Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

18

EMANCIPATION AND THE FREED IN AMERICAN SCULPTURE

Race, representation, and the beginnings of an African American history of art

Steven Nelson

In 1916 Freeman Henry Morris Murray (1859-1950) self-published his book Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. 1 This volume began as a series of illustrated lectures the author gave in 1913, in part to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, at the African Methodist Episcopal Church's (AME) Summer School and Chautauqua of the Religious Training School in Durham, North Carolina. Some of these also appeared in the AME Church Review. Passionate and pointed, political and personal, Emancipation and the Freed is a catalogue raisonné of sorts, one that charted and critically analyzed the image of black people in American sculpture. What resulted is an incredibly complex volume, one that not only explores the intersection of race and representation but also seeks to teach its reader how to “read” representations of blacks in art. While Murray tells his viewer in no uncertain terms where representation succeeds and fails, Emancipation and the Freed's most riveting feature rests in how the author combined the very act of looking, historical context, the relationship between history and blackness, as well as his own experience and political beliefs to address the presence and absence of black people in American sculpture as a means not only to insist upon but also to create a black subjectivity.

Emancipation and the Freed stands out as the first text of African American art history. The issues Murray addresses, most notably the relationship between representation and the self, are not only at the center of African American art history, but also, as Donald Preziosi has suggested, at the core of art history itself. Preziosi reminds us: “From its beginnings, art history was a site for the production and performance of regnant ideology, one of the workshops in which the idea of the folk and of the nation state was manufactured.” 2 Murray's art historical prose falls squarely in line with Preziosi's proposition, for in his analysis of American sculpture, Murray invoked nineteenth- and early twentieth-century

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