I offer this article not as an opportunity for useless name-calling and emotional ranting. Rather, it provides food for thought about how intellectual and cultural turns impact us without ever truly realizing what had occurred and when.

It provides an opportunity to engage in critical inquiry about ongoing intellectual strategies that seek to distance black artistic production in the United States from its historical moorings, that is, its centuries-old critique of "injustice and social uplift." Recently, the New York Times (Sunday, April 6, 2014) reported that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had appointed Darby English as a consulting curator for African American art. English, an African American art historian, is an interesting choice.

He is a "star historian" who is also full-time director of the research program at the Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute. It is one of only two major "think-tanks" in the country for art scholars (The other is the Getty Museum). Interestingly, he "deplores the tendency to reduce black art to a vehicle for ready-made arguments about injustice and social uplift."

This seems, at least to me, ironic: while English has benefited from upper-class black privilege afforded by his parents who successfully navigated the pitfalls of social segregation, he deplores the complicated socio-cultural history of black artistic production while at the same time picking its dry bones in the drive for professional success.

Born in 1974, English is described as a "aesthete" who grew up in an Ohio "paradise." As an aesthete, he believes that "Art must live by virtue of its aesthetic quality, or it cannot live as art." I leave it for the reader to decide for themselves the veracity of such claims. Let me simply say that the history of black artistic production in the United States without "viewing blackness as the subject of the work" fails to consider the notion it is often that history which brings the objects of the dead back to life.

Resurrecting the history of black artistic production is deeply implicated in the history of black artistic aspirations--to be an artist, to create art and to make a living from it intersects an often symbolic and literal violence against the very producers--recalls the Old Testament story, the Book of Ezekiel and the "Dry Bones."

"DRY BONES" Art Historian Darby English and a "Black Direction" For the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Photograph: Timothy HursleyThe Museum of Modern Art

As Ezekiel speaks: "there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them...So I prophesized as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceeding great army." (37:7-8, 10) English, it seems, will revivify the dry bones of certain black artists for MoMa (I suspect both living and dead).

His approach offers a "generational shift away from the victimhood-first approach," which dovetails neatly with dubious notions associated with post-racial theory. He observes that "People imply that I am a self-hating black man, for I have little patience for inherited accounts of what it means to be black." Perhaps.

On the other hand, what the black public knows about African-American art is the "bones" and "names" provided.

Without the leisure to add flesh to these metaphorical remains with careful attention, not only to their aesthetic quality but to the often-daunting circumstances under which they were created (oppression, alienation, wealth, power along with well-meaning and not-so well-meaning critics/historians), its techniques, purpose, location, and meaning are useless.

English introduced this shift away from victimhood first approach to a younger generation. That the 39 year-old has been credited with doing so, and given his future impact on exhibitions, collecting, publications and attitudes of future art historians towards black artistic production, art lovers and lovers of African-American history need to keep an eye on his strategies.

If African American art--as category--functions as a totemic symbol of collective social identification, English's post-racial conundrum remains--despite his protests--deeply rooted in our collective past and buried in an American history from which English desperately wants to distance not only himself but us as well.

 

James E. Brunson

James E. Brunson