From Negro Art to Post-Black Art, Black Art Criticism is Essential
By Shantay Robinson
A few years ago, arts writer, Taylor Renee Aldridge asked her Facebook friends, “Where are all the black art critics?” The question did not yield any tangible answers, so she and her collaborator, Jessica Lynne decided to do something about it. They started the online journal, ARTS.BLACK, for which I have published an article. While black art critics aren’t spilling out of the seams of art magazines, black criticism is essential to the field of black art-making because it not only documents the canon, but offers an assessment of works being produced. The legendary Spiral Group made up of artists like Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Reginald Gammon held only one group exhibition and there was no critical coverage, so there is no record of the important artworks they created for this show. The lack of critical attention by mainstream publications is disappointing, but allows black art critics an opportunity to speak for the artists that can be best served by a first-hand understanding of the complexities of the black experience.
The seminal and first comprehensive work of black art history, Modern Negro Art written in 1969 by James Porter, who was an artist and influential teacher at Howard University for over forty years, tells of African American art pre-World War II where he writes about Robert S. Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, and Henry O. Tanner. Before this text, little was known about the pre-WWII black artist. Without this text, these black artistic treasures might be lost to history. But with this text, Porter was able to recount the history of these important artists and provide access to the black population interested in learning about the practices of these preeminent black artists.
While the foundation of black art is cemented by seminal texts like African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis who writes of black art history since slavery, African-American Art by Sharon F. Patton who recounts black art history from the 1700s, and Creating Their Own Image by Lisa Farrington who tells of African American female art history, history, not criticality has been the intentions of these works.
Without black art critics, the Black Arts Movement might have been a moment in the wind. But because of critics we are able to appreciate the vitality and force of artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Journals such as Liberator, The Crusader, and Freedomways provided conversations around the art being produced. Because of critics, the movement traveled from New York City and New Jersey out west to Chicago and on to the Bay Area. Because of the word, the work of black artists around the country was able to be understood and appreciated.
In recent years, a new generation of young black art critics has emerged. Among them, Taylor Renee Aldridge, Jessica Lynne, Antwaun Sargent, and Jasmine Weber. Their voices are so necessary in creating discourse surrounding black artists, especially young black ones. Creating space for the intentions of artists who are attempting to enter into the highest rungs of the art world is like translating language. These critics understand the language young black artists speak and can express that to the larger art cultural world with profundity. Without these translations, the work of black artists may fall on blind eyes.
The following lists books of art criticism:
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor and Director at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University wrote the series The Image of the Black in Western Art;
- Krista Thompson, the Weinberg College Board of Visitors Professor and Professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University wrote Shine: The Visual Economy of the Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice and An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque;
- Kellie Jones, Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University wrote South of Pico, EyeMinded, and Art and Civil Rights of the Sixties;
- Richard Powell the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University wrote Black Art: A Cultural History;
- Margo Natalie Crawford a professor of English at University of Pennsylvania wrote Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First-Century Aesthetics;
- Bridget R. Cooks who has joint appointments in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Art History at University of California, Irvine wrote Exhibiting Blackness: African American and the American Art Museum;
- Derek Conrad Murray Associate Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at University of California Santa Cruz wrote Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African American Identity after Civil Rights;
- Uri McMillan, Associate Professor of English at University of California Los Angeles wrote Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance; and
- Kobena Mercer, Director of Graduate Studies in African American Studies at Yale University wrote Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies and Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s
These critics and others write about and account for the movements in black art. They have solidified a place for black art history and established a foundation for the development of black art criticism.
As we talk about black art criticism, we cannot ignore the theory that is produced through the dialogues critics create. Theories based on observation and experience are a way of making sense of tendencies in art. Post-Blackness was created by Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon in the late 1990s and then introduced to the world in the catalogue for Freestyle, an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, because they noticed tendencies in the art made at that time. Theories that have emerged, surrounding Afrofuturism and Afro-Surrealism, help us understand the works by contemporary black artist working in similar ways that have nothing to do with our realities but everything to do with possibility. Black art critics help us understand how black artworks relate to the world and each other.
The theories surrounding Post-Black Art, Afrofuturism, and Afro-Surrealism help us to better understand the art of contemporary artists. And critics provide an entry point to access artistic perspectives. Black art critics have been producing critical black art texts that considers queerness, objectification, and aesthetics, enabling viewers to understand black artists and art. Art critics have continually attempted to contextualize black art and experience for deeper meaning.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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