By NELL IRVIN PAINTER, excerpt courtesy of the New York Review of Books:
A few years ago, when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Britain, students gushed to me about their all-time favorite period in United States history: the heroic civil rights and Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s. That’s when America was really fascinating, they told me, when issues were clear, and the right Americans made their voices heard. Many Americans feel this way, too. It is true that the civil rights revolution enkindled the concept of black power, which galvanized black artists—playwrights, choreographers, filmmakers, musicians, as well as visual artists—to make work that reflected the ideologies and energies of the era. It really did seem in the 1960s and 1970s that artists could make a difference in the struggle against racial discrimination by joining political activists as a force against white supremacy. Those young people in the UK were right to imagine a time when valiant Americans were outspoken and relatively united. And here I stress “imagine,” because in fact, ideological disagreements had hardly disappeared at that time. Last year, an ambitious art exhibition captured these hopes in visual form.
I come to “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” with two identities: as a historian and as a visual artist. I am interested in art history: in the machinations of history and memory as they apply to art, and in changes in taste and how they relate to power, money, and cultural visibility. As an artist, I’m attentive to how art is presented and actually looks in physical space. This piece, the first of a two-part review, focuses on the catalogue and how the works and ideas of the exhibition are represented in a book, an object that I hold in my hand in Newark, New Jersey (and an object of great beauty it is—a museum artifact in its own right). In a second piece, I will review the “Soul of a Nation” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Black art is often characterized as solely a statement of identity, as commentary on blackness in world history, or as a critique of racism. Work by black artists is likely to get lumped together as black, regardless of period, medium, and style. This kind of grouping occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when protests against exclusion prompted white-run museums to attempt to desegregate their collections. Some, like the Newark Museum in New Jersey, had made intermittent efforts to show black work. Others, like the Brooklyn Museum, had a steadier history. Still others had little idea even of where to start. Early museum outreach was prone to grasping at whatever works were easily obtained, then burying them in storage after protests calmed down. What little art criticism there was tended to neglect the visual meanings and value of the art.
read the full article via The New York Review of Books: