Black art, like everything else in the black community, must respond positively to the reality of revolution.
It must become and remain part of the revolutionary machinery that moves us to change quickly and creatively. We have always said, and continue to say, that the battle we are waging now is the battle for the minds of Black people, and that if we lose this battle, we cannot win the violent one. It becomes very important then, that art plays the role it should play in Black survival and not bog itself down in the meaningless madness of the Western world wasted. In order to avoid this madness, black artists and those who wish to be artists must accept the fact that what is needed is an aesthetic, a black aesthetic, that is a criteria for judging the validity and/or beauty of a work of art.
Pursuing this further, we discover that all art can be judged on two levels--on the social level and on the artistic level....Let it be enough to say that the artistic consideration, although a necessary part, is not sufficient. What completes the picture is that social criteria for judging art. And it is this criteria that is the most important criteria. For all art must reflect and support the Black Revolution, and any art that does not discuss and contribute to the revolution is invalid, no matter how many lines and spaces are produced in proportion and symmetry and no matter how many sounds are boxed in or blown out and called music.
So what, then, is the use of art--our Black art? Black art must expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution. It must be like LeRoi Jones' poems that are assassins' poems, poems that kill and shoot guns and "wrassle cops into alleys taking their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland." It must be functional like the poem of another revolutionary poet from "US," Clyde Halisi, who described the Master's words as "Sun Genies dancing through the crowd snatching crosses and St. Christopher's from around niggers' necks and passing the white gapped legs in their minds to Simbas to be disposed of."
Or, in terms of painting, we do not need pictures of oranges in a bowl or trees standing innocently in the midst of a wasteland. If we must paint oranges and trees, let our guerillas be eating those oranges for strength and using those trees for cover. We need new images, and oranges in a bowl or fat white women smiling lewdly cannot be those images. All material is mute until the artist gives it a message, and that message must be a message of revolution. Then we have destroyed "art for art's sake," which is of no use anyhow, and have developed art for all our sake, art for the Mose the miner, Sammy the shoeshine boy, T.C. the truck driver and K.P. the unwilling soldier.
In conclusion, the real function of art is to make revolution, using its own medium.
This essay, in its entirety, appears in The Black Aesthetic, (ed. Addison Gayle, Jr., New York: Doubleday Inc., 1972), pages 31-37.
With the bulk of the "black art" in the Boston show, we are in the presence of political propaganda pure and simple. For the most part, this art displays a vivid, highly exacerbated black awareness of social problems and social aspirations, but an altogether depressing lack of awareness of artistic problems. Such art undoubtedly has its purposes--for the white public as well as for the black--but they are not artistic purposes. With the purposes of art, such work is not really concerned. No discernible artistic standards obtain its creation. One is left with the unhappy impression that the practicioners of "black art" have been very largely content to draw upon the most moribund visual conventions of the white art world for the expression of black social grievances. Perhaps such work will serve in Mr. Gaither's words to "project the future which the nation can anticipate after the struggle is won," but I frankly doubt it. Its very style--and lack of style--looks to the past rather than the future. The only thing such work signifies about the future is a permanent division between artistic excellence and political enlightenment.
What role, you may wonder, has the Museum of Fine Arts played in mounting this exhibition, which is only in part an exhibition that speaks in the name of disinterested artistic accomplishment?...The museum raised the money for the show, lent its facilities and extended its hospitality to it, but otherwise had little voice in determining its nature or quality. There is no mistaking the fact that the exhibition is the result of community political pressure.
Would a museum with a healthier more knowledgable and sympathetic interest in contemporary art have been in a position to handle the complex problems of a "black show" differently? I don't really know. For so long as political criteria are insisted upon in the selection of "black shows," and the imposition of rigorous artistic standards is regarded as simply one more form of white racism, I am not sure that any art institution--no matter what its past history my be--can deal with the "black" problem any other way. Yet I see no point in pretending that an exhibition such as the present one in Boston is anything but what it actually is: an art exhibition mounted under the pressures of political expediency that fails, by and large, to justify itself in terms of artistic accomplishment.
This review, in its entirety, appears in the New York Times art editorial section, June 7, 1970. It is one of a series of articles written in the summer of 1970 by Hilton Kramer, a white art critic, Edmund Gaither, an African American curator, and Benny Andrews, an African American artist, debating the artistic import of "Afro-Americans: New York and Boston." The exhibition represented the first collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston's National Center of Afro-American Art, under the direction of curator Edmund Gaither.
Black Art, by definition, exists primarily for Black people. It is an art which combines the social and political pulse of the Black community into an artistic reflection of that emotion, that spirit, that energy. As an aesthetic foundation it seeks to step beyond the white Western framework of American art which has enclosed and smothered any previous expression of Blackness.
Both by choice and design, Black art is not a part of the American cultural scene. Its aesthetics is deeply rooted in the day to day existence and/or activity of Black people. Any investigation of this aesthetics has been denied or washed over so that an indigenous Black art has all but foundered in the mainstream of commericialism.
Black art reflects the activities of Black people. It unlocks the ideological barriers of the slave-nigger-negro-black mentality in us to foster a greater expression of the free creative consciousness. By definition it is beyond the sick white culture that run the entire course of its Western aesthetics, and can now only make desperate attempts at grasping some essence of life through a decadent mudity which only exhibits pale, ragged, sterile bodies or forms in the name of new ART. Ha!...
Because [Black artists] choose not to follow traditional Western approaches to art and allow its tired definitions and categories to define us, we look to life itself, our life, which as a result of cultural oppression is infinitely more different than any other life on this planet. Therein we find our aesthetics and finally our critical expertise...
A white person as "critic" does not belong in Black art. He cannot establish himself as one who can effectively measure the worth of Black productions for they are beyond his jurisdiction...A white critic in Black art is only an outsider looking in. He cannot validly assess the artistic merit of the Black experience because, more often than not, the whole ritual is simply beyond his comprehension or concern. He is unaware of the various rhythms and pulses within the Black community, or the ideological differences among Black people. He is not in direct communion with the artist, for Black artists speak primarily to Black people, the Black community, and from that spiritual union he is barred by necessity.
White critics cannot, or are simply afraid to, deal with the complexities of Black life styles and explore the ambivalent relations among Black people. This type of critical investigation must be the work of Black critics. It must be the commitment of of the Black critic to effectively analyze the development of the varied Black arts and through a crtitical eye, focus towards the progress of Black art in all its dimensions.
When white people stop trying to criticize Black accomplishments, then maybe Black artists will stop catering to the white audience for white approval. The perhaps Black art will progress to a deeper spirituality beyond the decadent sterility of that Western omnivorous monster called "Art,"...and indeed be BLACK!"
This essay, in its entirety, appears in Black Art Notes (ed. Tom LLoyd, Black Art Notes, 1971) a collection of "counterstatements" offered by African American artists as a rebuttal to the introductory catalog for "Comtemporary Black Artists in America," an exhibition of African American art hosted by the Whitney Museum in April 1971. Many African American artists and critics viewed the exhibition as a misrepresentation of and affront to African American art because it was hosted without the consultation of an African American curator.
Some angry artist are using their art as political tools, instead of vehicles of free expression...An artist who is always harping upon resistance, discrimination, opposition, besides being a drag, eventually plays right into the hands of the politicians he claims to despies--and is held there, unwittingly (and witlessly) reviving slavery in another form. For the artist, this is aesthetic atrophy.
Certainly the American black artist is in a unique position to express certain aspects of the current American scene, both negative and positive, but if he restricts himself to these alone, he may risk becoming a mere cypher, a walking protest, a politically prescribed stereotype, negating his own mystery and allowing himself to be shuffled off into an arid overall mystique.
Racial hangups are extraneous to art, no artist can afford to let them obscure what runs through all art--the living root and the ever-growing aesthetic record of human spiritual and intellectual experince. Can't we get clear of these degrading limitations, and recognize the wider reality of art, where color is the means and not the end?
This excerpt from Saunders 1967 pamphlet Black is a Color appears in African-American Art (Sharon F. Patton, New York: Oxford UP, 1998), pages 227-228.