A Historical Perspective Civil Progress: Life in Black America May Ryan
Civil Progress: Images of Black America presents contrasting visions of black American life by American artists both of African and European descent. This exhibition is held at Mary Ryan Gallery in New York with a companion exhibition held simultaneously at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle. Spanning the last seven decades of the 20th century, this bi-coastal exhibit explores racial integration as it has been represented in American art, with specific focus on figurative works on paper, paintings and sculpture. The images capture several themes including the joy of music, the sweetness of romance, transcendence in religion, discrimination and its brutal manifestation in lynching, the intimacy of family life and the cultural impact of leaders in American history.
The ideal of blacks and whites living as social equals has always drawn its greatest power, not from legislature or legislators, but from individual sincerity and symbolic action -- not from the Supreme Court Landmark, decree that separate is inherently unequal in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, but by the brandishing image of national Guardsmen escorting tender faced black high school students through a venomous crowd of white bigotry and fear. Perhaps this accounts for the unique visual strength and visceral historicism that the artistic treatments of American race relations presented in this exhibition possess. Civil Progress invites viewers to reflect upon the American ideal which posits a society in which everyone gains personal freedom and opportunity by trading their individual ethnic identity for a national identity. While integration naturally involves social and political relationships between black and white Americans, it is largely reflective of America's attempt to resolve a major historical contradiction with its democratic foundations; it is the act of elevating the status of the American of African descent, from a biologically inferior slave, to a full civic equal and, more embarrassingly, to a human being.
In retrospect, from a cultural standpoint, integration meant that African Americans were expected to become whites of a different color. Ralph Ellison, winner of the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, wrote: "Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? ... America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain." Despite the central theme of integration - 'race does not matter' - Civil Progress explicitly documents how race and cultural diversity have in fact significantly enriched America, not only as a subject and inspiration, but as an insightful perspective from which to approach this subject and source.Since the 1920's, the popularity of black inspired music and the allure of Harlem as a place of thrilling, seductive and irreverent entertainment made black people an appealing subject to white America, although none of this attention displaced negative images and stereotypes. Lynching scenes became symbolic for liberal sympathy for the Negro condition in which a simple icon of everything evil and unjust in their mistreatment was safely located far away in the "malignant South". The ecstatic nature of black worship was endlessly fascinating to white elites and artists, unlike the behavior of white revivalists, which was generally despised: the former was deemed authentic and natural. Another manifestation of interest in black culture was the popular fascination with Gullah stories and its cultural dialects that have been isolated in the African American coastal communities in the Carolinas. Gradually more contemplative and moving silhouettes began to replace earlier negative images and stereotypes.
Paralleling the attention of white America, the 1920's marked a significant turning point in the direction of African American artists and scholars. The legacy of what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1929) had profound impact on future generations. Their legacy of concern for the positive definition of a black aesthetic allowed African American artists to define themselves. They took into account the wealth of images within their own communities and from an African past. Like all American artists, African American artists adopted western ways of making art and like their African ancestors, the artists were in service to the community of which they belonged. Unlike white American artists, the majority of these artists remained outside the cultural mainstream because their work was seldom included in exhibitions exalting trends in American art.
African American art between 1920 and 1950 played a crucial role in society, giving visual form to black ideals. After the flowering of a new cultural conscious and participation in the Federal Arts Projects of the 1930's, African American artists entered the 1940's with optimism. By the 1950's - in the wake of the disillusionment of full participation during World War 11 -the artists became more guarded. The Freedom Movement of the 1960's proclaimed and actualized a new vision of art. It was also a period of upheaval inspiring all Americans to reconsider similarities and differences in the American social fabric. The self reflective "awakefulness" permitted integration to take on a personal color.
As we approach the 21st century, white America appears more concerned with economic partnership than preserving the notion of 'superior racial purity' and black America seems equally preoccupied with economic integration rather than social integration. This economic interest includes athletes, musicians, thespians, and writers. However, the integration of African American artists into the international art world remains thwarted. For example, worthy African American artists have not yet become full participants in auction houses, museums, galleries or private American art collections, nor have more than a handful been adequately represented in the compendia that receive institutional support, widespread patronage and meaningful media promotion. Since the 1980's prices for works by noted African American artists have risen dramatically, however they continue to lag behind their white counterparts. Civil Progress actively challenges the practices of serious collectors and asks whether they can be considered collectors of American art if they do not abandon cultural and aesthetic polarity as they represent the visual statements of American artists.
The art world is no more elitist than our nation's capital. This is evidenced by the vast difference in perception of the value of art produced by Americans of African descent. Within the art world it is well known that among their many collections, Bill and Camille Cosby have assembled one of the most comprehensive 19th and 20th century private collections of African American art in the country. Outside of the art world, most Americans perceive this collection simply as "black art" with marginal value. Conversely the White House's recent 1997 acquisition of Henry Ossawa Tanner's landscape, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, recently attained 'real value' in the eyes of America because a white American President has finally given respectability to owning a painting by an African American artist -- the first time since 1776. This new stature provides a significant opportunity for artists of African descent to be considered a viable and beautiful asset to any collection of American art. Now that the White House has the work of an African American artist hanging on its walls, one question of civil progress becomes: Is America ready to have a black President of the United States?
Civil Progress presents the work of prominent artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Thomas Hart Benton, and Robert Rauschenberg as well as lesser known talents such as Norman Lewis, Kara Walker and Ross Palmer Beecher. Several important issues are raised by the exhibit: Is it possible to capture the universality of human suffering, struggle and transcendence through the universality of artistic vision, talent and representation? What are the differences in perceptions of white and black Americans/artists as they process their personal experiences with U.S. racial history? Can the art world stand the same process of integration that American society has? Are the foundations and tensions of segregation/integration primarily cultural, economic, or ideological? Is integration only a utopian ideal because it demands sincerity, constancy and humanity from both sides? Through the collective consciousness, beauty, historicism, and raw power of the images included in Civil Progress, audiences and collectors alike will remember, learn and create the answers.
Halima Taha is the author of the forthcoming book, Collecting African American Art: A Guide to Works on Paper and Canvas (Crown, December 1997).
Copyright ©2011 HALIMA TAHA, All Rights Reserved.
HALIMA TAHA PROARTS