Post-Soul Aesthetics in Contemporary African American Art

Article excerpt

In 1926, W. E. B. Du Bois announced to a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that all art must be propaganda to help improve the condition of the race (22). Du Bois's own foray into visual culture certainly follows this prescription.

For the 1900 Paris Exposition, he collected a series of images to describe the progress of African Americans since the Civil War. Du Bois carefully selected images that portrayed the successful integration of African Americans into capitalism and demonstrated that African Americans shared core middle class American values (D. L. Lewis 30). Despite his articulation of double consciousness just a few years earlier, these images do not reflect conflicted psyches, but achievement and social worth. Alain Locke followed a less political, but similarly idealistic perspective on the role of art within African American cultures. Opposed to Du Bois's emphasis on the politics of art, Locke attempted to demonstrate how aesthetic values and forms followed from cultural experience (49-50). Art, for Locke, served as a barometer to determine the growth and development of a people or culture.

The Civil Rights era and its aftermath challenged both the Du Boisian and the Lockean approaches to African American art. Black Power not only deployed visual culture for political purposes, but demanded that artists and audiences alike re-think the definition of beauty and thus art itself. Neither images of respectability (like Du Bois's images in Paris) nor the African-derived aesthetics of Aaron Douglas or Jacob Lawrence challenged power relations sufficiently. Civil Rights era artists, such as Charles White, created images that demonstrated the humanity of African Americans to break down the barriers of segregation. White relied on tragic modes to narrate or visualize African American experiences, to lift up the race, and to challenge white supremacy. The next generation rebelled against bourgeois appeals in African American art. Defiant and angry, the Civil Rights era work, especially at the height of the Black Power movement, implicitly assumed that visual imagery could alter social relations and the world. It emphasized the struggles of romantic heroes against a racist society, knowing what needs to be done and demanding immediate change.

From Jean-Michel Basquiat and the graffiti writers to a new generation of African American artists, post-soul aesthetics have shifted the tone and content of recent art from Civil Rights and Black Power strategies. This essay explores how and why irony--rather than tragedy or romance--has come to dominate contemporary African American art. Specifically, I explore how Alison Saar and Michael Ray Charles have depicted post-soul black bodies. Infused with humor and irony, the work of these artists question realism (exemplified by artists such as Henry Tanner, Charles White, and Gordon Parks), Afrocentric imagery (typified by Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden), and protest art (illustrated by Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold) as useful strategies in the contemporary era. Instead, they demonstrate how previous generations relied on overdetermined poses or models to create their art and question how traditional notions of art and beauty have perpetuated racial inequality. This ironic mode of representing black bodies has been popular with white collectors and thus has been problematic for African Americans because it frequently invokes stereotypes to de-bunk them, and such images have been a bit too popular with white audiences. This essay concludes that post-soul aesthetics have liberated artists to question the social construction of race, but invites a re-examination of ways that African American art is or should be connected to African American communities, and it predicts that the contemporary scene's emphasis on irony will most likely revert to a reinvigorated form of realism.

Irony Incorporated

Traditional analyses of irony, such as literary Northrop Frye's, define the practice as giving "form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence" (Frye 223). …