Am I an artist or A Black Artist?Posted: October 26, 2010
Last week I was watching the incredible and inspiring film Basquiat, about the painter Jean Michel Basquiat played magnificently by Jeffrey Wright. I was struck by a scene where he is getting interviewed by a sleazy reporter played by Christopher Walken. The dialogue goes like this:
Interviewer (Christopher Walken): Do you consider yourself a painter or a black painter?
Basquiat: Oh I use lots of colors not just black.
If you are Black and an artist you most likely have asked yourself, ‘am I an artist or a black artist?’ Growing up I was so frustrated by the notion of a separate category for Black people. I remember being offended in third grade when we were learning about inventors. We only got exposure to Black inventors in a book solely dedicated to ‘Black inventors’, and the general, euro-centric writing and history on ‘inventors’ focused on White inventors and their contributions. Fueled by the racism of my teachers and my peers I was determined to prove that Black people were not only just as good as Whites, but better. I was offended by the notion of giving us sub-categories; it felt otherizing and reminiscent of Jim Crow separate but equal. However, as I continued to develop I became conflicted, because I saw merits in staking out our own identities and perspectives in the world in terms of politics and culture. A type of self-othering I suppose, but in a radical sort of way that reflected our self-organization and struggles for freedom in this oppressive world. Within myself I saw the necessity to distance myself from the power structure of this country and define myself as a Black woman artist struggling against it. I did not want my art to be absorbed by bourgeois norms; I did not want it to be commodified. I wanted it to be a conscious statement against a system that seeks to otherize me for profit so I fit into its racist, sexist division of labor. My framework begin to change. I no longer needed acceptance by the racist capitalists to prove I could play their game better then them. I wanted to destroy their game. And that is when I began to understand the importance of identifying as a Black artist; an artist for the people.
That said, when I walk into Borders Books and check out their ‘Black Literature’ section I am reminded that capital will always try to steal our art and re-create it through the process of commodity production and sell images of digestible ‘Blackness’. The white Bourgeoisie has always stolen our culture, broke it down, consumed it, then vomited it back up in a product to sell and make money off of, and for the right amount they have always been able to exploit Black artists and include them in the production. Look at the plethora of shitty rappers on the radio or modern-day minstrel/mammie movies, such as Bringing Down the House or Soul Plane. This has been happening since the time of slavery with the popularity of the minstrel shows. But it became very clear during the historical period of the Harlem Renasissance, where a thriving community of Black artists were producing influential paintings, poetry, jazz, novels, dancing, ect., most of the nightclubs and galleries were owned by the White petty bourgeois and many Black artists were financially supported by White benefactors. This obviously influenced what type of artist and art got exposure. Artist who expressed radical or controversial ideas that differed from the dominant norms were marginalized and struggled to survive. A perfect example of a controversial figure was Zora Neal Hurston, my favorite writer. In a time where male writers dominated the scene and presented a certain image of ‘Blackness’, which largely showed Black people as victims of the brutal and violent racist system, she rebelled against it. She was a fiery, Black woman, who chose to write about other fiery , Black women, and depicted the strength and humanity of Black people rather than victimized them. There’s a reason why Langston Hughes poems (less radical ones of course) will occasionally pop up in public school text books, while Zora died impoverished and unknown in an unmarked grave.
Even today radical Black writing gets little exposure, due to the dominance of the bourgeois White publishing companies. And I can’t help wondering why the Black writers we do get access to get published over others. For an example, why is Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, which depicts a Black man raping his daughter, more interesting to the White Bourgeoisie than other ‘Black’ novels? What is it about the way she represents Black people that appeals to White people more than other writers. Don’t get me wrong, I have mad respect and appreciation for Morrison, but as a struggling artist living under a racist sexist capitalist system, I must question the nature and conditions of Black artist being accepted by the Bourgeois art world.
In Karl Marx’s brilliant work German Ideology he has a section called “Artistic Talent Under Communism.” One specific quote always stood out to me so here it goes:
“In any case with a communist organization of society, there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, which arises entirely from division of labor and also the subordination of the artist to some definite art, thanks to which he is exclusively a painter, sculptor, ect., the very name of his activity adequately expressing the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on division of labor. In a communist society there are no painters but at most people who engage in painting among other activities.” (emphasis added).
I agree with the general sentiment of this statement. I believe under communism labor will not be an exploitative process, but actually be about the free development of the creative capacities of a human being. However, Marx was missing a racial analysis that demonstrated the way the class is impacted differently by this division of labor. The Black artist is subordinated to a racialized local and national narrowness that distinguishes her/him from the White artist or worker. Jean Michel Basquiat was aware of this as the quote above demonstrated with his sharp response to the ignorance of the reporter. He was aware of the ways the art world seeked to tokenize and exploit him; use his ‘Blackness’ to create their own idea of what ‘Black’ or ‘Street’ art is. One line from the movie described Basquiat’s art as “art from the gutter.” He sought acceptance as an artist, and wanted to challenge dominant/ignorant representations of Black artists, but he was also simultaneously implanted and isolated in this world. Here’s a video of him and Andy Warhol towards the end of his career.
What strikes me about this video is in the beginning of the interview when Basquiat talks about Black imagery in paintings. He says they are not “portrayed realistically…or enough in modern art.” He also speaks on the invasion of the Bourgeois world in art spaces. He says he doesn’t know if the “stereotype of the artist in the studio quietly working” exists anymore, due to the constant camera’s and media in the space documenting the work process. He is commentating on the commodity production of art, which requires art dealers and gallery owners constantly checking in on the artist’s art to make sure they are producing profitable pieces; then there is the bourgeois media pushing for interviews and photo shoots. What is saddening to me is that even though Basquiat is critical of this circus he is still in the video posing and playing the game that ultimately destroyed him and his art.
Another example of a Black art form that is constantly being commodified presently and historically is hip hop. There has always been a difference between the way hip hop has been presented in the bourgeois media and what is actually happening in the streets and in our communities. When I first moved to Oakland I was struck by the difference between bay area hip hop and the hyphy movement and how it is portrayed on the radio and in music videos, and what I saw happening in my neighborhood. I was always intrigued by hyphy, because it had its own style and language, but I also found it to be silly as well. Then I started spending more time in East Oakland and experiencing the vibrant art being created by the youth: the resourcefulness of the grafitti writers constructing their own black books and creating new styles; the skilled mechanical and crafty work of scraper bikes; the colorful style of dress; and the incredible turf dancing which at times is a combination of ballet, modern dance and break dancing and pop and locking. There is energy and art being made in the hood that the media and the corporate art/entertainment industry hasn’t exposed. They only want to depict Oakland youth as thugs, drug dealers or gang bangers; not brilliant, innovative young thinkers. This turf video from the deep demonstrates just that.
Where I am at today with my position on the Artist vs Black artist dichotomy is that I am both. Cop-out answer? Not really. Commodity production invades both territories and I am aware of that and outright reject bourgeois art spaces and Black art spaces that attempt to boureoisify themselves. Art has always and should always be an expression of the people not the oppressors; it must be revolutionary through the style and ideas it expresses as well as the ways it is used. Therefore, I identify as a Black woman artist because I am defined in this world as a Black woman in the division of labor, but I don’t seek to be complacent in this position. I identify as a Black woman for myself not the system therefore my art must express this rejection of such a system. It is vital that artists link up with other artists, who share the same principles. Just as the working-class must become united and organize itself as fighting class for itself against the oppressors; we as artists must do the same thing and see our art as a tool against the system not within it.