The Aesthetic Debate: What is Black Art?

Defining the function and purpose of Black art during the rise of the Black Arts Movement was a recurring source of debate for artists and art critics, both black and white. As "black shows," art exhibitions exclusively featuring the work of African American visual artists, came in vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the increased emphasis on African American artists' racial identification in a period of heightened race-consciousness led many members of the American art world to grapple with the meaning of "Black" so frequently attached to descriptions of African American artistry.

For cultural theorists and artists aligned with the cultural politics of Black Power, Black art, as opposed to artwork simply created by an African American artist, signified the only "relevant" artistic production in the struggle for African American self-determinacy. As such, Black art, in the view of Black Power supporters, necessarily rejects the "art for art's sake theory" in favor of advancing art's sociopolitical influence in the re-defintion of African American identity. Black art, in accordance with Black Power, exists exclusively for the upliftment and distinction of the black community.

Yet the very terms in which Black Arts supporters defined Black art as relevant to African Americans' political revolution were the terms in which dissenting artists and critics found Black art incompatible with the demands of visual artistry. The emphasis on politicized expression and the obligations imposed on African American artists, in the dissenting view, left Black art retrogressively propagandistic and devoid of true aesthetic merit. Furthermore, those unaligned with Black Cultural Nationalism, believed that the exclusivity implied in the term Black undermined the very nature of art--a universal record of human experience.

Listed below are links to excerpted essays and reviews from the Black Arts period. Collectively, these excerpts reflect the ideological divide in the conception of Black art, a divide that rests as much on differing views of art as on perceptions of Black.

  • Setting forth the principles of Black Cultural Nationalism, Ron Karenga

  • Questioning the artistic merit of Black nationalist art: 'Black Art' and Expedient Politics, Hilton Kramer
    (A white art critics' review of the 1970 "Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston" exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Art)

  • Explaining the inevitable failure of white art critics to assess the artistic merit of Black art: White Critic-Black Art???, Melvin Dixon

  • An African American visual artist's rejection of Black Arts prescriptions: Black is a Color, Raymond Saunders

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