Master Narratives/minority Artists

By Kleeblatt, Norman L. | Art Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Master Narratives/minority Artists

Kleeblatt, Norman L., Art Journal

[E]very people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its . . .cultural originality-finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country.

-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin/White Masks

Much of the recent literature on minorities living within the purview of dominant, repressive national ideologies articulates a position of opposition and resistance. Be it the work of Latino, African American, Native American, Asian American, or, for that matter, Afro/Asian British critics, a strident discourse has evolved over the last two decades. Such politicized stances are strategically programmed to break barriers to educational opportunity and cultural authority that, until very recently, have been rigorously enforced. For Jews in the United States and certain Western European nations, such impediments had in large measure lapsed by the end of World War II.1 Explanations of pretwentiethcentury cultural activity by Jews and members of other minority groups were crafted to cope with historical moments in which each group began to gain access to power. In essence, the Jewish model has been one of assimilation. Such cultural adaptation of national and regional traditions was assumed to be creative but operating entirely within the dominant power structure. By contrast, the resistant, defiant model of recent cultural critique adopted by other groups is radical-an attempt to crack systems of dominance from without. Only recently have a few Jewish cultural critics adopted this more radical interpretation of Jewish cultural artifacts.2

Because Jews, African Americans, and Native Americans rarely had access to cultural power during the nineteenth century, it is a more uniform period for comparative cultural analysis. Throughout the century, members of all three groups struggled with the possibilities of individual emancipation within repressive, intensely nationalistic political structures. The present study is a cross-cultural investigation of works by four nineteenth-century minority artists. In each case, the artist has appropriated a literary theme from an "empowered" author whose text positively affirms the artist's racial, ethnic, and/or religious difference. The African American painter Robert S. Duncanson's Uncle Tom and Little Eva (ca. 1853) was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The part-African/part-Native American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis based Old Indian Arrowmoker and His Daughter (1872, modeled 1866) on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855). The Polish patriot Maurycy Gottlieb's painting Recha Welcoming Her Father (1877) depicts a scene from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Nathan the Wise (1779). And the Polish-born English Jew Alfred Wolmark based his monumental canvas The Last Days of Rabbi Ben Ezra (ca. 1905) on Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra" (1864). Each artist refrained the respective literary text, adding-often in the wake of historical and personal experience-a further layer of meaning to the author's original intent. Moreover, in all four cases, the artist's choice of literary subject served a political mission.

By comparing the virtually identical strategies employed by these minority artists, we can discern the similarities and differences between their struggles for professional and personal acceptance. This approach also encourages "the reinsertion of the category `the Jew' into contemporary theoretical discussions of race, identity, and colonialism from which it has been excluded."3 Together, these examples expose the complicated negotiations necessary for "outsiders" to speak through master narratives. Neither the defiant models of current cultural critique nor earlier assimilationist paradigms adequately work to untangle the complexities of the artists' social dilemmas or their aesthetic strategies. Instead, the choice of nationalist literary subjects and conservative artistic styles must be read as operating somewhere in between resistant affirmation of cultural specificity and total accommodation to the host culture.

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