Black West, Thoughts on
Art in Los Angeles
Generally periodized between 1965 and 1976, the Black Arts Movement has been primarily theorized as literary though like its most recognized forerunner, the Harlem Renaissance, it encompassed visual, music, theater, and all the arts. Among its hallmarks were: social and political engagement; a view that art had the ability to encourage change in the world and in the viewer; separatism—a belief in a self-contained "black aesthetic" walled off from white culture; forms that were populist, that could be easily distributed and understood by audiences (broadsides, pamphlets, one-act plays, concerts, representational painting, posters, etc.).
The Black Arts Movement championed the aesthetic pleasure of blackness and focused on reception by black audiences. It was art with African American specificity that reflected "the special character and imperatives of black experience."1 Again as in the Harlem Renaissance the wellspring of African American creativity was found in vernacular form, the creativity of "the folk" who by the 1960s were recognized as the urban working class and underclass rather than inhabitants of the rural south. There was also the ancestral legacy of Africa that became ever more palpable in the ongoing independence struggles of the period. A premium was placed on orality and performativity. Literary forms, like poetry, that could be "built around anthems, chants, and political slogans"2 were favored. Black speech and music were privileged. Music could be popular, social, sacred, and entertaining; in music one could see more clearly the African American cultural connections to Africa; music was egalitarian and participator y, it did not "stress roles of performer and audience but rather of mutual participation in an aesthetic activity."3 As literary critic David Lionel Smith has theorized, the result of transposing the literary into a musical form was theater.4