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Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum

by Bridget R. Cooks

University of Massachusetts Press | 2011 | 205 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

bridget r cooks

Pity the Poor Visual Artist

The burning question that has intrigued me for most of my adult life is why black musicians, facing the same daunting challenges that native black visual artists, novelists, actors, poets, directors, screenwriters and playwrights, faced -- gave the Europeans a swift kick in the butt, and boldly, and loudly, proclaimed themselves King of this, Queen of that, with additional Dukes, Earls, Counts and Princes; and the grand prizes of all, the Queen of Soul, the Queen of the Blues, and the King of Pop.

Talk about giving the finger to folks.

Often unschooled, black musicians, undeterred by racism, and more importantly, unfiltered and unmediated, created the sound track not only for America, but an art form for the entire planet that said “America” more than anything else we have been able to create on these shores.

Not so for the poor, unfortunate creative native blacks who wanted to have the same impact on American culture, but who pursued a career in the Visual Arts. Exhibiting Blackness brings this fact into full focus.


I have already given away most of my narrative by the words “unfiltered and unmediated.”


Writes Professor Cooks, “In 1927, the Chicago Art Institute presented The Negro in Art Week: Exhibition of Primitive African Sculpture, Modern Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Applied Art, and Books. This was not the first exhibition opportunity for African American artists; however, it marked the first time that an exhibition of art made by African Americans was presented at an art museum…”

The exhibition was conceived by the philosopher and cultural leader Professor Alain Locke, of Howard University. Locke is regarded as the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance." He, along with W.E.B. Du Bois, was among the first to articulate a clear vision of the use of art, which included literature, dance and the visual arts, as perhaps the major instrument to change the mind of whites that the Negro was “inherently” inferior. He called creative art made by blacks everywhere, “Our first line of defense.”

Later, Locke convinced real estate mogul William E. Harmon to establish the Harmon Foundation, which became the most influential organization of the last century that promoted and exhibited art by blacks. 

Locke, however, had a vision of what kind of art his “New Negro” was supposed to create, which has had far-reaching consequences. Notes author Cooks, “The desired use value for Negro art exhibitions to have a transformational sociological effect on race relations is a burden that Gary Reynolds, and more recently Mary Ann Calo, have argued was a prominent tension in the interwar period, particularly symptomatic of Harmon Foundation exhibitions.“

The book goes on to list and comment on a number of exhibitions nation-wide, including the highly controversial Harlem on my Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in 1969. In Professor Cooks’ lengthy discussion of the many issues surrounding this event, she manages to touch on all the many issues facing black visual artists: Are they artist first, or black first? Should their work speak to what being black in a racist society means, or should it speak to more personal demons? And, most importantly, do these one-time exhibitions just give the white world a chance to say, look what we did for you in 1969, with no intention of having black artists shown again in the art institutions they control?

And did they, as the present day publishing industry did to black fiction writers, with their separate, but unequal sections in book stores, as well as separate imprints--marginalize the black visual artist to an unimportant sideshow?


I think that history will support my notion that Professor Locke and all the do-gooders, despite good intentions, hopelessly hobbled the creative juices of black writers and visual artists, which continues to this day. Art is not Social Science, and is often not logical.

In the end, no matter what the artistic discipline, to call itself art, it must first connect to a deeply felt core of the artist. It really is that simple; and that core is not always about the other, or the ”we”. Rather, most commonly, it’s about one’s self.

That’s why we call some folks “artists”.


On the other hand, black musicians were not culturally deprived of all the lively, low-life honkey tonks, the infamous “Buckets of Bloods,” the many greasy spoons and juke joints, where no philosopher or cultural leader, black or white, would dare go if they valued their well being.

This was their base!

Also, their art was low rent, with little need of well-off patrons of the arts, pointless art critics and society stiffs like Thomas Hoving of the Met, telling them what to do.

Louis Armstrong purchased his first instrument, a cornet, from a pawn shop. In the words of an old bluesman, about his guitar, “If it ain’t been in a pawn shop, it can’t play the blues.”

The amazing music they created, which kept getting better, year after year, reflected this often grim, often profoundly joyful reality; again, using the same words I used before, “unfiltered and unmediated.”

And that’s how they became the kings and queens of the world.

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