Opening to my dissertation based on the struggles of being a black artist in the contemporary context.
Title: Blackness in Contemporary Art: To what extent do contemporary black artists continue to be hindered by the burden of race.
Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost.
In his influential work,The Death of the Author, the French philosopher Roland Barthes argues that an artist's position in society whether that be ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation should not impact the interpretation of their work. Reacting against the belief that the interpretation of an artist's work should be based on their original or expressed intention, Barthes asserts that once the work is out of the artist’s hands the artist should become separate from the work, thus allowing it to become open to different lines of interpretation. The philosopher argues that.
A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.
Here, Barthes stipulates furthermore that an artist is a conduit for cultural expression, their inspiration coming from a variety of influences ‘drawn from many cultures’ rather than one distinct source. However, in contemporary art discourse it has been difficult for the “Blackness” of black people to be left out of the equation. For example, in a similar way that female artists cannot make work without art criticism referring the Feminine, it seems that black artists cannot create artworks without a similar critical return to their ethnicity.
Looking closely at the work of influential black artists such as Kerry James Marshall (born 1955), Kehinde Wiley (born 1977), Wangechi Mutu (born 1972), and Yinka Shonibare (born 1962), the main focus of this essay will be to investigate to what extent contemporary black artists continue to be hindered by the burden of race. The essay will look at the use of the black figure in contemporary practice, the position of black artists as the ‘conditioned Other’ (someone born ‘Other' [black, female, etc.]) in the context of postmodernist theory and the Ontology of Blackness to investigate the ways in which these artists have attempted to reclaim Blackness and make work without their ethnicity being an issue. It will investigate how they have embraced the multi-faceted aspects of the black experience, considering the diversity of black people and their respective (and diverse) historical Diasporas (i.e. the story of their geographical movements) and personal identities, rather than embracing a stereotyped, homogeneous perception of what it means to be black. I will examine how contemporary black artists who use irony as a tool to critique identity issues are successful in this endeavour. In doing so, I will examine what problems arise when contemporary black artists are hindered by the contemporary art establishment’s reluctance to separate the artist from their ethnicity.
Self Representation and the Black Figure
Self-representation and self-expression are important means by which to establish one’s status as an individual within society. The way in which individuals define themselves can indicate if they stand within or outside the social norm. Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967), a black writer, highlights this issue in his essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in which he refers to a young black poet (whom he met at a reading) who stated, ‘I want to be a poet--not a Negro poet.’ Hughes interprets this statement to mean:
‘I want to write like a white poet'; meaning subconsciously, 'I would like to be a white poet'; meaning behind that, 'I would like to be white.' And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.
Hughes argues that in order to be a great artist, one must be true to one’s identity or face failure. With the young man’s attestation, Hughes ‘doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet’.
Hughes' essay was written in 1926, during a time of great social and political struggle for African Americans. His writing is subsequently informed by his experiences of oppression.
Due to this, although we understand why he holds this view, reading from a contemporary perspective Hughes prediction that the boy would fail due to his “desire to run away spiritually from his race” may seem to be problematic. While the poet should not be afraid to be who he is, the issues raised by the statement "I want to be a poet--not a Negro poet" can more likely be attributed to the fact that he does not wish his work to be judged solely on the basis of his race and culture but the value of the work rather than the ethnic origins of it’s source. This account took place in 1926 and yet the young poet’s statement is one that many contemporary black artists are still grappling with.
Further quotations from The Death of the Author resonate with this issue:
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.
Barthes argues that the reader brings their own interpretation to the text, regardless of their “history, biography [or] psychology”and since the work is made for the reader the “history, biography [and] psychology” of the artist thus becomes irrelevant to the interpretation. Contrary to Barthes stipulation, it seems that ethnic artists are not afforded the same anonymity as their white counterparts.
Regardless of the way in which a black artist presents their work the outcome in terms of art criticism seems to be the same. For example, if an black artist makes work based on identity, culture or the perception of race in society they may succeed in challenging the issue of Blackness but the work has the potential to be consigned to the discipline of “Multiculturalism and Identity Politics": the artist considered an outsider, relegated to the sidelines of a discourse which is paradoxically based on their position within contemporary art. However, if an artist chooses to make work that has nothing to do with their ethnicity it still becomes the focus for art critics. Moreover, black artists often mention it as well. Is it possible for a black artist to be simply an artist, like our young poet would prefer, or does the Blackness of the black artist refuse to ‘die’ along with Barthes author? The following sections investigate possible reasons why this has not been possible.