Black Art, White Criticism: Devaluing Black Artistic Merit

On October 3, 2018, visual arts publication, Hyperallergic, published an essay by artist, Kerry James Marshall titled, “The Beatitudes of Bill Traylor”. The essay is a brilliant celebration of his predecessor’s creativity. And like Marshall, Traylor’s art depicts scenes of African-American life during his lifetime in Alabama. In the “Beatitudes of Bill Traylor”, Marshall educates readers of the creative magnitude Traylor’s art embodies; fore fronting the context in which Traylor’s legacy has been formed within. In the midst of Marshall honoring Traylor, he simultaneously assumes the role as his defender, a position he executes with knowledge — restoring Traylor’s legacy, one cultivated by his birth and adolescence in slavery.

Marshall’s essay highlights the impact white intellectuals and white critics have on black art. He then proposes a question asking, “Do white people know something about art that black people don’t, or at least have beliefs about it that are not generally valued within black communities?” It is without any doubt, white people know nothing more about art than black people, nor do they have beliefs about it that are not generally valued within black communities. Marshall’s question derives from his disagreement of white art critics’ superficial judgment of black art. His query is valid and rooted in society’s confidence of the white critic’s perspective. The white art critic’s assessment of black art, often times, if not always, underestimates the value, impact, significance, creativity, and intelligence of black artists due to the white art critic being an outsider of black culture; ergo, devaluing the artistic merit of black art.

It seems impossible for white critics to appreciate black art without any objections when considering technique, education, subject, context, social impact, and value. For example, in 1995 Chicago Public Library commissioned Kerry James Marshall to create a mural for its Legler branch paying him $10,000. The mural was taken down for auction in October 2018. The Chicago Tribune reported, “The large painting, ‘Knowledge & Wonder,’ is owned by Chicago Public Library. Christie’s will handle the sale, which library officials said could be valued at between $10 million and $20 million. Proceeds from the art sale also will be used to establish what Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the city’s first-ever permanent public art fund to support public art in under-served communities.” This incident is a prime example as to how the significance of black art is not understood nor defended in the white-dominated art world where white criticism beholds agency to decide the degree of success or conservation of black art. As a result, black art is often dismissed of or commoditized rather than valued as an artifact.

Criticism of art has everything to do with perspective, which is constructed by an individual’s social conditions. Being that all people process their environments differently, frame of references vary on an individual basis, lending itself to form a cultural identity when traditions, ideas, and values are shared between a people. Perspective therefore serves as the absolute foundation of subjectivity. Black people’s experiences throughout the world are drastically different than that of white people. The schools we attend, neighborhoods we settle in, the foods we eat, the Patois, slang, and Ebonics we speak, and our rebellion towards conventional standards that oppose our nature, all derive from our experiences with racism, ultimately shaping the way we view the world — a world that white people cannot relate to.

I do not proclaim that white critics and intellectuals are incapable of critiquing black art altogether, but I strongly believe that in order for their analysis to be one that is accurate without prejudice, they must first study the black experience and the ambivalent ideologies within black culture in order to examine the gravity of black art. My position may be a disservice if there exists no black person with the education and reasoning to critique black art with greater understanding than white intellectuals. This is something I highly doubt is true. The lack of trust for the black art critic’s reasoning and intelligence in the white-dominated art world, hinders the professional careers of many black artists, impressing upon the world that black people do not obtain the brainpower to efficiently critique art with the same competency of white intellectuals. Because of the art world’s trust in the white critic’s intelligence, black intellectuals and black art critics’ opinions regarding black art and art in general is believed to be inferior to that of white people’s. I find this impression to be evident in the lack of visibility black art critics have although they are competent to carry the same weight as white art critics writing for major newspapers, magazines, and websites. The Studio Museum in Harlem, Director and Chief Art Curator, Thelma Golden, is an exemplary presence that shows the faculty black art critics and curators obtain. Golden has become a guardian of art that emphasizes the prestige of black art, critically observing black creative expression as a member of the black community. Her company has made her one of the most recognized scholars, helping to transform the art world.

Therefore, the heritage and preservation of black art is contingent upon the black art critic’s analysis as well as the white-dominated art world’s overt and genuine respect for the black critic’s examination and judgment. Maybe then, public art pieces created by world renowned artists can remain accessible to the community without being auctioned, and black artists worldwide will no longer be met with as much contempt due to the white intellectual’s misunderstanding of the black experience. For all that, the black critic’s intellect is just as thorough as the white critic’s and is too, able to critique the artworks of black artists with sound reasoning without an outsider’s validation.

Written by Tiffany Cherise Jordan