Facing African-American History Through African-American Art

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation in 1899, they became the first American museum to acquire a work by an African-American artist. That purchase announced a new era of recognition of African-American art and artists just as much as the painting itself announced a new style of art moving away from stereotypical “black” scenes towards a freedom of aesthetic choice. Persons of color could express themselves in any way, even abstraction, but faced the new problem of remaining true to themselves at the same time. The new exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art and accompanying catalogue show how these artists faced the challenges posed to them by art and society and provide all of us with a fascinating guide to facing African-American history—tragic, tenacious, transcendent—through its art.

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation in 1899, they became the first American museum to acquire a work by an African-American artist. That purchase announced a new era of recognition of African-American art and artists just as much as the painting itself announced a new style of art moving away from stereotypical “black” scenes towards a freedom of aesthetic choice. Persons of color could express themselves in any way, even abstraction, but faced the new problem of remaining true to themselves at the same time. The new exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art and accompanying catalogue show how these artists faced the challenges posed to them by art and society and provide all of us with a fascinating guide to facing African-American history—tragic, tenacious, transcendent—through its art.


The PMA’s unique among American art museums in its long-standing relationship to African-American creators reaching literally down to its very foundations. African-American architect Julian Abele contributed to the initial design of the museum. (Abele’s masterful drawings of the museum to be greet you in the hallway outside the exhibition space.) But even before Abele’s drawings and Tanner’s Annunciation, PMA curator Edwin AtLee Barber studied and collected the distinctive and enigmatic “face jugs” created by South Carolinian craftsmen who were slaves or former slaves. Barber’s “face jugs” entered the museum’s collection after his death in 1917 and still puzzle experts who see them as water coolers, grave markers, or echoes of African art traditions.

Few African-American works entered the collection until 1941, when art by Philadelphia area artists Horace Pippin, Dox Thrash, and Raymond Steth ignited greater interest in African-American art, thus reflecting the changing times and changing demographics of the Northeastern United States after the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South. In 1970, after the social turmoil of the 1960s, the PMA purchased native son Barkley HendricksMiss T, a pensive portrait of his then girlfriend Robin Tyler in black dashiki with a full, Angela Davis-esque Afro—a realistic portrait, yes, but also a visual political statement whose controversial nature the museum embraced. Five years later, Seahorses by Sam Gilliam became the first solo show of an African-American artist in the museum’s history.

Today, thanks to the PMA’s African American Collections Committee (founded in 2001) and the museum’s commitment to serving the needs of the region, the museum owns more than 750 works of art representing over 200 African-American artists. To document this collection and to serve as an introduction to African-American art itself, the museum decided to create a special catalogue, the publication of which is celebrated by the exhibition, which presents a tantalizing selection of just one tenth of the overall African-American collection culled from a select 50 artists ranging from 19th century artists Moses Williams and David Drake (aka, “Dave the Potter” or “Dave the Slave”) to still-living, still-working artists such as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Moe Brooker.

Dr. Richard J. Powell introduces the catalogue with the metaphor of African-American artists “walking on water” in achieving a miraculous balance between individual self-expression and the collective African-American experience. Rather than accept the “facile retreat into epidermalization and the sociological realities of blackness,” Powell’s ideal African-American artists “take up instead the more difficult processes of introspection and dream-work around race, culture, and identity.” True African-American art is, quite literally, more than skin deep, challengingly digging down to the roots of race as a social construction based on power and control, not on melanin and biology.

Consulting Curator of the exhibition and the catalogue’s main author Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw follows Powell’s thematic lead with a whirlwind, intertwined tour of African-American social and art history that not only introduces the PMA’s collection specifically and the African-American experience generally, but also provides a perfect primer on a post-modern approach to history for the non-academic uninitiated. If you’ve ever been confused by the concept of a “post-racial America,” this catalogue will clear it up. Represent is not about an America that no longer sees race, but instead about an America that sees race for what it truly is—a lie told and retold to divide rather than unite.

Combined, the catalogue and exhibition are eye openers. They bridge the distance between the Gee’s Bend quilters and modern fashion designers such as Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows to show a continuum of expression stretching across the loom of time. They re-label the labels of “outsider artist” or “folk artist” as art history ghettoization from mainstream fine arts. Self-taught artists denied training because of race and/or economics such as Bill Traylor, Minnie Evans, Joseph Yoakum, and others finally leap from the “blackstream” to the mainstream. Standing before Bill Thompson’s 1961 painting Deposition, which combines Renaissance religious content with modern style, you can’t help but notice on the wall text his death at 29 years of age and wonder how much more he could have done. Then you wonder how much more so many other African-American artists could have done over the centuries had they been given the chance.

The one work from Represent that represents the goal of the catalogue and exhibition best for me is John Woodrow Wilson’s Martin Luther King, Jr. (shown above), a charcoal drawing for a commission for a MLK memorial in Buffalo, New York. Wilson transforms the literal, physical being of MLK into a symbolic, spiritual work of art—a massive head for a massive intellect that hoped to change minds then and inspires others with that same hope today. “What is required for a work of art to enter the cerebral or soulful realms of the black subject is the act of embodiment,” Powell asserts, “with the artist functioning as a barometer of the shifting cultural indices of gender, class, race, and other social constructs and, only then, responding in kind.” Just as Wilson embodies in Powell’s sense King’s essence, Represent: 200 Years of African American Art embodies what African-American art should be—a mirror reflecting the past, illuminating the present, and forcing us to face the future together.

[Image: Martin Luther King, Jr., 1981, by John Woodrow Wilson (Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by the Young Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Museum and in celebration of African American art, 2000-34-1) © John Wilson/Licensed by VAGA, New York.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image above and other press materials for, for a review copy of the catalogue to, and for inviting me to the press preview for the exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art, which runs through April 5, 2015.]

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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