How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness

By Nelson, Steven | The Art Bulletin, September 2008 | Go to article overview

How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness


Nelson, Steven, The Art Bulletin


DARBY ENGLISH How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. 384 pp.; 22 color ills., 31 b/w. $30.00

"How to see a work of art in total darkness? One cannot, of course, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, such as when darkness itself forms the basis of the work's visibility" (p. 1). So begins Darby English's text How to see a Work of Art in Total Darkness. English begins to unpack his question through a rigorous reading of David Hammons's 2002 installation Concerto in Black and Blue. For English, Concerto presents an active blackness, one that is "public, participatory, and thereby perpetually innovated, not primordial or preexistent" (p. 3). While Concerto partakes in positing a radical blackness that is formally constructed by the artist and socially experienced by the viewer, English notes that the critical reception of the work tended to reduce it to "African American experience" and an expression of "African American culture." Such reductions are critical for English, for in the flattening out of this complex work, we see not only the foreclosure of possibilities for interpretation but also the placing of the work into an interpretative paradigm that limits what the work and, by extension, the artist, can do. Concerto is emblematic of a larger concern of English's, that is, the tendency of both the mainstream art world and African American art history to place the work of black artists in a predictable set of answers to a predictable set of questions circling around race and racial characteristics (which are not the same thing) that cling to what, in another context, Cornel West has called "black authenticity."1 The question, then, of "how to see a work of art in total darkness" is rhetorical, one in which "total darkness" is a metaphor for a criticism and interpretation that often blocks a thorough analysis of "black art."

With an understanding that the field of African American art came into being in the wake of racist and racialized discourses, and cognizant of its necessity as a stay against blocking black Americans from the regimes of representation, English also sees the importance of black art as "a now century-long effort to engender and keep pure a cultural domain that is uniquely our own" (p. 8). One of the consequences of this effort has been the placing of African American art history in a kind of methodological straitjacket, in which the field has tended toward a predictable group of questions revolving around race, racism, and artists' social biographies that are still in currency in analyses of black art. As such, African American art history, in the drive to preserve its uniqueness and in the desire to keep it "ours," often has examined the work of black artists in a vacuum, hermetically sealed off from American society at large. Such inquiries treat the art object as a social document put into the service of racial uplift, consensus, and solidarity. More seriously, the tendency to imprint such issues on the work simply ignores the art object itself. English's loyalty is, first and foremost, to the art object, which forms the basis of his historiographical and methodological questions of the field. However, after seeing the author throw down the gauntlet with his discussion of Concerto, it becomes clear quite quickly that the stakes of English's endeavor amount to nothing short of enacting a fundamental redefinition of the categories "black art," the "black artist," and the practices of African American art history. Such shifts also presage English's attempt at a radical decentering of race, a space-clearing gesture that enables a more rigorous examination of the work and practices under scrutiny. Consequently, with the work and practices of Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope.L always at the center of the text and at the source of his arguments, English also moves them out of "the black community," as it were, giving the work of five black artists the opportunity to do and to be different, albeit interrelated, things.

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