African American art, particularly literature has developed through the deep, dark valleys of American history. Throughout these dark days, there have been moments of prosperity as the African American people have sought to rise to a level that is equal, if not higher than those that have oppressed them. In the quiet of the days after slavery through the uprisings of the Civil Rights Movement to the present day’s color line, African American art vibrantly shines on the walls and in the pages of literature that reminds America of who black artists are and what their art represents. Between the mid-1920s and 1940, a group of African-American scholars contributed their ideologies on the role of the black artist and the purpose of black art. W.E.B. Du Bois in “Criteria of Negro Art” discusses the voice of the black artist, how that voice has the expertise to determine what black art is, and how it is to be interpreted in the non-black realm. Zora Neal Hurston in “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” seeks to demonstrate that African-American folklore exemplifies the authenticity and originality of black art and how the importance of translation and revaluation legitimizes the black people as citizens worthy of equality. George Schuyler in “Negro Art Hokum” insists that black art and the black artist should avoid using the racial color line as a reason to avoid introducing one’s work into society as it is only maintained in the black mind that the non-black art will be validated as the better art. Lastly, Langston Hughes in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” described the role of the black artist and the art that they produce to be for their own race as an example of culture and a highlight of progression as a people. Each expert provided an ideology that attempted to highlight the importance of art, especially the development and expression of black art, as well as the celebration of the black artist, just in different ways. With the consideration of these ideologies, my argument settles in the blurred lines of each of these arguments. The purpose of black art is to celebrate the culture of African Americans, both past and present, while the role of the black artist is to deliver African Americans and all other people art that demonstrates that regardless of skin color, art is art.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Criteria of Negro Art” presents several quality ideas about the role of the black artist and the purpose of black, while he falls short in other aspects. In W.E.B. Du Bois’s argument, he develops an argument around three points: the definition of Beauty, art’s purpose as propaganda, and the recognition of black art in non-black communities. DuBois states that Beauty is universal and can be understood by all (Du Bois 779). Furthermore, he suggests that blacks are positioned to define Beauty because they were “pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world” (778). Thus, blacks’ position on the outside of society grants them the truth needed to define Beauty, thereby the capacity to produce art that reflects such Beauty. I agree that black people are able to define Beauty, but I would expand this argument to include all people within a society (and to include blacks in that society) as capable of defining Beauty in art. Moreover, black art must reflect Beauty because those capable of defining it produce it. Secondly, Du Bois points out that the black artist’s role is to produce art that reflects this Beauty and serves as propaganda. He states, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda” (783). He declares that black art must be used to seek Truth and Justice for the rights black people. In accordance with this statement, I agree that black art during this era needed to be used to demonstrate the need for equal rights, while black art needs to be appreciated for art’s sake, too. Lastly, DuBois is concerned with the interpretation of black art in the non-black communities and how black artists feel that they will accept their work. He claims that the artist must make the art to further the progression of black rights, while “the ultimate judge has got to be you” and take criticism from sources of “our own freedom and unfettered judgment” (783-784). Black art must serve the black people first and then can it be open and appreciated, on the same playing-level as all other art. To an extent this is feasible as the color line made it difficult for African-American artists to compete at the same level as non-blacks, thus DuBois is correct. However, black artist must continue to produce art in order to show that their art is the same as any other art.
Unlike, Du Bois, Zora Neal Hurston’s “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” celebrates the role of art as a piece of the past and a forward moving lever of the present to propel African American art as culture and authentic. The most important points of her argument are that black art is original and that the purpose of the art is to highlight that African-American culture. Hurston says, “originality is the modification of ideas” and that all artists take from one source are revaluate it into something authentic (Hurston 1046). This is true of all art. Moreover, she states that African-Americans do not mimic American culture or icons because they lack originality or because “the Negro imitates from a feeling of inferiority,” rather it is demonstrate the black perception of American culture and how it fits into their community (1047). Hurston’s argument situates itself directly within my own: the black artist is responsible for reproducing art that signifies his/her respective culture, while producing art that expresses art in whatever form it may take (even if that is mimicry).
George Schuyler’s “Negro Art Hokum,” is the most progressive ideology, stating the role of the black artist and the purpose of black art is to produce art like all other artists and to represents ones culture within the art. Schuyler points out that both black and white Americans are influenced by European ideals, therefore, black art is “identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans” and black artists should not attempt to be “white”, instead, they should produce black art (Schuyler 7). He calls for blacks to ignore the color line and produce art for America and her people. He says that the black artist does not need to make “peculiar art” in order to get recognition and avoid the stigma of being black (Schuyler 9). This progressive idea of producing art for the sake of one’s need for expression and contribution to culture is an important idea as it attempts to move itself away from the distinction between black art and white art. I agree that the black artist’s primary role is to produce art for its beauty and for its expression of the times. Moreover, I agree that the art itself is art, regardless of the person creating it.
Lastly, Langston Hughes in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” provides a secluded ideology that takes the role of the black artist and his art into the inner-society of African Americans without the concern of any other sub-culture within the entire American society. In his essay, Hughes accounts for a young black poet who wants to write like a white poet. Hughes is angry, even depressed about this idea. He screams for the black artist of the time to be black and more importantly, to be proud to be a black artist (Hughes 10). Hughes writes, “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization” (Hughes 9). Here, I agree with Hughes’ logic, however, when he turns to say that the black artist and the art that he//she produces should remain within the black community, I disagree with the argument. Hughes goes on to say that the art should be kept within the black community, rather than subject it to the judgment of the non-black community (Hughes 11). While it seems appropriate to avoid the color line, this presses the black community and its art further away from the equality between artists of all communities.
African American art is worthy of a spot in American history and it has taken its place alongside other famous artists. As the color lines blur, it is less important as to what skin color the artist had and more about what the artist intends to represent through the art. The ideologies of Hurston, DuBois, Schuyler, and Langston have their respective spots in the discourse of African American art and some are more fitting of the roles of the black artists and black art than the others are. Each is valid in their own lights; however, it is a combination of DuBois, Schuyler, and Hurston that attempt to propel African American art as recognizable, authentic, and the same as any other art, which is where my opinions lie. Black art and the artist that produces it deserve recognition and the art deserves to portray the artist intended. Of course, there should be a categorization of who created the piece, as it is important to log the cultural aspects, but I do not agree that the art should be isolated as Hughes suggested.
Du BoBois, W.E.B. “Criteria for Negro Art.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry L. Gates Jr and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 777-84. Print.
HugheHughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Nation 123 (1926): 662-63. Rpt. in Key Debates about “Negro” Art. Comp. Danielle Heard. 2012. 9-12. Print.
HurstoHurston, Zora N. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry L. Gates and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 1041-053. Print.
SchuyShuyler, George. “Negro Art Hokum.” Nation 122 (1926): 662-63. Rpt. in Key Debates about “Negro” Art. Comp. Danielle Heard. 2012. 7-9. Print.