A number of African-American artists have been studied by art historians. The biographies of these artists line the shelves of many libraries. However, the actual works are seen as illustrative of the history of the artists rather than as a central component of that history.
Questions remain regarding the idea that a unique style or school of "African-American art" exists. Many so-called "experts" have spoken of recognizable traces of African and Western art embedded in African-American art. However, this idea remains conjecture, with few questions answered and many more left unuttered.
Efforts by contemporary scholars and art critics to come up with a definition of an African-American or black art aesthetic have generated no clear-cut consensus. It is difficult to identify traits common to the works of African-American artists. These facts make it difficult to assign a value to artworks emanating from this school.
Based on the aforementioned paucity of common traits in African-American artwork, some experts insist that there is no African-American aesthetic. However, these experts are left scratching their heads in puzzlement when confronted with works by African-Americans that have been painted in the styles of Western modernism or postmodernism. These works are evidence of the fallacy of long-held preconceptions regarding African-American art.
One false assumption in relation to African-American art concerns the idea that Western styles of modern and contemporary art are derived from the European art aesthetic. This line of thought when applied to African-American art presumes that black artists will likewise create their art in the image of the European aesthetic. This erroneous line of thinking, in essence, erases African-American art as a distinct art form and turns it into an empty term. The term African-American art, when viewed from this perspective, becomes a vehicle for artistic segregation, distinguishing this artwork only from that art which is produced by white people.
There is another school of thought that defines African-American art as a spinoff of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and early 1970s and as such negates claims of a distinct aesthetic. This idea is helped along, in part, by the prevalence of passionate printed materials by black artists that address political and racial issues. However, the question of whether the African-American art aesthetic exists boils down to whether or not these works are influenced by white European artistic methods and standards.
Passion takes the place of careful analysis of the genre in the wake of black insistence on holding all-black art shows. The charged atmosphere in combination with the absence of any practical or comprehensive definition for the art form leaves no point of entry for effective art commentary. As a result, the little commentary that exists is deficient in both depth of scholarship and breadth of analysis -- the two basic prerequisites of art criticism.
When art scholars do acknowledge the existence of an African-American art form, it is almost without exception viewed as part and parcel of the social realist style, sometimes called nationalistic or didactic art. This emphasis on content and sociopolitical meaning detracts from the value of African-American art since it appears to be dependent upon social and political messages for its appreciation. In addition, those artworks created by African-Americans that fail to offer clear representations of political or social thought end up placed outside the genre.
An early scholar who tackled the problem of race as expressed by art was Alaine Locke. Locke was a Rhodes Scholar and a professor of philosophy at Howard University, the first African-American institution of higher learning in the United States established after the Civil War. As far back as 1924, Locke wrote of his vision: that an African-American art form would develop to express the legacy of ancestral African arts.
Locke dreamed that along with vivid recollections of African art, the genre of African-American art would be informed by "a new technique, enlightening and interpretative revelations of ... feeling" and hoped that a "lessening of that timid imitativeness" would be expressed by the repertoire of the African-American artist, so as to trigger "fresher and bolder forms of artistic expression." These ideas seem the very embodiment of what could be the definition of the African-American aesthetic. This was the vision held by African-American artists throughout the rest of the 20th century. Locke's words can also serve as a point of entry for future critical discussion of the genre of African-American art.