Refocusing the Arts Aesthetic

By Bennefield, Robin M. | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Refocusing the Arts Aesthetic


Bennefield, Robin M., Black Issues in Higher Education


African American performing and visual arts scholars comment on the continuing struggle to bring the work of Black artists into the full view of the academy's White majority

When Dr. Melanye White Dixon joined the dance department at Ohio State University in 1986, she was its first African American, full-time faculty member. Prior to her arrival, the study of African American dancers and choreographers at OSU was virtually nonexistent.

Now, her course -- "Dance Forms of the African Diaspora," featuring the work of artists ranging from Katherine Dunham to Pearl Primus to Arthur Mitchell -- is required for all dance majors.

In the mid-80s,the OSU dance department made a firm commitment to affirmative action and White Dixon was hired shortly thereafter to specifically address diversity in the core dance curriculum. Her course was designed to fill a void in dance history study.

"The key is for universities to have minority professors who see the need and can develop such courses," White Dixon says. "I think other professors [at OSU] have been inspired by these courses and felt pressured to include African Americans in their coursework as well."

While African American dancers and visual artists have been instrumental in shaping the arts landscape of the 20th century -- practically creating the century's modern and post-modern aesthetic -- dance and other arts programs around the country are only beginning to recognize their contributions in course offerings. Often artists like Dunham, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, and visual artist Romare Bearden have been relegated to the "Blacks in the Arts" courses instead of being included in core courses alongside their White peers.

THE WHITE AESTHETIC IN ART

Dr. Clyde Taylor, film scholar and author of The Mask of Art, believes that even while campuses became more diverse, as long as the White arts culture continues to dictated what art was, African American artists still continued to go underrepresented in arts curricula.

"There is an American art culture that represses minority expression," Taylor says. "This culture tells us what art is, what it should look like, and how it is valued. This culture operates in a prejudiced way against people who are not middle class White men."

The culture Taylor describes has had a long history of keeping the works of African American artists marginalized in mainstream museums, galleries, and theaters. The protests of the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s may have forced the mainstream arts culture to open its eyes to Black art and its illustrious history in America. Such awareness helped prompt the establishment of New York's Studio Museum in 1969 and the installment of a contemporary Black art exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971.

It wasn't, however, until a decade later that arts programs at colleges and universities began to slowly recognize and incorporate the works of African American artists into their curriculum. A learning curve on the part of White arts professors and the sacarcity of faculty or students of color to press for inclusion may have played a role in the slow transformation.

ARTS AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

"Ten years ago, there was little presence of artists of color in the curriculum," says Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University's (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts. "It's not incidental that the faculty was 90 percent homogeneous and the student population was over 80 percent White."

Campbell says that as the student population grew more culturally diverse -- "not just with Asian, Latino, and African American, but with international students as well" -- so did the curriculum. She points to the first NYU Pan African Film Festival in 1994 as the turning point for inclusion in the school's film program. The eight-week festival drew some 8,000 attendees, including film scholars and filmmakers of various cultures from all over the world. …

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