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Frank Bowling - Is Black Art About Color?

Article relating to an individual, 1971
Published by: Thomas Y. Crowell Company
Year published: 1971
Number of pages: 20
ISBN: 0-690-14598-5

image of Frank Bowling - Is Black Art About Color?

“…the honest answer  is that were we not afraid in many ways of being considered white, we would be truly black.”

Important text published in a 1971 anthology of essays on Black Life and Culture in the United States, edited and with an introduction by Rhoda L. Goldstein as seen by men and women creating today’s revolution in the classroom, the community, and the arts. Bowling’s essay was titled, Is Black Art About Color? Bowling’s intervention came at a time when Black artists in the United States were engaged in arguments and scuffles about the nature that their individual or collective practice should take. In one camp were those who argued for aesthetic individualism, represented most forcefully perhaps by the expressed opinions of individuals such as Raymond Saunders. In 1967 Saunders delivered a stinging rebuttal of the Black Art/Black Power argument, arguing instead that Black artists should in no way be limited to preoccupations of race and racism. Some time previously, the African-American writer, perhaps reflective of those with who Saunders took issue, Ismael Reed, had written an article celebrating those who he perceived to be advocates and practitioners of the Black Art/Black Power philosophy. Saunders rounded on Reed, condemning his article as setting “the black arts outside the current of art as [a] whole, and in so doing he does the Black artist a grave injustice.”

Saunders also rounded on “some angry artists” who he claimed were “using their arts as political tools, instead of vehicles of free expression. Using his art and his anger in such a way, the artist makes himself a mere peddler, when he might be a prophet.” Summarising his position, Saunders asserted that “Certainly the American black artist is in a unique position to express certain aspects of the current American scene, both negative and positive, but if he restricts himself to these alone, he may risk becoming a mere cypher, a walking protest, a politically prescribed stereotype, negating his own mystery, and allowing himself to be shuffled off into an arid overall mystique. The indiscriminate association of race and art, on any level - social or imaginative - is destructive.”

[See Raymond Saunders, Black is a Color Part of this article was published in Arts Magazine, June 1967. Subsequently reprinted in 1989 as a brochure (Raymond Saunders: Some Choices - a group exhibition curated by Saunders for Long Beach Museum of Art, 24 June – 23 July 1989).]

Bowling’s intervention came in the wake of these exchanges, and the sources listed at the end of his essay provide invaluable references to the sorts of writings by and about Black artists at this time. Is Black Art About Color? was a fascinating text which reflected Bowling’s status not only as an an original voice of art criticism, but also as a Black artist very much in the mix with African-American artists of his generation, yet enjoying, or occupying a concurrent outsider status, by way of his Britishness.

Is Black Art About Color? began with, “The pressure of cultural nationalism on a global drift has given rise in the United States to a passionate, confused, but fashionable black nationalism, and with it a justified if shrill cry for cultural distinctiveness.” Thereafter, Bowling’s text was divided into the sections, A Comparative Perspective on the Problems of Standards; The Distinctiveness of Black Art; Knowledge About the Development of Black Art; An Examination of Some Selected Works; and Where Now?

The text ended as follows, “The question really is, Are black people missing many links, in dealing with modernism? Since a prevailing aesthetic expression in paint is completely identified with whites, the honest answer  is that were we not afraid in many ways of being considered white, we would be truly black. We would be wholly black (this new entity) and tackle our “instruments” and language the way the leading jazz musicians and writers do, and with whom we are constantly being equated to our detriment - like Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Related people

»  Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Born, 1935 - 1937 (probably 1936) in British Guiana (now Guyana) Caribbean/S. America