radical politics, and power of the visual image. I understood early that images have meaning and they tell a story that can transcend space and time. This is one of the many reasons I can appreciate Bill Cosby and the Cosby Show. Not only did he expose a new generation to black art and black artists, he incorporated them into his show. Much like the 70’s sitcom, Good Times, in which artist Ernie Barnes works seemed to be ubiquitous, the Cosby show made art an integral part of his family. Although, its difficult to quantify, The Bill Cosby show exposed the world to the genius of black art /artists unlike any other phenomena in modern popular culture.
While the living room of the Cosby Show was the focal point of the show, it is also important to remember that the wall space was dotted with artistic renditions from African-American artists. For Cosby, this was intentional. Cosby and his wife Camille were serious art collectors and Cosby brought his passion for black art to the show. Artist and scholar David Driskell also advised Cosby and the artists that were featured on the show included Varnette Honeywood, Brenda Joysmith, and Ellis Wilson. But it was a painting by Ellis Wilson that was the focus of two episodes from Season two and three respectively. More than likely this was one of the first instances an American audience had ever witnessed a black family as active participants in the culture of high end art – at least in primetime.
In Season 2 of the Cosby Show, Clair finds out about a Sotheby’s auction that features a painting by her great uncle Ellis that her grandmother once owned. The episode highlights a conversation between an African-American art bidder and Cliff Huxtable. Cliff notices his interest in the Ellis Wilson painting and decides to feel him out and in the exchange the gentleman states the painting is a “very important work from a very important artist.” He then discusses the aesthetic depth of the work demonstrates Wilson’s “mastery of light, form, and simplicity of composition,” and then claims because of this the initial bid of $7,000 is a “steal.” Clair ends up with the winning bid and takes the painting home and proudly hangs it over the fireplace. While the story line is fictional, Ellis Wilson’s painting called The Funeral was the featured piece. Not only did this episode place the spotlight on a relatively unknown black artist, it revealed that acquiring original art is not and should limited be limited to white cultural elites, furthermore, it demonstrated the truth that various segments of the black community (particularly the black middle class) are and have been astute art consumers and black artists and their renditions should be taken seriously particularly when it comes to the issue of monetary value.
While there is little formal data to suggest a direct correlation between the Cosby Show and the acquisition of black art from African-Americans (and other groups for that matter) it is clear that popular cultural venues like Good Times, and The Cosby Show have increased the visibility of black artists and their works. In 2004, Thelma Harris of Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Oakland, California noted “When ‘The Bill Cosby Show’ aired and [Bill Cosby] had all the artwork on the set, it brought all the African-American artists into the forefront,” said Harris, reflecting back to 1987 when she entered the business. “People didn’t know there was so much African-American work out there. They thought, ‘I want my home to look like that. I want my home to reflect me and my culture.'” There are have also formal studies that have attempted to chart the acquisition of original art by people in the United States. Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has initiated the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). One component of the survey was to examine the trends in acquiring original art in the United States by racial categories. During the initial post-Cosby show years, 11% of African-American reported to have purchased original art reaching a peak of 25% by 1997. In recent years however, there has been considerable decrease in this number and one may only speculate why this is. First, the study collected the data from African-American gallery owners and not from black artists who sell directly to the consumer. Secondly, the struggling economy has hurt black business owners, as well as the black middle class – two groups that purchase well over half of black original art. Lastly and probably most importantly the venues within popular culture where black art is featured have virtually disappeared. Although the internet has increased the accessibility of the black art, very few artists and their works have been promoted in mainstream popular culture.
While my childhood memories of original art and the Cosby Show have serve to influence my own journey as a collector and an art enthusiast, it is critically important that the black visual arts community diligently work to highlight black artists and their art to the masses. In recent years the sitcom’s like Living Single and Martin featured works from black artists but no phenomenon in popular culture integrated black art and artists like the Cosby Show. Comedian Monique’s “The Parkers,” and basketball player Grant Hill’s coffee table “Something All Our Own” have been two of the few exceptions that have helped promote black art on a national level. The more this occurs, African-American artists can move from the cultural margins to wider mainstream recognition, and help to strengthen and solidify the legacy and history of the black experience in the United States and the Diaspora.
Kevin Sipp and Cinque Hicks weigh in on the topic of Black Art and popular culture