Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Aesthetics of Blackness: Theology, Aesthetics & Blackness in the Black Arts Movement Western Aesthetics and Blackness

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Aesthetics of Blackness: Theology, Aesthetics & Blackness in the Black Arts Movement Western Aesthetics and Blackness

Article excerpt

Although the terms "Aesthetics," "Art," and "Religion" are Western social constructs that most often reflect the tastes and interests of the dominant socio-cultural group, the phenomena these terms seek to describe are trans-historical and trans-cultural. (1) In the Western manifestations of this phenomena, visual images occupy an important role within a cultural matrix that has inscribed negative symbolism upon blackness throughout Western culture. This is highly significant important because "visual images are a part of a culture's structure and not simply expressions of its religious beliefs, historical myths, moral codes, aesthetic preferences, internal social system, and relationship with outsiders..." (2) When not explicitly expounding and illustrating political or religious messages; art has also played an insidious role in the perpetuation of socio-cultural systems.

Nowhere is this more easily illustrated than in the depiction or exclusion of persons of African descent within the Western Art tradition. Persons of African lineage have been subject to negative and stereotypical portrayals since their first encounters with Euroethnic culture. The association of blackness with evil, danger, repugnancy, the demonic... has been permanently inscribed with negative symbolism in Western culture since the early Greco-Roman period. Robert Hood sums all this up by aptly stating,

... we see the emergence of an aesthetic and color code in Western
thought in which many of the carnal forces associated with Blackness in
modern times and evident in such events as the lynching of black
teenagers... were alive and well in the imagination and the
consciousness of both the Greeks and the Romans: curiosity, carnality,
and negativity or at least social and intellectual disdain... Hence the
roots of cultural beliefs about blacks were implanted early on in
Western thought based on ethnocentric interpretations... Blackness was
given a moral category by Christians as they tried to make sense of
biblical notions of sin and evil... furthermore, sex and evil began to
figure prominently as ontological attributes of blackness, in turn
shaping Christian beliefs about blacks. (3)

Greek art in the 6th century was already depicting satyrs as beasts with dark skin and Negroid features whose origins were purportedly somewhere in Africa. (4) In the 1st century Christian tradition, the Epistle of Barnabas refers to the devil as the "Black One" and associates a long laundry-list of negative characteristics which are to be associated with evil and blackness. (5) By the Middle Ages, the European mind had already made blackness a symbol of baseness and evil, and rendered the features of black-skinned people ugly thereby establishing a negative, counter aesthetic to whiteness. In the 14th and 15th centuries, one of the three Magi was usually depicted as an African. (6) During the 16th century, the African slave trade vastly increased. As it did so, the depiction of African slaves as page boys in upper-class portraiture became a popular device for emphasizing the sitter's much paler complexion--while simultaneously supporting the notion of Euroethnic beauty and superiority. (7) As greater numbers of abolitionists arose in Britain and the Americas, the British Abolitionist Association enlisted illustrators to help its cause. Unfortunately, most of these depictions did more to perpetuate images of African docility, subservience, inferiority, and helpless dependence upon Euroethnic persons for their liberation.

In the colonies, America's leading artists and publications re-enforced these negative ideals by producing images of their African slaves as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers and threatening sub-humans. The masses of American society could not help but be informed and shaped by the power of these negative depictions which were presented to them on a daily basis. These depictions reinforced negative stereotypes while working in conjunction with Christian beliefs regarding blackness to strengthen and perpetuate colonial myths regarding their African slaves-thus justifying and naturalizing the inhumanity of the slavocracy. …

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