Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control
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Black Art, Folk Art, and Social ControlAuthor(s): Eugene W. MetcalfSource: Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), pp. 271-289Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont WinterthurMuseum, Inc.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180989 .Accessed: 20/12/2014 10:20
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Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control
Eugene W. Metcalf
AESTHETIC AND SOCIAL ISSUES in the
history of black American art have often been difficult to disentangle from one
another. Such confusion is encountered in all art, of course, but it has been a particular burden for black Americans. Art represents and sanctifies what is valued in a society; the ability to create and appreciate art implies heightened human sensi- bility and confers social status and prestige. A people said to be without art, or with a degraded form of it, reputedly show themselves lacking in the qualities that dignify human experience and social interaction. They are said to be "un- cultured," "primitive," unable to participate in refined society. Definitions of art are therefore highly political. They are major battlegrounds on which the struggle for human and social rec- ognition is waged. A people can ill afford to let others control the definitions by which their arts are classified and evaluated.
The history of black American art dem- onstrates the social consequences of such aesthetic control. During the first centuries of black experi- ence in America, partly to support a social system grounded on the denial of the humanity of black people, whites generally refused to admit that blacks could make art at all. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twen- tieth, enough black artists had mastered the white Europeanized aesthetic tradition to argue that blacks had proved their civility and should be allowed the benefits of American democracy. No "people that has ever produced great literature
and art," said James Weldon Johnson, "has ever been looked on by the world as distinctly inferior."' Yet to gain a measure of acceptance from the white art world and white society, black fine artists have often been forced to conform to artistic traditions and forms that denied their unique cultural heri- tage and the reality of their American experience.
This was not true for all black artists, however. From the earliest years of their American captivity, blacks had practiced aspects of the traditional arts of Africa. Although these activities did not con- form to white artistic definitions and so were not dignified with the name art, they did provide their makers and communities a sense of historical con- tinuity, a method to help merge conflicting cultural forces into intelligible social patterns, and impor- tant support for human value in the face of a slave system bent on denying it. Long before black Americans learned European fine arts and were taught to be ashamed of their folk practices as evi- dence of slavery and barbarism, they had mastered these African-derived traditional art forms, the practice of which would continue to the present as a vibrant force in black American society.
Despite the significance of folk art in black American culture, virtually no general studies of the history of American art take seriously black American contributions. In the rare instances when they are mentioned, it is usually only the works that have met the aesthetic standards of academic taste and "high culture." The few spe- cialized exhibitions and books that have focused entirely on the work of black American artists have also generally adopted a high-cultural bias.2 A no- Eugene W. Metcalf is associate professor at the School of
Interdisciplinary Studies, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. The author appreciates the comments of Judith Fryer, Cur- tis Ellison, Leonard Hochberg, John Vlach, Kenneth Ames,
John Frase, and especially Alan Axelrod on earlier versions and dedicates this paper to Peter Clecak, with long-overdue thanks.
1 James Weldon Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922; 2d ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), p. 9.
2 An important exception to this is an exhibition, organized for the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1978 by John Michael Vlach, and its catalogue, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. It emphasizes the folk traditions in black American culture and art.
o 1983 by The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. All rights reserved. oo84-0416/83/1804-ooo3$o2.oo
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272 Winterthur Portfolio
table example is one of the largest exhibitions of black American art presented to date, "Two Cen- turies of Black American Art," sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organized by David C. Driskell. Mounted in 1976, this exhibi- tion included examples of black art and craftsman- ship from the years of slavery through contempo- rary times. However, in the choice of its materials and in the writing of the catalogue, this show evi- denced a number of stereotypes. Focusing on the academic tradition in black American art, the exhi- bition emphasized the growth of black art into a high-culture activity. Assuming a linear notion of the development of artistic competence, it pre- sented first some black American folk traditions such as metalworking, woodworking, grave-site decoration, and basketmaking. The development of these arts was viewed through the eighteenth century, when black portraiture had its beginnings. At this historical point, with the introduction of Joshua Johnston (w. 1796-1824), one of the ear- liest known black portrait artists, Driskell almost completely dropped the discussion of folk- motivated artifacts to devote about three times as much space and effort to showing the development and mastery by black Americans of the academic arts. The message here is clear. While playing an important role in early black artistic development, folk arts and crafts are now no longer significant, or perhaps even living, traditions. They have been outgrown by black American artists as the artists have developed academic skills. Says Driskell, "An apprenticeship in the crafts often served to prime talent in painting, drawing, or sculpture, and skilled black artisans traditionally moved up the scale from journeyman to master craftsman, then entered a particular area of the fine arts.""3
Driskell is not alone in this view. In his 1943 Modern Negro Art, James A. Porter devotes only an introductory chapter to black American folk art, although he gives black folk arts more notice than does Cedric Dover, whose American Negro Art (1960) devotes only 3 pages to the topic, or Elsa Honig Fine, whose Afro-American Artist (1973) gives roughly 10 out of 300 pages to the discussion of early black American folk art. One of the most re- cent histories of black art, Samella Lewis's Art: Af- rican American (1978), is no better. Lewis allows only 3 pages to the "craft heritage" in a chapter entitled "Cultural Deprivation and Slavery" and then goes on to pick up the topic later in a 12-page
section on crafts, which asserts that most "African memories" existing in early American crafts were obliterated by industrialization and improved transportation in the nineteenth century.4
In the context of this dearth of black folk art scholarship an exhibition organized by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley in 1982 for the Corcoran Gallery of Art promised to be a signal contribution. Sponsored by a major museum and (at this writing) still enjoying an extended showing in a number of large cities, "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980" was conceived as a path- finding endeavor. The exhibition presents nearly 400 objects, the work of twenty black artists, and seeks to discover and present a new artistic phenomenon. "We are dealing," says Livingston, "with a genuinely unique, historically cir- cumscribed occurrence within the history of American art, and the stunning fact remains that it is virtually unexamined. It is unaccounted for sociologically and unknown art-historically."5
This "unique occurrence" is the production in the last half century of a significant body of black American art. During this period, according to Livingston, perhaps half of the great American folk artists have been black, and, according to Beardsley, the art they have created is remarkably different from much of the black American art that has preceded it. Unlike most early black American art, in which blacks struggled to main- tain "a slight sense of cultural identity . . . and ... to alleviate the oppressive conditions of their lives," this new art, responding to "the sudden matura- tion of a [black] material culture," is grounded in "the assertion of cultural richness and racial pride."' Livingston and Beardsley argue not only for the significance of black folk art but also for its contemporaneity. They suggest that it is a significant influence on many contemporary "mainstream" artists.
But how do Livingston and Beardsley define this black art, and how does the definition relate it to its makers and users? "It is an aesthetic
:1 David C(. Driskell, Two Centuries of Black American Art (New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp. 12-14.
4James A. Porter, Modern Negro Art (New York: Dryden Press, 1943); Cedric Dover, American Negro Art (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1960); Elsa Honig Fine, The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973); Samella S. Lewis, Art: African American (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 7-22.
'Jane Livingston, "What It Is," in Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, Black Folk Art in America, i93o-i98o (Jackson: Uni- versity Press of Mississippi, 1982), p. 21.
6 Livingston, "What It Is," p. I1; John Beardsley, "Spiritual Epics: The Voyage and the Vision in Black Folk Art," in Livingston and Beardsley, Black Folk Art, pp. 50-51.
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Black Art, Folk Art 273
paradoxically based in a deeply communal culture, while springing from the hands of a relatively few, physically isolated individuals," says Livingston. "The style I am characterizing has to do not with crafts or traditional utilitarian artisanship, but with full-fledged, gratuitous art objects, paintings and drawings and sculptures." Nevertheless, she con- tinues later:
The traditions in American black art stemming from various crafts.., .clearly provide paradigms for the much more independent and improvisatory twentieth century art that is presented in this exhibition. In linking these two phenomena, certain insistently repetitive themes recur. For instance it is useful to note that the ubiquitous snake or lizard begins to appear on canes at an early time and continues to reappear in contempo- rary folk art; a certain kind of facial expression, one with menacing or at least prominent teeth and concave or inset eyes, ... . seems derived from the face-jug tradition; many early quilt patterns suggest the coloristic and com- positional approaches which would appear in twentieth century black folk painting. But it is not the continuities as much as the many examples of novelty and individua- tion which we find in the work of these twenty artists, which become so assertive as we study the work.7
At the heart of these definitional statements, as Livingston suggests, there lies a paradox, but it is one more profound than she intimates. Black American folk art is defined here as both com- munal and individual. It is said to represent con- tinuity and novelty. To a point, such paradoxes are appropriate and central to the nature of folk art, an art in which individual expression exists within, and is enabled by, communal forms and traditions. It is an art in which the tension between personal freedom and social restraints often gives meaning and power to artistic expression. But this tension and paradox can exist only as long as the com- munal and traditional domains exert a significant influence on the artist. Once individuation and novelty overshadow tradition, as Livingston suggests they may in this exhibition, the art is no longer significantly folk. That is the problem here. Is this black art folk or not?
The primary cultural root of black American folk art is, of course, African. Although this heri- tage remains an unaltered presence in very few black American visual arts, it is the basis of the context in which black American folk art occurs. Created within this traditional setting and made largely according to the ideas and standards of the group, black folk art responds significantly to a
collective sensibility that is identifiable and pro- found.
In defining the art in "Black Folk Art in America," there is an attempt to assert a communal tradition as well as the idea of strikingly individual artistic expression. The result is a confusion of contexts, with the organizers of the exhibition claiming that the works presented fully respond both to the long history and tradition of black folk art and to overpowering and unprecedented indi- vidual artistic visions. It is said in the catalogue that these black artists "are members of the last two generations of a vivid tradition that reaches back virtually to the first era of slavery in the United States" and later that the output of the artists rep- resents "bodies of work whose range of style and subject and technique approaches that of some of the great modernist outputs. They are not bodies of work made in the spirit of generationally inher- ited artisanship... .;they are artistic oeuvres." Although the catalogue includes an article written by art historian Regenia Perry that outlines some of the early manifestations of the black American folk tradition and asserts that "it is against this il- lustrious background that the works in the present exhibition... should be viewed," it also admits that "this exhibition is without precedent."s
Because of these contradictions, the definition of black folk art presented in the exhibition catalogue finally becomes so unwieldy that it is useless even to those who propose it. "In analyzing the way in which these folk artists are 'major,' " says Livingston, "we cannot always use the same criteria we apply in judging 'high art.' For the very prem- ises of the endeavor are different." Yet, she con- tradicts herself almost immediately: " 'Folk art,'... in its broadest definition, is not strictly synonymous with the phenomenon we are dealing with on the present occasion .... It is not an occurrence which truly finds parallel in other so-called 'folk art' events." After arguing that the art she presents is both a fundamental part of the black folk tradition and comparable to that of the great modernists, Livingston announces that it is neither folk nor fine. The best she can suggest is a description that explains nothing beyond what the exhibition title already conveys: "Two factors inherent in this project separate it from any familiarly examined category," says Livingston directly after admitting that the works in the exhibition are not folk art. "First, all the artists shown here are black Ameri-
7 Livingston, "What It Is," pp. 11, 17-18.
8 Livingston, "What It Is," pp. 13, 18; Regenia A. Perry, "Black American Folk Art: Origins and Early Manifestations," in Livingston and Beardsley, Black Folk Art, pp. 37, 25-
274 Winterthur Portfolio
cans; and second, the work produced falls into a fifty-year chronological period."9
How did contemporary folk art criticism reach such a tangled and meaningless conclusion about the work of black artists? The answer lies in his- tory; for, although black folk art has been in- corporated into general American art history rarely and inadequately, the emerging contempo- rary interest in the subject has historical precedent. In the 1920s and 1930s two events occurred that were instrumental in establishing the artistic and social backgrounds from which the modern idea of black folk art, as expressed in the Corcoran show, would grow. The first of these was a black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance; the second was the discovery and popularization of American folk art. Like the work of Livingston and Beardsley, both of these involved the discovery and promotion of a new vision of American art and culture through unearthing unique bodies of American art.
The official manifesto of the Harlem Renais- sance was issued in December 1925. Entitled The New Negro and edited by Alain Locke, a black Harvard-educated professor of philosophy at Howard University, it contained a variety of arti- cles, poems, stories, and pictures by blacks and their white supporters. The purpose of the book, said Locke, was to "document the New Negro cul- turally and socially,-to register the transforma- tions of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years." In the lead essay of the volume Locke elaborated on this artistic, cultural, and so- cial awakening. The transformation in black America had not come overnight, he wrote. Although long overshadowed by the old racist stereotypes of indolence and servility, the New Negro had been around for some time, and he was remarkably unlike the old, outworn image. No longer primarily a rural southerner, he now lived in the great cities of the North. This migration, coupled with black American experiences in the First World War, resulted in a new massing of black energy, a new black cosmopolitan view, and feelings of race pride and militancy. Nowhere was this more evident than in Harlem, the largest black community in the world, where "Negro life [was] seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.''10
Armed with a deep awareness of race, black artists were creating a new black American art. Yet, Locke counseled, in discovering and defining their culture, blacks should not forget that they were also Americans striving for full participation with whites in American institutions and culture. Lower-class blacks and whites had interacted frequently in the past, Locke pointed out, and the upper classes should do the same. Thus the great advantage in overturning the old Negro stereo- types was "the releasing of [their] talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression." Through this expression would come significant artistic achievement, the sign of cultural matura- tion. This, in turn, should cause among en- lightened blacks and whites "that reevaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race re- lationships."11
Art was to be a vehicle for social uplift, and so, as Nathan Huggins has pointed out, during this period black intellectuals promoted the arts as if their lives depended on it. Although primarily concerned with literary arts, the period also saw the promotion of music, painting, and sculpture. All were viewed as important indicators of black cultural maturity and were promoted in deadly earnest. Indeed, due to its very seriousness, this promotion at times took on an almost comic aspect. According to Aaron Douglas, an important black painter who worked during the period, "Harlem was sifted. Neither streets, homes nor public in- stitutions escaped. When unsuspecting Negroes were found with a brush in their hands they were immediately hauled away and held up for inter- pretation. They were given places of honour and bowed to with much ceremony. Every effort to protest their innocence was drowned out with big-mouthed praise. A number escaped and re- turned to a more reasonable existence. Many fell in with the game and went along making hollow and meaningless gestures with brush and palette."12
Two sources that contributed significantly to the new black situation and attitude were the dis- covery and celebration of the black common man and his folk culture and the discovery of a black American heritage in Africa. In the years after the Civil War, middle-class black leaders saw the folk practices of the black masses as embarrassing ob- stacles to be overcome, the legacy of slavery. How-
" Livingston, "What It Is," pp. 19, 20-21. 10 Alain Locke, "The New Negro," in The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (1925; reprint ed., New York: Atheneum, 1975), p. xv.
" Locke, "New Negro," p. 15. 12 Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (London: Ox-
ford University Press, 1971), p. 9; Aaron Douglas quoted in Dover, Negro Art, p. 31.
Black Art, Folk Art 275
ever, after World War I this view changed. Now the folk life and art of the common man took on a romantic appeal. Although most black leaders and intellectuals still looked to the black middle class for their support and continued to view high cul- ture and art as the signs of civilization and cultural maturity, they turned, like intellectuals the world over, to a study and celebration of folk societies.13 Suddenly the culture of the black peasant was no longer an example of everything about the black man that was ignorant and backward, but was rather a life seen in its essentials, which, if under- stood, might yield distinctive traits of the black American character. And the art of these men was likewise significant. It represented a uniquely American expression of folk art. Although in its unsophisticated natural form it could not support the kind of high-cultural pretentions Locke and the supporters of the Harlem Renaissance de- manded, it nevertheless was now viewed as a vi- brant source on which black artists could draw to create a formidable fine art.
Thus black American folk culture and art be- came popular topics for black artists and in- tellectuals in the twenties. Folklorists like Arthur Huff Fauset collected and studied black American folklore in the South to document it before it was lost. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, a student of Franz Boaz, sifted black folk experience for use in the creation of their prose. Painters like Archibald Motley and Aaron Douglas used black folk characters and themes on their canvases.14
Connected to this surge of interest in the black folk was the development of an enthusiasm for Af- rican culture and art. A few years earlier European intellectuals and artists had "discovered" Africa. Roughly concurrent with the development of the modern techniques of anthropology, this new interest recognized in African culture and art a sophistication and complexity not ascribed to them before. African art came to be valued for its aesthetic qualities, particularly its qualities of de- sign, and it influenced the works of numerous European artists, especially the cubists. All of this was very useful for American blacks, offering them a valuable cultural heritage and aesthetic tradition rooted not in white Western culture and the ex- perience of American slavery, but in a proud and
vital tradition that went back centuries and to which white Western culture was itself now turning for inspiration. Many black sculptors, painters, poets, and writers of the 1920s plumbed both their folk experience and their African heritage, seeking not only images of black pride and cultural dignity but also some lesson that might help create a unique American fine art.
According to Huggins, the fact that black in- tellectuals and artists of the Harlem Renaissance placed such primary emphasis on the creation of high art is not surprising. During the era of the First World War blacks and whites alike commonly believed that high culture and art were the mea- sure of civilization. James Weldon Johnson was but reiterating a generally held assumption when he remarked in the preface to his Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) that the only measure by which cultural greatness can be recognized and acknowl- edged is the "amount and standard of literature and art" that the culture has produced.15 Thus, points out Huggins, the hope of black Americans that the production of a black fine art would an- nounce to the white world a cultural "coming of age" was analogous to the general struggle against the European cultural hegemony in an effort to produce a distinctively American art and culture.
Huggins goes even further. In his brilliant book, Harlem Renaissance (1971), he shows how the black art of the period was produced by, and must be understood in terms of, the subtle interaction and often unacknowledged mutual dependencies between black and white Americans.16 That the art of black Harlem was in many ways created for white consumption must not be overlooked. In the cultural turmoil following World War I many white middle-class Americans, especially in- tellectuals and the young, were cast adrift from the institutional and ideological moorings of American society. Feeling betrayed by the war and the false hopes it had raised and enmeshed in a society undergoing technological and demographic change, they revolted against traditional values and behavior. Some left America entirely; others stayed. But the 192os were for whites as well as blacks a time of dislocation and adjustment. Although what happened in Harlem served the needs of both groups, it was the whites who ben- efited more.
Crowded together for the first time in large 13 Black leader Marcus Garvey was a prominent exception to those who sought support from the white middle class. In many ways his organization, Universal Negro Improvement Associa- tion, was to lower-class blacks what the Harlem Renaissance was to the middle class.
14 For representative discussion of these folklorists, writers, and artists, see Huggins, Harlem Renaissance.
15 Johnson, Negro Poetry, p. 9. 16 The idea of the mutual dependency of black and white Americans in the fashioning of American experience is a major theme of Huggins's Harlem Renaissance. I am indebted to his argument throughout much of the rest of this section.
276 Winterthur Portfolio
metropolitan areas, blacks and whites discovered each other anew in the wake of the war. In New York this discovery was instrumental in the crea- tion of the Harlem Renaissance. Seeking to liberate themselves from dull and debilitating tradition, to reinvigorate their lives, whites turned their atten- tion to Harlem, often to get their first close-up look at black Americans.
They found what they sought. In the years be- fore the war, white writers had already suggested that black Americans might possess a gift of primitivism and simplicity that preserved them from the technological sterility of American soci- ety. After the war, this black American primitivism, expressed often in terms of African origins, was discovered and celebrated by whites from all over the world. According to French journalist Paul Morand, a ride on the New York subway, where one could view blacks "clinging with long hooking hands to the leather straps, chewing their gum," was much like a trip to darkest Africa. Indeed, in Harlem all black life seemed to evince "an animal swiftness, a war-like zest.., .savage and trium- phant," a welcome antidote to "the mechanical rhythm of America."'7 Suddenly, enlightened whites could not learn enough about black America. Whites flocked to Harlem to dance and drink, threw interracial parties, and supported the work of black painters and writers. Small wonder that the mood of many black intellectuals and art- ists sometimes ran to buoyant optimism. Blacks not only were discovering and defining themselves and their culture, but, for perhaps the first time, they also were supported and encouraged in this en- deavor by white America.
This support may seem surprising. These same years saw a hardening of caste lines and a re- surgence of racism resulting in bloody riots and the rebirth of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the contradiction only emphasizes how the Harlem Renaissance served the overwhelming needs of both blacks and whites. For middle-class blacks and black leaders the events of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to promise the fulfillment of a dream held since Emancipation-that by working through the system and proving themselves worthy, blacks would eventually be granted equality in white soci- ety. For enlightened whites the new association with blacks offered not only the self-congratulation brought by the confidence that they were working to rid America of racial prejudice but also the hope
that some black spontaneity might be communi- cated to them, helping them to escape the strait- jacket of their overcivilized past.
As William E. Leuchtenburg has shown, at least as early as 19o8, with the publication of Van Wyck Brooks's Wine of the Puritans, Americans had be- come concerned that their Puritan heritage might be more a disadvantage than a boon. Brooks elabo- rated on this in America's Coming of Age (1915), writing that "catchpenny opportunism originating in the practical shifts of Puritan life" had resulted in the development of a modern American civilization in which spiritual values were outweighed by things and pleasure was crowded out by a love of material objects. Brooks's attack was hardly aimed at the Puritans alone; it was also directed at the American nineteenth century, which had spawned a business culture based on the conflation of profit and piety, and at the fear of increasing mechanization, which seemed to be turning people into automatons. It represented a common tendency to remake the past in the service of present needs. "Every age, of course, remakes history in its own image," remarked Howard Mumford Jones of the literary critics of the 192os, "but the special mark of these iconoclasts was a refusal of historical importance as a canon of judgment."'
Discarding history as a basis for judgments was made possible by the discovery of another standard of judgment in the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud's theories had been introduced to the United States in the last years of the nineteenth century, and by the 192os, according to Frederick Hoffman, they had been around long enough "to warrant considerable misuse." Whereas before the war Freud's name had been known primarily in medical and intellectual circles, in the twenties his work became a popular craze. To a society fearing that it was spiritually and emotionally stunted, Freud seemed to offer both a diagnosis and a cure. Grossly simplified and distorted by his populariz- ers, Freud was used in a frontal attack on Ameri- can business civilization and its Puritan past. The problem with civilization, the argument went, was that it squelched natural emotions and drives for the purposes of social order and regulation. Weighed down by their Puritan past, burdened by history as by a disease, Americans had sacrificed
7 Paul Morand quoted in Amritjit Singh, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923-1933 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p. 21.
18 William E. Leuchtenberg, The Perils of Prosperity, 19 4-1932 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 143-44. Van Wyck Brooks and Howard Mumford Jones quoted in Frederick J. Hoffman, The 2o's: American Writing in the Post- war Decade (1949; reprint ed., New York: Free Press, 1965), PP. 29, 145-46.
Black Art, Folk Art 277
spontaneity, feeling, and fun to achieve material prosperity, social decorum, and guilt. The result was repression, a word that came to symbolize all the evils visited on the modern human race by over- bearing civilization. The only escape, it was argued, was to trust and act on one's primitive desires, to frustrate social norms and expectations. If this was difficult for civilized Americans, it was made easier by the hundreds of handbooks published on the topic. For a small price one could order Psycho- analysis by Mail or obtain Ten Thousand Dreams Inter- preted through the Sears catalogue. And if this did not work, one could always go to Harlem to hob- nob with those marvelous black natives, who had almost magically escaped the enervating forces of civilization and were still able to live unrepressed, spontaneous, and exotic lives."1
Although a number of themes were important in the culture and art of Harlem in the 192os, primitivism was among the most influential. Sup- ported by the fascination with folklore and the cultural discovery of Africa, primitivism was not only a drawing card for Harlem nightlife but also an almost obligatory concern in any art form that aspired to popularity and sought to portray black America. Both black and white artists exploited the theme, as white patrons, promoters, and the public clamored for more. Yet despite its general accep- tance and popularity, primitivism was a dangerous and potentially debilitating stereotype. On the sur- face it seemed to represent a positive step forward for blacks by offering what appeared to be valuable historical roots, a positive black identity, and the promise of social progress. Examined more deeply, however, the promises were empty and served only to perpetuate the status quo and white racist power.
To begin with, Africa was for most American blacks in the twenties a make-believe past. Few had ever been there or knew anything about its culture and art or about the actual relationship between Africa and the culture and art of America. From the perspective of most of the artists of Harlem, who were striving for middle-class respectability through visions of fine art, Africa remained an imaginary exotic land of verdant, mysterious forests, wild beasts, and savages. As was the case with Puritanism for white America, Africa for most New Negroes represented more a fanciful image than a historical reality on which one could fashion an accurate sense of the present. Moreover, the new popular stereotypes of black primitivism were
remarkably similar to the old racist stereotypes of black self-indulgence and irresponsibility. Before the 192os blacks were condemned for being childlike and shiftless. After the war they were applauded for being spontaneous and free. The image had not become more accurate; rather, white society's view of itself had changed, and whites now used blacks to justify their own rebel- lion against the discontents of civilization.
Blacks who believed that this reworked white attitude represented something significantly new were in for a cruel shock. Primitivism could easily be a negative as well as a positive image, and ac- counts such as Morand's description of Harlem blacks as great African apes could be used to criticize as well as commend. Generally, it was hard to tell the difference between the derision and the praise. More than anything else, the cult of black primitivism allowed liberal whites to avoid the im- plications of their professed social ideology. By supporting and promoting black artists and their art, white patrons could believe that they were working toward a more egalitarian future, but by insisting that the black behavior and art they sup- ported conform to the unreal and potentially pejorative myth of primitivism, they were also in- suring, perhaps unknowingly, that this future would be unrealized and their own social position and power remain unchallenged. This was one of the ironies of the Harlem Renaissance. The very people to whom the New Negroes turned as the arbiters of cultural sophistication had the most in- vested in perpetuating the racist reality behind the primitivist myth.20
Like the promotion of black art by the white supporters of the Harlem Renaissance, the pro- motion of American folk art, which began about the same time, afforded its supporters useful strat- egies for coping with the uncertainties of a culture in transition. Reacting to fears of civilized sterility and searching for models of personality un- encumbered by social repression, both art move-
19 Hoffman, The 2o's, p. 365; Leuchtenberg, Perils of Pros- perity, p. 165-
2" For example, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were both supported by the same elderly white patron, Mrs. R. Osgood Mason. A wealthy woman, she financed Hughes for a year and Hurston for two. However, in return for her generous support, Mason expected her proteges to conform to her image of black primitivism and savagery, an image that Hughes even- tually could not indulge. His break with this patron was one of the most traumatic experiences of his life. "That beautiful room that had been so full of light and help and understanding for me, suddenly became like a trap closing in, faster and faster, the room darker and darker, until the light went out with a sudden crash" (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography [New York and London: A. A. Knopf, 1940], p. 325)-
278 Winterthur Portfolio
ments pandered to the myth of primitivism. The vision of the childlike black man was far removed from the image of the folk artist developed by folk art promoters. Not only were the adjectives of primitivism applied interchangeably, but black man and folk artist were both seen as inhabitants of similar imaginary idyllic pasts. The romanticized image of Africa developed by the Harlem promot- ers served the same escapist purposes as the vision of a simpler, more virtuous preindustrial America in which the critics located the production of the nation's folk art.
The popular enthusiasm for American folk art began when folk pieces first caught the attention of white American modern artists, some of whom spent the summer at the Ogunquit School of Painting and Sculpture, an artist colony established in 1913 by Hamilton Easter Field in Ogunquit, Maine. Field, a writer and a painter himself, had assembled at the colony a group of such objects as rag rugs, weather vanes, and primitive paintings with which he decorated the cottages rented to artists. Many of Field's summer guests, particularly sculptor Robert Laurent and painter Bernard Karfiol, quite taken with these unusual objects, soon began to collect similar things and tell their friends about them. This enthusiasm, influenced in part by the attraction primitive forms exercised upon European artists, was also affected by the perception of the American modernists that these folk objects were similar in feeling and form to the new art they were themselves producing. This connection helped justify and substantiate a break with the nineteenth-century impressionist and rep- resentational tendencies in high art. As Daniel Robbins has pointed out, American folk art of- fered American modernists a tradition for their new high art.21 Folk art served to connect the art- ists of the twenties and thirties with a long tradition apparently unique to America, giving them not only historical and cultural roots but also a reply to critics of American modern art who claimed that it was only another version of decadent European civilization.
The first public display of American folk art
took place in 1924 at the Whitney Studio Club, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's salon. Organized by artist Henry Schnackenberg, the exhibition pre- sented different kinds of folk objects belonging to Schnackenberg's artist friends. With this show, American folk art gained a wider audience, and soon dealers such as Isabel Carelton Wilde and Valentine Dudensing were marketing primitive objects and organizing shows themselves.
The most important early promoters of Ameri- can folk art discovered the field in 1925 and 1926. In the summer of 1925, Sam Halpert, a painter, and his wife, Edith, an art dealer and promoter, spent some time at the Ogunquit colony, returning the next summer with their friend Holger Cahill. Soon Cahill and Edith Halpert became moving forces in the promotion of American folk art. Hal- pert began collecting folk art and selling it at her Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village. By 1931, when she opened the American Folk Art Gallery, the first gallery devoted entirely to the promotion and sale of American folk art, she had become a leading impresario and had introduced to the field a number of wealthy and influential people, like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
Cahill, a member of the Newark Museum staff, became the first scholar to write extensively on American folk art, and in 1930 and 1931 he orga- nized two important shows of folk art, the first focusing on painting and the second on sculpture. Then, in 1932, as director of exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, he arranged one of the most important folk art exhibitions ever presented, "American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900oo." Drawn primarily from what had become the considerable collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, it established folk art as a major presence in the art world. In the introduc- tion to the exhibition catalogue Cahill drew on his earlier thinking and writing to codify a folk art aesthetic that continues to influence scholarship and collecting today. According to Alice Winches- ter, editor of Antiques for many years and an orga- nizer of "The Flowering of American Folk Art," an immensely influential 1974 exhibition often cred- ited with rekindling the contemporary interest in folk art, "Cahill's discussions of American folk art in exhibition catalogues of forty years ago are as sound and perceptive as anything that has been written since." The catalogue for the 1932 exhibi- tion "still stands as an indispensable reference on American folk art."22
21 The history of the folk art movement is outlined in Beatrix T. Rumford, "Uncommon Art of the Common People: A Review of Trends in the Collecting and Exhibiting of Ameri- can Folk Art," in Perspectives on American Folk Art, ed. Ian M. G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), pp. 13-53; and Tom Armstrong, "The Innocent Eye: American Folk Sculpture," in Tom Armstrong et al., 200oo Years of American Sculpture (New York: David R. Godine, 1976), pp. 74-111. Daniel Robbins, "Folk Sculpture without Folk," in Folk Sculpture USA, ed. Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr. (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1976), p. 12.
22 Alice Winchester, Introduction to Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester, The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876 (New York: Viking Press, 1974), pp. 12, 11.
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Cahill declared that folk art had a place in the history of America since the days of the early col- onies. Produced in an earlier, more democratic America where individuality and the virtues and values of handcraftmanship and agrarian life still prevailed, it flourished and grew until the Civil War, when it began to languish. Now new eco- nomic and social forces-the forces of industri- alism-cut Americans off from the land, eclipsing the craft tradition on which folk art depended and supporting a business civilization that produced lifeless machine-made copies of things formerly made by hand. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century the folk art tradition was weakened; by the century's end it was gone. Yet, according to Cahill, this tradition had supplied America with a valuable alternative artistic heri- tage: "That [the folk artists'] work was not the background for the development of American art as we know it today is one of the accidents of our art history." Arthur F. Egner declared in the foreword to the catalogue of one of Cahill's earlier exhibitions that the tradition of American folk art put the lie to the idea "that all our art has come to us in ships."23
The art to which Cahill and Egner referred re- sponded to the circumstances of its manufacture. What was present in the exhibition, said Cahill, "may be called primitive in the sense that it is the simple, unaffected and childlike expression of men and women who had little or no school training in art, and who did not even know that they were producing art." Nevertheless, these unassuming artists did know "how to coordinate the activity of the hand and the eye," faculties which produced a remarkable art that both "mirrors the sense and the sentiment of a community, and is an authentic expression of American experience." Fittingly, this American art was not produced by "professional artists ... for a small cultured class"; it "is the ex- pression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment." This body of folk art is as diverse as the people who made it. Including paintings, weather vanes, fire screens, and hitching posts, "the list of objects which come under the head of American folk art is practically inexhaustible."24
Although such objects were commonly avail-
able, Cahill was highly selective in gathering mate- rials for the exhibition. Acting upon an assumption common in the folk art field at the time, and that continues to influence it today, he carefully sought items primarily for their aesthetic value while ig- noring historical and social context. The emphasis was on the art, not the folk. This aesthetic rather than historical approach was popular partially be- cause Cahill and the other early folk art promoters knew little about the circumstances in which the art they collected was produced. Indeed, as Cahill admitted in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, most of the artists were unknown. The concentration on aesthetics also sprang from a bias inherited from the study of high art, which placed art in an ennobled realm above history and beyond mundane human occupations. Masterpieces tran- scended culture and were to be viewed in terms of aesthetics alone. "In selecting exhibits," Cahill had written in a 1931 exhibition catalogue, "the [Newark] Museum has stressed aesthetic quality rather than technical proficiency. It has tried to find objects which illustrated not only excellence in craftsmanship... but particularly those which have value as sculpture."25 In "The Art of the Common Man" Cahill grouped the folk art he pre- sented into the traditional high-art categories of painting and sculpture, thereby largely ignoring the functional aspects of folk objects.
Despite their enthusiasm, Holger Cahill and the folk art establishment viewed folk art much as the black Harlem intellectuals viewed their folk heritage: folk culture was exciting and invigorat- ing, an important background and inspiration for American fine art, but it could never be evidence of significant cultural sophistication or attainment. "Folk art cannot be valued as highly as the work of our greatest painters and sculptors," said Cahill in the introduction to the catalogue for the 1932 ex- hibition, "but it is certainly entitled to a place in the history of American art." Consequently, as an un- named reviewer of Cahill's exhibition noted, folk art, despite its deficiencies, "will always serve as a sort of touchstone as to what is genuine in feeling. Artists who find themselves growing mannered or stale will always be able to renew their appetite for expression by returning to examples of these early pioneers."26 Cahill's view of the creators of folk art was no less condescending. They were childlike, primitive people who could not even be given credit for knowing that they were producing art.
23 Holger Cahill, "American Folk Art," in American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, i750-I9oo (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1932), P. 7; Arthur F. Egner, Foreword to American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen (Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum, 1931), p. 10.
24 Cahill, "Folk Art," pp. 5, 3, 28, 6, 26.
25 Holger Cahill, "American Folk Sculpture," in American Folk Sculpture, p. 13.
26 Cahill, "Folk Art," p. 27; "New York Criticism," Art Digest 7, no. 6 (December 15, 1932): 14.
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While folk art was ranked aesthetically inferior to high art, the promotion of folk art, like the promotion of black art, reflected and embraced many of the attitudes associated with commerce in high art. By the late 1920S and 1930s, folk art and black art were just beginning to be valued much as high art had always been valued: as the perquisites of the elite and socially privileged. To use Thor- stein Veblen's celebrated phrase, all three kinds of art were coveted as objects of conspicuous con- sumption.
Cahill, in fact, had studied with Veblen, from whom he learned about the implications of "hand- craftsmanship as a dying American tradition."27 Of course, Veblen's work went far beyond this par- ticular concern, and it is doubtful that Cahill fully understood his teacher's thought. In his first book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen argued that art is an instrument of social status and con- trol. In modern society dominated by a leisure class that derives its position from not having to per- form necessary social labor, the conspicuous con- sumption of objects (such as art) that are not neces- sary for basic subsistence is a sign of status and honor. Furthermore, since collecting and learning about such objects is a waste of productive time, such conspicuous leisure is a sign that one need not employ his efforts to earn a living; thus con- noisseurship becomes a symbol of particular dis- tinction. Collecting and connoisseurship are not undertaken in a deliberate effort to waste and con- sume, but are inevitable consequences of the desire to live up to class norms and achieve social distinc- tion. The standards of distinction are established by the leisure class, the only social class that can actually afford to live in a conspicuously wasteful manner-but the standards it sets are aspired to by all members of society.
In Veblen's analysis, the production and appre- ciation of art becomes, as it became in the 1920S and 1930s, a measure of civilized sensibility and cultural maturation. As the Harlem intellectuals knew, high art was the measure of such civility, but folk art might confer an even higher status. Such status could not attach to the producers of folk art, for many of the objects they made, like weather vanes and shop signs, were produced for obviously utilitarian and socially useful ends, but it could apply to the promoters and collectors of the objects if the objects were treated in a nonutilitarian way. Thus, as with fine art, the possession of folk art could be an honorific sign of conspicuous con-
sumption, and spending one's time collecting it might serve as a symbol of conspicuous leisure. Moreover, since much folk art was originally created for utilitarian ends, the elevation of these objects to the status of nonutilitarian art, and the concomitantly high prices paid for the originally inexpensive "common" articles, raises the value of folk art above that of high art for the purposes of conspicuous display. Those who have been able to redefine-and thus revalue-these objects enjoy increased social power. Finally, the relative crude- ness of folk art objects increases the value of the objects yet further. According to Veblen:
Commonly, if not invariably, the honorific marks of hand labour are certain imperfections and irregularities in the lines of the hand-wrought article, showing where the workman has fallen short in his execution of the design. The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought goods, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would [also] be evidence of low cost.28
The promotion of folk art, like the promotion of black art, was carried on by an elite and served to support and extend the status of that group, often at the expense of the people whose work was being promoted. In a period of social flux and un- certainty, both Cahill's early writings and the views of the Harlem promoters helped established aesthetic definitions that allowed socially powerful groups to appear to support a new and more democratic vision of American art and society while actually protecting and even augmenting their exclusive social interests.
Black American folk art became an object of sustained interest only in the 197os, half a century after the "discovery" of black fine art and Ameri- can folk art. To be sure, individual works by blacks had been included in some books and exhibitions of American folk art, and shows of the work of individual black folk artists had occurred, but it was not until after the 1960s, following the black awareness movement and the development among American folklorists of an interest in items of ma- terial culture, that a real concern emerged for American folk art defined by its blackness.29
27 Rumford, "Uncommon Art," pp. 23-24.
28 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Eco- nomic Study of Institutions (1899; reprint ed., New York: New American Library, 1953), P. 114. 29 Horace Pippin and William Edmondson were among the first black folk artists to have one-man exhibitions. Ed- mondson's, presented in 1937 at the Museum of Modern Art,
Black Art, Folk Art 281
In the beginning most of the interest did not come from the established folk art world, but from a vanguard of scholars primarily committed to the folkloristic and anthropological assumption (classi- cally illustrated in Melville J. Herskovits's Myth of the Negro Past ) that black American folk culture and art were the products of traditional cultural patterns within the black community, pat- terns that could be traced to African origins. Part of a larger reexamination of the field of American folk art that was just then beginning, this view di- verged significantly from the folk art dogma enun- ciated in the twenties and thirties and rediscovered and celebrated anew by popular writers during the Bicentennial some fifty years later. According to the new scholarly view-opposed to outworn dogma and current popular sentiment-folk art was to be studied more for the qualities that made it folk than for those that made it art. The nature of folk art was to be discovered in its social context, not in an examination of internal aesthetic struc- tures. Indeed, aesthetic concerns were often said to be unimportant. Such views inevitably conflicted with the established folk art movement. However, black folk art was not yet as "collectible" as other kinds of folk art and therefore not as much a part of the marketplace, so it was not centrally involved in the dispute between aesthetics and context wit- nessed during the seventies.
But folklore scholars were very much at work during the 1970os identifying, studying, and en- couraging black artists and artisans. As in the Harlem of the 192os, blacks with any artistic talent began to find it difficult to avoid discovery by avid fieldworkers bent on promoting them as folk artists-sometimes against the artist's will. Some artists, in whose work very few links to African tradition could be found, were also promoted. These were celebrated as untutored individual black artistic talents.30 By the 198os, black art-
especially when it could be labeled as black folk art-had become a marketable commodity in the established folk art world. One result of this newly established valuation was "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980," which illustrates better than any other recent example the aesthetic and social injustice that can result from confounding black art with the idea of folk art inherited from the twenties and thirties. Many of the concepts and approaches that have been used to define black art and folk art closely resemble one another, so it is not surprising that confusion should occur. Not surprising, but hardly excusable; for it relegates black art to categories in which it is undervalued and misunderstood, and it perpetuates the social stereotypes that afflict black artists in particular and black people in general.
Apparently following the pattern established by folklorists in the 197os, the organizers of "Black Folk Art in America" contend that the artists in the exhibition work within a common black tradition. But this tradition is never defined historically; in- stead, it is linked to a common aesthetic trait said to connect the work of these twenty artists: "the over- arching atmosphere of a single tradition,. .. a single style." The rejection of a real historical con- text in favor of a decontextualized and vaguely ex- pressed aesthetic to define and value art has oper- ated in the popular folk art method since Holger Cahill. Of course, this approach is historically ir- responsible. "The emphasis on aesthetics com- bined with the elimination of context as a step in the apotheosis of an object to the status of art severely hinders the historian's attempt to explore the artifact's place in space and time," Kenneth Ames observes. "Even more damaging than no context, however, is falsified context, created to satisfy a priori assumptions about folk art, its meaning, and its makers." A falsified context is exactly what is created when black art is con- founded with the traditions of folk art as they were conceived by writers and collectors in the twenties and thirties.31
The organizers of "Black Folk Art in America" claim that black artists participate in "an esthetic which seems to understand the beauty which in- heres in intentional crudeness or indecorum. . . . It is in great measure an esthetic of compassionate ugliness and honesty. It is not an esthetic which worships or even emphasizes physical crafts- manship." That such an aesthetic can pander to
was the first solo exhibition of the work of a black artist at that museum. A good example of the new scholarly interest is Robert Farris Thompson, "African Influence on the Art of the United States," in Black Studies in the University, ed. Armstead L. Robinson, Craig C. Foster, and Donald H. Ogilvie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 122. Thompson's ground- breaking article was the first to discover important African con- tinuities in Afro-American visual arts.
30 Virginia Kiah, "Ulysses Davis: Savannah Folk Sculptor," Southern Folklore Quarterly 42 (1978): 271-85, examines the pro- cess and aesthetics of Ulysses Davis's wood carving. Kiah notes a number of African elements in his work even though she also reports that Davis knows nothing about African continuities in South Carolina and directly denies that he has been influenced by African traditions. An example of presenting an artist as an untutored talent is Elizabeth Mosby Adler, "It Takes a Smart Guy to... Take a Look at a Rock and Do Like That: George 'Baby' Scott (1865-1945), a Carver and His Repertoire," Mid- South Folklore 3 (1975): 46-60.
31 Livingston, "What It Is," p. 13; Kenneth L. Ames, Beyond Necessity: Art in the Folk Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 21.
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dangerous and socially debilitating a priori as- sumptions about black people and their art is obvi- ous. Like the concept of primitivism, the aesthetic of "compassionate ugliness" carries negative as well as positive connotations, which are never really ex- plained or significantly explored in terms of a black artistic tradition, except briefly in the case of James Thomas, a musician and a sculptor. The Black Folk Art in America catalogue notes that William Ferris, a friend of James Thomas and a noted scholar of black folk art, has suggested that one can see in Thomas's work a characteristically black notion of the ugly equated with the beautiful, an aesthetic choice that "reverses traditional white concepts of beauty somewhat like the black use of 'bad' to mean 'good.' " But this hypothesis (which Ferris also applies to the work of Harmon Young, a black Georgia wood-carver) is never thoroughly de- veloped or applied to an entire body of black art.32 Although the intent of the organizers of the Cor- coran exhibition is clearly to praise rather than to disparage the artists they present, the history of the exploitation of black art and folk art should illus- trate the danger inherent in using such an un- substantiated and potentially prejorative concept as compassionate ugliness. Like the idea of primitivism, it can be used to support the re- issuance of old racist stereotypes in new- deceptively positive-guises.
If we free ourselves of racial stereotypes and carefully examine the work of the artists presented in the Corcoran show we do not discover the pres- ence of a communal aesthetic (such as compassion- ate ugliness) so much as we find the individual op- eration of powerful and intensely personal visions. Even Jane Livingston, who promotes the black art of the exhibition as folk art, emphasizes that "Vir- tually every artist in this exhibition claims to have been commanded by an inner voice or by God to make art. On the face of it, we discover a nearly unanimous testament to personal revelation." As John Beardsley, the exhibition's co-organizer, points out, these visions do not necessarily result in sacred subject matter, nor are they all sacred in origin, but they are powerful and primary sources for much black folk art.33
Although it is not mentioned in the exhibition literature, Ferris also emphasizes visionary experi-
ence in the work of Thomas and wood-carver Young: "Images which emerge from their dreams follow patterns consistent with each other and with traditional Afro-American folk art through which the artist recreates images of his past, and this di- mension of Afro-American experience helps ex- plain how artists hundreds of miles apart can create similar images and even use the same lan- guage to describe their 'futures.' " Ferris does not argue that these visionary experiences make the qualities of "novelty and individuation" more as- sertive than the "continuities" in the work of black folk artists. Instead, he suggests that the visions are connected to collective experience, not separated by individual idiosyncracy. Reacting primarily to what he considers the overreliance of folklore scholars on Melville Herskovits, who emphasizes the cultural context in which folk art is created, Ferris argues that equal attention must be paid to the individual artist. "There is often a tendency in folklore to document 'tradition'... without con- sidering the artists who produced them. Black folk art reflects the creator's personal life as well as culturally determined forms and aesthetics."34
While Ferris attempts to achieve something of a balance between community and individual in his definition of folk art, the Corcoran exhibition or- ganizers, far more squarely in the tradition of Holger Cahill, negate the role of the community almost entirely. To neglect a sense of community is to deny the very essence of folk culture. Visions or dreams are generally highly personal experiences; to become legitimate parts of a folk aesthetic they must be shown to be responsive to communal dic- tates. Perhaps this is possible if the visions are understood not as a primary experience to be taken at face value, but as a method the black folk artist employs to explain and understand, often in religious terms, a communal aesthetic whose workings go beyond rational understanding and knowing. Such an aesthetic does exist in black American culture and is found in virtually all tra- ditional black art forms. It is the aesthetic of im- provisation, in which the artist is encouraged to experiment freely within a form until, at last, an order emerges that gives coherence to the finished piece. This is often achieved after hours of tedious work, yet when it finally appears it imparts mean- ing and harmony to an otherwise disconnected, even chaotic, experience. As such it may seem almost an epiphany, even though it was a long time coming-something John Vlach has suggested in an article on black creativity: "Because this additive
32 Livingston, "What It Is," p. 13; William Ferris, as quoted in "James 'Son Ford' Thomas," in Livingston and Beardsley, Black Folk Art, p. 130; William Ferris, "Visions in Afro-American Folk Art: The Sculpture of James Thomas,"Journal of American Folklore 88 (1975): 115-31.
33 Livingston, "What It Is," p. 11; Beardsley, "Spiritual Epics," pp. 47, 40. a Ferris, "Visions in Folk Art," pp. I 16, 118.
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[improvisational] approach is incremental, even piecemeal, the final goal is often not seen from the outset of the creative process. Later at some criti- cal, even magical, point when an acceptable shape begins to emerge it may seem that it is the work that almost creates itself. In an instant what had been an assemblage of seemingly random elements comes together and it is sensed as powerful, evoca- tive, or beautiful. It is not surprising then that many black folk artists speak of a visionary episode as the source of their work." This kind of visionary process occurs only within the context of a strong traditional culture that both frees and limits the artist. We do not generally find this context in the visionary creativity of the artists in the Corcoran exhibition. Aesthetically, geographically, and so- cially isolated, they share no communal tradition. Instead, according to Livingston, "The pre- dominating connection among these personalities is their shared lack of recognition as the masterful and original artists they are."35 This statement runs contrary to the defining spirit of folk art as an ex- pression of communal aesthetics, values, and be- liefs. Despite the title and intent of the exhibition, what Livingston describes here is black art rather than black folk art.
Indeed, following the practice of the Cahill school-chiefly influenced by the aesthetics of high art-"Black Folk Art in America" deliberately excludes some important folk genres, arts con- nected with "crafts or traditional utilitarian crafts- manship." The exhibition features painting and sculpture-high-art genres-only. Yet it is the more utilitarian arts, such as the work of contem- porary black basket weavers and musical- instrument makers, that are much more closely connected to black culture and life than are the "gratuitous art objects" chosen for the exhibition. As was the case in the Harlem Renaissance, real folk objects are denigrated by treatment only as background or precedent for the development of black talent in high-art skills. For example, Regenia Perry defines her contribution to the exhibition catalogue as "a synopsis of some of the previous folk art accomplishments of Black Americans, which form the foundation for the development of the works at hand."36
The full consequences of confounding black art with folk art defined in the manner of Cahill be- come most apparent when we consider a few
specific works that are included in the Corcoran exhibition. Among the most powerful is James Hampton's The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly (fig. 1). Follow- ing his death in 1964, Hampton's Throne was ac- quired by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art), and since then it has also been shown at Abby Aldrich Rocke- feller Folk Art Center (Williamsburg), Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Whitney Museum (New York), Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), and Montgomery (Alabama) Museum of Fine Arts. The Throne has appeared in numerous books, and it is currently considered a major example of black American folk art (fig. 2).
Actually, it is a good example of everything folk art is not.
James Hampton was born in Elloree, South Carolina, in 19o9. At nineteen he moved to Wash- ington, D.C., and was drafted into the army in 1922, serving until 1945. Discharged, he returned to Washington, where he took ajob as ajanitor for the General Services Administration. In 1950, at the age of forty-one, he rented a garage and soon began work on the remarkable project that did not receive wide acclaim until after his death. The Throne was motivated by a series of overwhelming and personal visions of God, the Second Coming, and the Last Judgment. A gigantic three- dimensional assemblage made of old furniture, miscellaneous objects, and tinfoil, The Throne was probably built as a monument to Jesus.
Hampton was a reclusive man whose visions were intensely private. Although he was consumed with questions of religion, he belonged to no church or religious organization. He built his work by himself, kept it in a locked garage, and seldom showed it to anyone. The very private nature of his enterprise is emphasized in the notebook Hampton kept as he worked. Entitled "The Book of the 7 Dispensation by St. James," it was not in- tended to communicate his vision to anyone and was written in a language that remains indecipher- able to this day. Hampton's art is not folk art; it is downright antisocial art, drawing its power and intensity from a man consumed by, and re- sponsible to, the art alone. Instead of functioning as a device to connect the artist to his society, Hampton's work drew him apart into a private universe where he became Saint James, master of his own world, and (to use his words) "Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity."37
35 John Michael Vlach, "The Afro-American Aesthetic," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. William Ferris (forth- coming); Livingston, "What It Is," pp. 11-13.
36 Livingston, "What It Is," p. 11; Perry, "Black Folk Art," p. 25-
37James Hampton quoted in "James Hampton," in Livingston and Beardsley, Black Folk Art, p. 93.
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Fig. 1. James Hampton and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly. Washington, D.C., 1950-64. Gold and silver tinfoil over furniture; 177 pieces of various sizes. (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
William Edmondson, another artist whose work is presented in the exhibition, is unlike Hampton in that he did make a good deal of folk art. But he also produced some work more reflective of his personal vision, and it is this art, rather than Ed- mondson's folk art, that is presented in the exhibi- tion ostensibly devoted to folk art. Perhaps the best-known artist in the Corcoran show, Ed- mondson was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to- ward the end of the nineteenth century. A railroad worker until he was disabled in 1907, he then worked as a fireman, a janitor, and, finally, an or- derly in the Nashville Women's Hospital until it closed in 1931. After this time Edmondson did odd jobs, tended his garden, and began to carve stone (fig. 3). God told him to carve, he said, by present- ing him with a vision of a tombstone "up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight."38 First carv- ing gravestones, he later widened his repertoire to include angels, garden sculpture, and human
figures. His work was "discovered" in the mid- thirties by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a Harper's Bazaar photographer, who photographed him and his sculpture, helping to arrange for a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. Other ex- hibitions and publicity followed. Today Ed- mondson's work is widely acclaimed.
Edmondson is presented in the exhibition as a visionary artist whose work is remarkably "mod- ern" in chararacter. He carved in "a manner much like [that of] his more sophisticated con- temporaries... William Zorach, John B. Flanna- gan and Elie Nadelman," the catalogue notes. Although he began by carving simple grave mark- ers, he soon showed himself capable of the more elaborate and sophisticated carvings for which he is best known. These works, "functionless and ... intended only as art," are judged to be his most important. They make up the bulk of his art shown in the exhibition.39
"8 William Edmondson, as quoted in "William Edmondson," in Livingston and Beardsley, Black Folk Art, p. 88. . "Edmondson," p.
Black Art, Folk Art 285
Fig. 2. James Hampton, The Throne, as presently exhibited. (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institu- tion.)
Edmondson's actual output suggests that the Corcoran show misrepresents him. For Ed- mondson continued to carve gravestones through- out his life, and grave markers, often commis- sioned by members of his community, outnumber the more individualistic carvings of angels, ani- mals, and other figures for which he is usually cel- ebrated (fig. 4). Cemetery and funerary practices have long been of crucial importance in black American folk culture. The center of a complex of ideas and beliefs that can be traced back to Africa, they remain important symbols of black identity, social stability, and religious transcendence. Thus, as Vlach has noted, as a gravestone maker, Ed- mondson operated in his community as a stabilizer and promoter of important black cultural tradi- tions; his gravestones cannot be viewed only as his personal expression, but must also be seen as "an ethnic statement created out of the context of well-known Afro-American rites that insure the necessary respect for the dead."'40
As is the case with most black folk art, Ed- mondson's was not completely traditional, al- though his grave markers were much more tra- ditional than his more elaborate figures (fig. 5). Still, the style and method of construction of the more idiosyncratic pieces can be traced in part to the traditional forms and techniques employed in the gravestones. The well-known statue Girl with Cape, for example, bears a striking resemblance to the severe, rectangular slabs-the very material of the gravestones-from which they were only par- tially released.41
The unique nature of William Edmondson's art is not due to his being almost as sophisticated as his white contemporaries or to his being remarkably modern. It lies instead in the heroic human and artistic attempt to create meaningful images that are both stabilized in life-sustaining traditions and
40 John M. Vlach, "From Gravestone to Miracle: Traditional Perspective and the Work of William Edmondson," in William Edmondson: A Retrospective (Nashville: Tennessee Arts Commis- sion, 1981), p. 20o.
41 Much of this information and analysis comes from Vlach, "Gravestone to Miracle." Despite the numerous studies that have been done of Edmondson's art, this recent piece is by far the best and is one of the few studies to comprehend and examine the importance of Edmondson's art in a traditional black cultural setting.
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Fig. 3. William Edmondson, scratching details into a sculpture with a damper rod. Nashville, early 1930s. (Tennessee State Museum.)
Black Art, Folk Art 287
Fig. 4. William Edmondson, Horse. Nashville, early 1940s. Oolitic limestone; H. 14", L. 20" (approx.). (Tennessee State Museum.)
responsive to individual needs. To seek to under- stand Edmondson's art only for its nontraditional qualities, to deny the attitudes, forms, and even the large body of his works that are traditional, is to diminish not only the corpus but also the stature of his achievement and to remove it further from a context in which it can be fully appreciated and understood.
The treatment of the work of James Hampton and William Edmondson is representative of how contemporary folk art critics have handled many other black artists. Why are the individually con- ceived works of these black artists confounded with traditional folk art, while their genuinely tradi- tional art is often overlooked or dismissed? Black art of the kind presented in the Corcoran exhibi- tion is no more closely related to the outworn stereotypes developed by the folk art movement in the thirties than it is to the black folk tradition out- lined in the folkloric definitions of the seventies. Pushed into categories that do not fit it and stig- matized by a questionable-possibly pejorative-- aesthetic that does not describe it, this black art is celebrated precisely for what it is not. Its truly unique qualities become, therefore, more difficult
to understand and value. The confusion is par- ticularly puzzling since even the organizers of the Corcoran exhibition seem at moments to recognize that they are not really dealing with folk art. Yet the confusion stubbornly persists, and to find its source we must look beyond aesthetics.
The idiosyncratic works of artists like Hampton and Edmondson are not folk pieces. Yet there is a reason for labeling them as such. One of the ways by which the notion of folk art preserves the status and power of the leisure class is by serving as a dumping ground for unusual forms of expression that might challenge the artistic and social status quo. Produced by artists uncommitted to the high-art tradition and the values and society that support it, these works pose a potential social threat. This art is at times the product of a world view antagonistic to the leisure class. To admit that it is as complex and significant as academic art suggests the validation not only of the art itself but of the culture, the attitude, and the people it repre- sents as well. Thus the aesthetic and social domi- nance of the elite is challenged.
This may begin to explain why black art created in the tradition of white academic art can be safely
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Fig. 5. William Edmondson, Preacher. Nashville, early 1940s. Oolitic limestone; H. 18" (approx.). (Tennessee State Museum.)
accorded the status of high art while the threat posed by truly individualistic black art is defused by misdefinition as folk art, a misdefinition trace- able both to the Harlem Renaissance and to Cahill's aesthetics. But why should genuine black folk art be neglected, actually pushed out by the idiosyn- cratic works featured (for example) in the Corco- ran exhibition?
It m~ay seem at first surprising that the most thoroughly excluded class of black folk objects is the most utilitarian, comprising such objects as Afro-American baskets and gravestones. One might think that these would pose the least threat to the leisure class because the objects, whatever their aesthetic value, represent useful labor, the very thing that class conspicuously eschews. But social status, as Veblen defines it, depends not only on the idea of the undesirability of work but also
on the wherewithal to make others do the work. Utilitarian black folk objects represent useful work that has not been performed at the behest and for the benefit of the leisure class. Furthermore, these objects generally exhibit close kinship to their Afri- can origins and proclaim a black identity in- dependent of white domination.
Neglecting utilitarian black folk objects is only the most blatant way of neutralizing their threat. A more subtle-or insidious-course is to redefine them as aesthetic pieces, to consider them art. Gravestones, for example, become sculpture. This, too, may at first seem paradoxical, granting blacks a perquisite of the leisure class: the pursuit of nonutilitarian (therefore conspicuously "wasteful") activity. But, actually, the aesthetic revaluation wholly preempts the perquisite. For it is the leisure class that deems the utilitarian objects art, thereby suggesting that the black makers and the original black consumer lacked the sophistication and aesthetic skills properly to value the pieces in the first place. And even if this body of work is ac- corded the status of art, it is, after all, a low, primi- tive, childlike art-at best the charmingly crude, compassionately ugly precursor of black artistic skills that fit safely into the categories of academic art.
Nonutilitarian black folk art is easier to assimi- late into the status quo because, as we have seen, whatever communal significance it has can be readily co-opted by evaluating particular works on the basis of aesthetics rather than social and his- torical significance. In this way, such art can be confounded with high art, but only as an in- adequate form of high ait. Although enthusiasts may celebrate and gush over such "folk art," their view precludes taking these works either as sophis- ticated high art or as folk art that embodies and dignifies the beliefs and values of black com- munities.
In some few ways the view of black American art presented in "Black Folk Art in America" actu- ally augurs well for the emerging treatment of such work in current scholarship and scholarship yet to come. In some few ways the exhibition has gotten beyond the dogma of Holger Cahill. Focusing on a body of art produced by neither New Englanders, Pennsylvania Germans, nor Spanish Americans, the exhibition admits black Americans as a folk-art- making group and thereby broadens the cultural base of folk art study. In addition, unlike many exhibitions and histories, this one stresses that black American folk art did not disappear with the coming of the machine or with the work of Joshua
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Johnston. Finally, the exhibition introduces black artists as creative adults, not as primitive or un- self-conscious children: "We simply can no longer afford to countenance the notion that folk artists somehow experience a life-long childhood," writes Livingston.42 But despite good intentions, the work of black artists is still misrepresented and under- valued here. That contemporary folk art criticism
is incapable of untangling debilitating folk art myths from the historical and artistic realities of black art is powerful and tragic testimony to the continued strength of the romantic folk art paradigm as it is applied to black American art. Definitions of art mean little in themselves, but their use to evaluate human expression and the human beings who are expressing themselves makes these definitions potent tools in the de- velopment and control of society. "2 Livingston, "What It Is," p. 16.
Article Contentsp. p. 272p. 273p. 274p. 275p. 276p. 277p. 278p. 279p. 280p. 281p. 282p. 283p. 284p. 285p. 286p. 287p. 288p. 289
Issue Table of ContentsWinterthur Portfolio, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), pp. 227-324Volume Information [pp. 315-324]Front MatterH. H. Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the House for Robert Treat Paine [pp. 227-248]The American Cemetery as Picturesque Landscape: Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis [pp. 249-269]Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control [pp. 271-289]The China Trade and the Asiatic Squadron [pp. 291-299]Book ReviewsReview: untitled [pp. 301-303]Review: untitled [pp. 303-305]Review: untitled [pp. 305-307]Review: untitled [pp. 307-312]Review: untitled [pp. 312-314]