Satisfying a cultural agenda


Art can furnish valuable insights into broad social issues


by Mary Ann Calo

Writing about art is a highly subjective enterprise; therefore ideas about art can furnish valuable insight into, not only aesthetics, but also broad cultural and social issues. This assumption is what unifies the somewhat eclectic nature of my teaching and research activities; it is what has led me from Winslow Homer to Bernard Berenson, from women artists to the Harlem Renaissance. I have always been fascinated by public perceptions of the visual arts within the larger context of American culture and especially the role art criticism plays in shaping that perception.

My recent work involves the examination and evaluation of critical writing on African American visual artists during the 1920s and 1930s. This was the period that witnessed the emergence in America of a black cultural intelligentsia. In the wake of the so-called New Negro movement, and the outpouring of artistic expression we have come to know as the Harlem Renaissance, it seemed reasonable to talk about the existence of a black aesthetic in America. At the same time, many American artists and critics believed in the desirability and the

possibility of constructing a national culture, one that would mirror the democratic ideals of the nation and express a unifying concept of American character. Specifically, I am interested in the place occupied by African American art within the matrix of these ideas about defining American cultural values.

In 1925 African American critic and philosopher Alain Locke forecast a black artistic coming of age in America. The Harlem Renaissance was announced with the publication of The New Negro, Locke's celebrated anthology consisting of original works of art and literature, as well as essays on diverse aspects of black expression from African art to Negro spirituals. This document bore witness to a dynamic era of black creativity, a Negro renaissance as it came to be called, suggesting the rebirth of a people and their artistic spirit.

As described by Locke, the artistic production of the New Negro sought both to affirm a positive racial identity and to claim a place for black artists in American culture. African American writers such as Locke and W.E.B. DuBois argued that the creation of great art was a mark of civilization and racial maturity. They proposed that the black population would command greater respect because of the demonstrated talent of its artists. The leaders of the Harlem Renaissance believed in the capacity of artistic expression to alter deeply ingrained assumptions of racial inferiority and to eliminate prejudice, a phenomenon scholar David Levering Lewis has referred to as "civil rights by copyright." Parallel with the Harlem Renaissance was the forecast of a renaissance on a national level that would eventuate in the creation of an authentic American culture which could compare favorably to that of Europe. Awareness of America's future potential as an economic and military power in the West raised anxiety about the nature of its cultural achievements. Implicit in Locke's writing during the inter-war decades was an enduring conviction that African Americans, by virtue of their distinctive racial heritage and personal experience, were destined to make a unique contribution to this cultural heritage.

According to scholar Nathan Huggins, these respective movements are inextricably linked. Huggins, in his seminal history of the Harlem Renaissance, understood the creative dilemma of the African American as a variation on the larger problem of American creativity. Apologists for the Harlem Renaissance and the American Renaissance alike called for the development of artistic idioms that would reflect cultural identities. In the context of both movements, the inter-war decades were characterized as periods plagued by confusion and uncertainty; claims were made on both fronts for the eventual emergence of a coherent culture which would embody individual expression as well as collective identity.

At the root of this cultural self-consciousness, Huggins argues, both in the African American community and the majority population, were lingering self-doubt and defensiveness about the presumed inadequacy of the individuals in question. Just as America hoped to overcome its sense of cultural inferiority in relation to Europe, black America hoped to do the same in relation to white America.

The purpose of my research is not to address the success or failure of either the Harlem Renaissance or the American Renaissance in terms of these goals. What interests me is the extent to which the communities involved were aware, as Huggins suggests, of the similarity of their respective cultural projects. Within African American circles, lively exchanges on the nature of black creativity were framed in terms of a dynamic interaction of race and nationality. Locke and other African Americans concerned with the progress of black artistic expression demonstrated a complex understanding of broad cultural discourse in America. Looking back at the development of African American art, Locke noted that although black artists have always sought cultural freedom through art, they have expressed themselves in artistic modes responsive to the American mainstream.

But in mainstream art criticism, the separateness of black art (and black identity) was underscored at every turn. And, while emphasis on racial distinctiveness created an audience for black art during these decades, not surprisingly, this was accompanied by a consistent refusal to consider such work in relation to the artistic goals of the majority culture. Although visual representations of African Americans were considered authentic American subject matter, black artists and their works were conspicuously absent from the discussions of democracy and culture which dominated the era.

Mainstream reviews of African American art tended to dwell instead on anecdote and biography, stressing the professional accomplishments of, and the awarding of prizes to, artists who emerged from extremely humble circumstances. Almost entirely absent from these notices were critical discussions which sought to appraise individual works of art in terms of their aesthetic value. To an extent, this situation reflects the general state of American art criticism during these years. With some notable exceptions, a good deal of art writing in America before World War II was a mixed bag of journalism and editorial commentary. Art criticism was not highly professionalized in the United States, and American critics with a consistent, recognizable methodology were rare. Essays on art and culture, especially those featured regularly in literary magazines and the popular press, were often contributed by individuals with very little background in the visual arts.

As a rule, paradigms advanced by artists and critics for the development of a national American art simply ignored the existence of African Americans. This exclusion is particularly interesting when such paradigms are compared to similar paradigms for the development of a black aesthetic during these years. Theories of modern American realism, which emphasized the importance of an authentic American artistic content rooted in both personal and communal experience, are not at all incompatible with notions of black creativity which circulated during the Harlem Renaissance. Both of these respective groups discussed artistic expression as the function of an individual temperament mediated by the context of a specific environment. And although they believed that art should integrate broad societal concerns with personal psychology, nominally both objected to the creation of art as overt political propaganda.

During the inter-war decades, at a time when black expression, especially in music, was a powerful signifier of American culture in Europe, racism and segregation in the United States made it improbable that the visual art of African Americans would take its rightful place as a vital contribution to national culture. In an age which merged nationalistic and aesthetic issues, and in which critical discourse about art often lacked sophistication and focus, race was the only clear issue in considerations of African American art. The legacy of the inter-war decades is an understanding of black art as different, as specific, and as interesting, but not as "American" insofar as American art was understood to define the nation and its democratic ideas.

Because the critical record of African American art has been defined by the separatism of American life, failure to examine this art in an expansive national context continues to characterize much historical scholarship on this period. For example, while there is a fair amount of literature on the history of American art criticism, none of it addresses black art or black criticism. Thus, the issues which preoccupied American critics and artists during these years have been clearly identified, but these have not been brought to bear on the analysis of African American art.

Also, literature on the emergence of a black aesthetic typically locates this notion in the broad context of American cultural history (Nathan Huggins' seminal work on the Harlem Renaissance is exemplary in this regard), but it seldom draws large distinctions between artistic activity in different media. Accomplishments in poetry, theater and music tend to be centralized as the most representative forms of artistic expression during the Harlem Renais-sance; production in the visual arts has been largely overlooked until quite recently. Thus in approaching this problem, I have observed, on the one hand, an absence of African Americans in discussions of American art and criticism and, on the other, the relative obscurity of visual artistic production with the Harlem Renaissance itself.

I am hoping to bridge some of these gaps with my research, to bring to discussions of American art and criticism in the inter-war decades an awareness of issues relevant to black expression, and to demonstrate the extent to which visual art made by African Americans satisfied a cultural agenda responsive simultaneously to racial and national ambitions. This study will seek to establish that, from the standpoint of African American art, the early 20th century is a regrettable tale not only of neglect, but also of missed opportunities; a tale which has its origins, in part, in the rhetoric and failings of art criticism.


Mary Ann Calo was a visiting professor at Colgate for a number of years before relocating to Florence, Italy, where she taught in the Syracuse University Study Abroad Program. Professor Calo returned to Colgate in 1991 and is currently assistant professor in the department of art and art history. She teaches courses on American art, 20th century art and theory, and women and art. Her research interests include historiography and the history of art criticism. The author of Bernard Berenson and the Twentieth Century (1994), she is currently at work on a study of cultural nationalism and the critical reception of African American art. She will be speaking about her recent research to alumni clubs in Florida during March.