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K eith M orrison Art Criticism A Pan-African Point of View February 1979 Are there ideas native to Black artists that critics overlook? The question has been asked many times before but the answers have not led to change that the overwhelming number of Black artists would consider to be even remotely satisfactory. The shortage of published criticism of the works of Black artists would lead to the assumption that there are no art ideas—no aesthetic tradition characteristic of Black people and that therefore, that which is commonly known and written about a handful of Black artists is all that needs to be known. Because of the assumed absence of a Black art character, most critics have felt free to judge Black artists, according to the traditions of American-European art criticism. The problem is that there continues to be no consistent publication of art criticism in major art journals written by Black critics, interested in art from a Black person’s perspective. No doubt, White critics have the ability to write about ideas’ that relate to Black culture, but very few have the interest. A recent article in the Village Voice (Sept. 11, 1978, p. 113) explores the effects of this problem, by pointing to the continued scarcity of exposure of art by Blacks and stating that less than half a dozen Blacks are spread among the best known New York galleries. The author, April Kingsley, states that “the majority of the recent work that I’ve seen by Black artists is powerful.” Ms. Kingsley comments on the great number of major Black artists who are without a gallery anywhere and states bluntly that as good as their work is, no one will care until it is shown at Marlborough, Emmerich or Tibor de Nagy. In speaking of sculptor K E I T H M O R R I S O N    Art Criticism   55 Mel Edwards, she states that “Nothing comparable to Edwards’ dense, masklike reliefs out of welded tool and automobile parts has been done since the early work of David Smith, and there is no counterpart to the rhythmic coordination of counter-balanced masses in his large sculptures , with their intimation of vernacular architecture despite the level of their means. Most work in this vein (by Michael Steiner, Joel Perlman and Tony Rosenthal, for example) is technically good, formally pleasing, but emotionally empty. Edwards’ work, however; is rich in metaphor, implication, and connotation, with no loss of plastic vigor.” And so the article goes on, cataloging many Black artists without critical or gallery support. What is the reason or reasons for this disinterest in what Black artists do? It is racism (conscious or subconscious) to be sure, but it is also more than that. I believe that much of the reason lies in the fundamental assumptions underlying the very basis of art criticism. The assumptions have to do with the notion that art is culture-free, and it is these assumptions that have led to an inadequacy of modern American art criticism. I believe that all art, including “Modern Art,” is culturally based and that will probably seem absurd to the great multitude who have been indoctrinated with the notion that all great art is “universal.” I wish to challenge this doctrine of universality since I do not believe that it is based on universal evidence: It seems to me that what is called universal is most often a cultural dominance, rather than synthesis of two or more cultures. American and European-controlled art publications commonly hold that Michelangelo and Picasso are universal, though nobody has bothered to ask the Eskimo whether he agreed. And, of course, so-called “modern art criticism” (a term that is full of arrogant implications) is based on traditions and reactions to Western art criticism and culture. Any art history book makes this point excruciatingly clear. I mean, does it not seem an odd coincidence that no non-Western artist is among the most famous one thousand artists you ever heard of? Does it not seem an odd coincidence that the only non-Western cultures to make good art are either dead cultures or ones that are economically poor and politically non-threatening? Does it not seem an odd coincidence that no nonWestern people alive today can produce art that is as good as American or European art? When was the last time that you saw a contemporary Pakistani artist on the cover of ARTnews? Obviously, God in his...


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