PRINT February 1969

Harlem on His Back

PERVERSE FASCINATION FOR THE OPPRESSED and beleaguered has always run strong among Americans, and the temptation to defend Mr. Hoving against the current critical onslaught is therefore hard to control. Besides, any man who could combine so many political and esthetic atrocities in one effort surely deserves the thanks of a people in danger of being suffocated by ennui. Apparently upset by the tranquility that has descended on Fun City, especially in the realm of race relations, Mr. Hoving boldly set forth to shake things up and make us think. What else, after all, are the bourgeois gentilshommes of the WASP Establishment for?

There is not a great deal to be said about “Harlem on My Mind,” which is at best a poor exhibit, but there may be some profit in reviewing a few of its horrors, if only because they lead us into questions that Americans cannot continue to ignore unless they have ceased to value their lives. I shall leave a full esthetic evaluation to those with better credentials, but must confess to having been shocked. It was perfectly clear from the start that the show would prove a political disaster: Despite the expected pretenses, it was not the product of Harlem and was therefore certain to be received with justifiable hostility by a community which has had enough of carpetbaggers and well-intentioned meddlers. It was no less clear that serious distortions would arise from a cultural history of Harlem presented by outsiders, even if with local consultants, some of whom are people of unquestioned ability. Nevertheless, being a novice in matters affecting the art world, I naturally assumed that within the narrow limits of their understanding, Mr. Hoving and his staff would offer a technically impressive show. Hence the shock. Black people may protest that the psychedelic lighting, the blatant sensationalism, and the imparted sense of perpetual turmoil hardly do justice to a proud and living community which has been far more stable and culturally vital than whites generally appreciate. They would doubtless be right, but even worse than these insults is an unforgivable one: The insults are not even well delivered. You will, for example, find more interesting lighting at Arthur or even one of the less fashionable discotheques in New York. The one thing we have come to expect from Madison Avenue hucksterism is extraordinary technical proficiency within its own prescribed sphere; even this Mr. Hoving has denied us.

The show consists primarily of a photographic exhibition and recordings by outstanding community personalities. Mr. Hoving set out to do a show on Harlem for the Metropolitan Museum of Art but decided to ignore black painting and sculpture. The judgment implied in his astonishing decision has been lost on no one, least of all black artists. For a white Establishment institution to promote a show on black Harlem in 1969, amidst a veritable revolutionary wave of black nationalism and demands for local autonomy, self determination, and self-expression was incredible enough. To put the show under the direction of a Jew whose credentials rest on his excellent work at the Jewish Museum was at least ill-advised, as was the decision to engage a black man from Milwaukee to assist him (on the assumption, I suppose, that Harlem is a state of mind, not a real place, and that therefore every black man has Harlem in his soul). The organizers tried to include the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, the beauty and the squalor, the fun and the agony. They did try, but even so, the exhibit is given over to the kind of trivia that so fascinates tourists. Since they knew nothing about their subject they inevitably ruined everything.

I shall pass over the criticisms of detail, which blacks will probably be filing at some length, but one or two matters should suffice to carry us beyond this abortion to such important matters as the claims of Afro-American art and the proper contribution of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fight against white racism. A large amount of space is given to Malcolm X, whose prestige in Harlem remains strong and probably grows stronger. There are pictures of Malcolm the Muslim minister and street-corner speaker and of Malcolm the corpse, together with indifferent excerpts from his magnificent autobiography. The exhibit immediately involved political decisions: Should you emphasize the early or the late Malcolm? Malcolm the uncompromising black nationalist or Malcolm the man who ended his life edging toward a new position? The exhibit settles these questions in a manner that will not be to everyone’s taste, but the real problem lies elsewhere: Who is making the decision to interpret Malcolm? Since the show purports to be a cultural history of Harlem only that community as a whole or, more realistically, one or more of the clearly identified groups recognized as legitimate by the people of Harlem have that right.

Similar problems plague the exhibit throughout. We see a little of Dr. DuBois and much of Garvey—itself a striking political judgment—but are not told that Garvey called DuBois “definitely a white man’s Negro,” or that DuBois had a few unpleasant things to say about Garvey and his movement. What is left out everywhere is any suggestion of a community with contrary voices and bitter divisions, struggling painfully toward its present sense of identity and unity—that is, with a genuine inner political life. I stress politics only because the show does, but the failure of the show transcends such questions. To return to Malcolm X as an example: Where, one wonders, is the Malcolm X of whom so many black people, even those who opposed him ideologically, speak? Malcolm the husband, father, and family man, whose warmth and concern for the daily woes of black people provided a symbol and a place of refuge to so many men and women in trouble? How, if one is not intimately in touch, does one judge the relative importance of these aspects of a man’s life and legacy?

One would like, at this point, to comment on Malcolm’s speeches, as presented in the exhibit. It is not possible, for the loudspeaker in one room drowns out the one in the next. This effect was probably intended. We are no doubt supposed to hear everything at once and so get a proper sense of the turmoil and rage of an oppressed community, although the actual mechanisms of oppression and the oppressors themselves are hardly in evidence. The last room of the exhibit presents, for the most part, Harlem in riot and disorder. That turmoil, rage, riot, and disorder comprise part of the story no one would or should deny. But a few other things are also present, not the least of which is the determined effort of painters, writers, and musicians to build an Afro American culture.

These complexities escaped Mr. Hoving, but it would be a mistake to dwell too much on this level of criticism. If these weaknesses attract our interest, they do so because they lead to fundamental questions of black-white relations in general and of the struggle of the black artist in particular. Mr. Hoving has tried to defend his use of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for this kind of show by arguing that “one of the stated missions of the museum is to relate art to practical life, and practical living to art.” All right. But all the questions remain: Who should speak for Harlem? What is the role of a specific institution, such as a museum, in community affairs? And what about those strangely absent black painters? To these and other questions Mr. Hoving replies, in one of his more offensive press releases: “At no time in this country’s history has there been a more urgent need for a creative confrontation between the white and black communities than today . . . It’s one thing to drop renewal into Harlem, but let’s not renew the heart out of Harlem before we look at what is there.” I shall not subject these words to close scrutiny, for their vulgarity and presumption will be so readily apparent even to most whites that we need not waste an instant wondering at the harsh reaction of so many blacks.

Mr. Hoving’s folly has extended to include announcement of a special program of five panel discussions on Harlem. The topics are revealing: (1) Harlem in Perspective: (2) The Harlem Art Movement; (3) Harlem Politics, Past and Present; (4) Business and the Harlem Economy; and (5) Harlem Youth: What Now? In short, only one panel falls within the legitimate province of the Museum. White critics are protesting against these perversions of the Museum’s function, but they ought to realize that their just complaint is much less important than another: How dare Mr. Hoving intrude himself into the affairs of a community of which he is not a part and of which he is demonstrably ignorant? Mr. Hoving has a responsibility toward the art world in general, toward those black artists who have been so shamelessly wronged for so long, and toward the white and black communities of New York City, but that responsibility consists of strengthening the Museum as a vehicle for the presentation and development of the arts, including Afro-American arts. It does not consist of his intrusion into matters beyond his competence and beyond the Museum’s proper institutional function.

This question of proper function leads us to a consideration of the position of black painting in American and Afro-American culture, which alone can provide the foundation for an assessment of the political significance of “Harlem on My Mind.” The recent exchange in the New York Times between Mr. Hilton Kramer and Mr. Henri Ghent over the Whitney Museum’s lily white show on the 1930s and the black community’s counter-show reveals, with that full display of misery which only brevity makes possible, that even the best of white America remains deaf to black voices. Mr. Kramer, an astute and serious critic, raises an important problem, which cannot easily be dismissed as white chauvinist apologetics. He notes that black artists have suffered a long and as yet uncatalogued assortment of outrages and thinks that whites should feel shame and indignation. Then he adds:

But these feelings, though they have an important role to play in the redress of social grievances, are of little use in judging the quality of works of art. In matters of artistic standards there is no “justice” in the social sense. There are only the values which artists themselves have established through the practice of their art. . . . Mr. Ghent is inviting us to judge black artists by standards greatly inferior to those we bring to the appreciation of—the term is absurd but unavoidable—white artists. [New York Times, November 24, 1968.]

Mr. Kramer poses the question fairly but fails to grasp the main point that blacks have been making. Mr. Ghent, who has been thrust into acting as a spokesman for black artists, replies with interesting and useful observations on the position of the black painter, but he does not, in my opinion, join the issue satisfactorily. Apparently anxious to defend the contribution of black painters to American culture, he largely limits himself to the suggestion that the Whitney show was a blow to integration. He concludes:

Mr. Kramer, in his article, is perpetuating a pervasive myth, one which could be explosively dangerous: the myth of the inferiority of black artists; in fact, the myth of the inferiority of blacks generally in areas of intellectual endeavor. . . .

To continually perpetuate this lamentable situation is a very sad commentary on the country as a whole when you consider that we are all Americans anxious to make our most significant contribution in a truly positive way. However, the establishment forces black artists to set themselves apart (physically but not esthetically), thereby robbing America and the world of the opportunity to share in their creativity which is, and always has been, an integral part of their aspirations. [New York Times, Dec. 8, 1968; original emphasis.]

So, it would seem that the tragedy of white America’s indifference reduces to its having closed itself to those blacks who yearn to contribute to the common stream. Mr. Ghent’s position, at least as expressed in this one exchange, does not adequately meet Mr. Kramer’s objection, nor does it reflect adequately those essential claims of the black intelligentsia which Mr. Ghent could probably explore much better than I, were he to offer us a more leisurely presentation.

Let us return to Mr. Kramer’s fair question. Do we, in fact, want a double standard by which blacks could be excused for technical mediocrity? The answer is certainly “No,” and no self-respecting black painter would tolerate such a thing. The question is badly directed and can be judged to be fair only because the white art world has been so blinded by racist indifference that men like Mr. Kramer have had no basis from which to advance beyond a sense of guilt.

The argument of black painters today is very much like that advanced by black jazz musicians during the last several decades. Black musicians have had to fight a lonely and bitter uphill battle to convince whites that jazz is a serious art form and not an entertainment, but this battle, in which they have been joined by white jazzmen, has never been the only one for them. Their effort has also been aimed at demonstrating that black jazz and white jazz are not, and could not be, quite the same. This assertion has been treated, by those whose intellect and sensibility have been formed in a liberal bourgeois milieu, as some kind of obscurantist black racism. No doubt it has sometimes taken such forms, but essentially it is no more than an assertion of cultural difference. Jazz reflects the historically conditioned sensibilities of those playing it, and blacks, with their own traditions which extend back through such Afro-American forms as the slave songs, reach back to Africa itself. Blacks in America cannot avoid being Europeans too, just as to a lesser extent whites, especially Southern whites, cannot avoid being Africans too, however much they may howl at the thought; but the locus in each case has clearly been different. They share many things, and perhaps everything, but they combine them in entirely different ways to form distinct cultural configurations. The argument over culture versus subculture is rapidly losing its force, for blacks are now consciously molding a national Afro-American culture of their own.

The pianist, Cecil Taylor, sharply expressed the viewpoint held by many blacks:

But when I heard Horace [Silver], now that was a thing that turned me around and finally fixed my idea of piano playing. Horace was playing with Getz. Getz was all over the sax, and Horace was right on him. Listening to Horace that night I dug that there were two attitudes in jazz, one white and one black. The white idea is valid in that the cats playing it play the way their environment leads them, which is the only way they can play. But Horace is the Negro idea because he was playing the real thing of Bud, with all the physicality of it, with the filth of it, and the movement in the attack. Yet Horace supposedly had no technique, which again brings us to the idea of what technique is. [Quoted in A. B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business (New York: Pantheon Book, 1967), p. 62.]

Taylor argues, in effect, that black music has its own environmental moorings and seeks to express a particular culture, and he is quick to see, as white critics do not seem able to, that a particular culture must find its own forms and must evaluate technique in a manner appropriate to those forms.

The evaluation of black painting in the 1930s must be approached from this vantage point, and it must be approached as a problem appropriate to a given time and place, not as an abstract question in esthetic theory. The position of the black painters of the 1930s and their place in both American national and Afro-American culture raises a great many issues, which the white art world must begin to face with a degree of modesty and intellectual maturity it has not yet displayed. Not being an art critic, I shall leave specific judgments to those qualified, but the general problems require no special training to appreciate.

Let us take three hypothetical black painters of the 1930s: one who was willing to give a white audience what it would pay for in “Negro subjects”; a second who sought acceptance in the American mainstream (however defined); and a third who consciously struggled for an Afro American viewpoint in his art and who therefore had to struggle for new forms. The first could hardly have made much of a contribution to art—either American or Afro American—but his works are probably most in evidence since he could find at least a small market among vulgar bourgeois.

The second might or might not have been a competent artist. Since, as was certainly his privilege, he chose to work in an essentially Euro-American tradition the American art world should at least be able to evaluate his work without difficulty. In view of the discrimination and indifference to which he was subjected we ought not to be surprised that work of the highest quality was not forthcoming; it is a tribute to black Americans that they produced any work of real quality at all. But we are entitled to wonder: Since such men were ignored and despised how much of their work was ever bought and exhibited and how much survived? Can we be sure that great works have not been sacrificed in each generation? It is probably too late to do anything about this record of white vandalism, but one question remains and cries out for an unbiased answer from whites and blacks alike: If it were to be established that the best black painters of the 1930s were second rate, to what extent was their failure to achieve greatness due to the schizophrenia against which Afro-American artists are so vigorously fighting today? To what extent, for example, were even these “mainstream” artists trying to express a specific Afro-American sensibility and to what extent was their failure to reach peak achievement the result of a socially directed attempt to ram their content into inappropriate forms? I cannot answer my own questions and doubt that experts as yet can, for to the best of my knowledge, even the most discerning of our art critics have insisted on viewing black painting through ethnocentric white eyes.

Our third hypothetical painter presents the most difficult problems and brings us to a consideration of the present crisis and to future prospects. If whites can recognize, as they increasingly do, that black jazz musicians have been consciously striving to express a distinct Afro-American national sensibility, then they ought to have no trouble in recognizing the same tendency among painters. The two art forms have had radically different histories in black America, and there is no doubt that black painting is far less developed than black music. Painters and sculptors have had a difficult time in preserving and developing an African tradition. Black slaves could and did sing and dance and did blend African, American, and specifically slave-quarter elements into their effort. The line from African music through the slave songs to modern black music is neither simple nor straight, but it is discernible. The great African traditions in sculpture and the visual arts largely had to be left behind since, for obvious reasons, the slave plantation offered no shelter for artists and a clientele. The slaves themselves might have kept the tradition alive in their work as skilled craftsmen and artisans, but even these possibilities were severely circumscribed in the United States. Other slave-holding countries such as St. Domingue (Haiti), Brazil, Cuba, and to a lesser extent Jamaica and the other British islands imported African slaves almost up to the time of emancipation, and the preservation of elements of African art and religion followed suit. African elements also benefited in these countries from such factors as the size of the plantations: Whereas cotton plantations in the United States were small units, and tobacco farms even smaller, most of the slaves in the Caribbean and in Brazil lived on large sugar estates, which permitted considerably more freedom of movement in the quarters. The United States closed the African slave trade formally in 1808, but most states had already taken the step well before. The great period of slavery expansion came after that date; the westward march of the Cotton Kingdom did not begin in earnest until 1820 or so. The slave population of the United States during the 19th century was therefore a native-born population, with minimal and almost nonexistent reinforcements from Africa. Moreover, during this same period black craftsmen and artisans, both free and slave, were steadily driven from their trades by white racist pressure. In such a setting the preservation of an African tradition in the visual arts became almost impossible, although we may find—when the subject is explored fully without racist blinders—that more has survived than we can now appreciate.

What we especially need to know is the extent of the effort of blacks to develop an Afro-American point of view during the post-slavery generation. It is quite possible that every generation during the last century has had its black artists who have had to begin anew each time because the work of the previous generation was not preserved. The black communities of the United States have been too poor, and until recently perhaps too psychologically defensive, to sustain their painters and sculptors, and the art patrons of the white world have had no interest in work they could not begin to understand. White America, at its best, has looked either for “Negro subjects” or for black painters who measure up to “standards” in work with other subjects; it has yet to realize that black painters properly insist on the right to paint any subject but to bring to it a sensibility and point of view of their own. To the question, “How do you know such a thing has any real artistic merit,” it is only necessary to reply that white Americans will never know until they take a long and unbiased look. In any case, whatever white Americans do, black artists are certain to keep going with redoubled effort, and it would be ridiculous and self-defeating for whites to cut themselves off from a movement that is destined to gain in vigor and intensity. (But then, indulgence in the ridiculous and self-defeating has always been among the hallmarks of white racism in America.)

In the face of this long history of white crimes against black culture and the black intelligentsia one would think that the white art world would be ready to meet its responsibility to investigate black painting, to contribute to the growth and security of black artists, and to recognize the principle of a difference in national culture and tradition. The responsibility of Mr. Hoving is especially clear. So, instead of doing what he is supposed to do as director of the nation’s greatest museum, he shirks his duty and then tries to atone with an exhibit that has nothing to do with the proper function of the museum, tramples on the dignity of the Harlem community. and plunges into a political labyrinth, the depths of which have yet to be reviewed even by his most severe critics.

The show’s politics transcends the readily apparent implications for American society in general and for the increasingly ominous white-black confrontation; it represents a thrust, probably mindless, by Mr. Hoving into the politics of Harlem itself. The black community understandably tries to put one face toward the white, especially in matters of local control, but there can be no doubt that the blacks are rent by profound social and political differences. The inner turmoil in the black community is difficult for a white man to evaluate; it may even be difficult for any but the most sophisticated black participants, for the pace of change is breathtaking. Certain things are nonetheless clear, notably the sharpening struggle between radical nationalists and cultural nationalists. The traditional dichotomy between integrationist and separatist tendencies within black America extends far back into our history and dates from the very first black protests against discrimination and racism; this dichotomy still exists but in new forms. The “Black Power” slogan and incipient ideology, for all the confusion and contradictions, represents a serious attempt to combine the more realistic and politically feasible features of both. In any case, the demand for autonomy in the black communities is disappearing as a divisive issue; the divisions increasingly center on the specific content of the demand. The struggle for power in the black communities has therefore broken out even before autonomy has been won. The lines are blurred and shifting, but the “black capitalism” aspirations of the black bourgeoisie is predictably drawing heavy fire from the radicals. These differences may be papered over for public consumption, united fronts may be presented to the Man, and the deepening internal crisis may be obscured by the enthusiastic salutations of “brother” and “sister” and a common militant, nationalistic rhetoric; but the settlement of old scores appears to be merely a question of time.

If the Harlem community had in fact organized its own show, certain political as well as artistic tendencies would have gained while others lost. It makes a great deal of difference to various factions how, for example, one emphasizes and interprets the various phases of Malcolm X’s career. Any such show would therefore provoke a fierce struggle in the inner political core of Harlem even while all tendencies were uniting to demonstrate a certain degree of unity in confrontation with whites. An analysis of these contradictions and trends, even were one appropriate here, would be besides the point, for, whatever the preferences of whites, blacks will settle these questions among themselves.

Enter Mr. Hoving. Since I am both naive and suspicious by nature, I assumed that Mr. Hoving possessed the last word in sophistication in these matters and that he intended a deliberate intrusion into Harlem’s politics. His political ambitions, which no one would begrudge him, have been a matter of gossip in New York City, and we would have been justified in assuming that he meant to strengthen his position with the politically powerful, ideologically conservative cultural nationalists, Mr. Hoving, on the face of it, was attempting to woo the middle-class advocates of black capitalism, who are, incidentally, the most vigorous practitioners of anti-white rhetoric in the black community. All this makes good Establishment sense, and Mr. Hoving, a man from the very marrow of the WASP Establishment, seemed to have been intent on providing a lesson in how to do it with grace and elegance. But if any of my fears were justified, then how is it possible that he should have excluded the essential personalities, offended almost everyone, and elicited a general outcry from people who normally split on these issues? These were truly remarkable achievements. Mr. Hoving’s level of political astuteness is obviously somewhat below that of his esthetic sense, which is itself not above criticism; apparently, the poor soul never even had a clue. Now, there is no disgrace for an American in being a political manipulator who minds other people’s business, tries to adjust their political alignments, meddles in their social life, and sets himself up as the arbiter of their taste. Americans have long good-naturedly regarded such impertinence as a part of our national life—as something that falls in the category of “Why not, if you can get away with it.” Unfortunately for Mr. Hoving, these same Americans, both black and white, are not nearly so tolerant of incompetence. Had Mr. Hoving limited himself to behaving like an impudent and insensitive bourgeois, he might have escaped with a restrained and passing rebuke; once he revealed himself as a damned fool, the worst became inevitable.

What has happened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is neither more nor less than what appears to have happened: A decent, well-meaning, politically influential and ambitious, socially responsive man of affairs, honestly concerned with the deterioration of race relations, has done his thing. Unhappily, the world, especially the black world, has no further use for his thing. His gaffe comes at a moment at which the black community in general and Harlem in particular are finding their own ways to dramatize the power and legitimacy of their culture, and it represents one of those ghastly miscalculations which one only wishes would just go away.

At bottom, Mr. Hoving’s effort reduces to St. Gronlesex paternalism. There is no point, therefore, in crediting his good intentions. All paternalism rests on good intentions, and the paternalism of New York’s grande bourgeoisie is not better or more well-intended than that of the ill-fated Southern slaveholders. In some ways it is much less palatable. The slaveholders, after all, had the wisdom and decency to own their niggers outright before they presumed to run their lives.

Dr. Genovese is the author of The Political Economy of Slavery. He teaches at Sir George Williams University, Montreal, Quebec.