Thursday, March 17, 2011

Consuming Art: The Black Middle Class

Franklin & Marshall's Emerging Scholars symposium this year was dedicated to Identity. All the papers were amazing, but Patricia Banks' "Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class" was the one that struck some chords with my research. It was a pleasure to meet Patricia and initiate some comparative discussions with the Armenian- and Greek-American middle classes. Symposium lunch turned into a workshop with Sylvia Alajaji, Susan Minasian, and I capitalizing on Banks. Thanks to Laurie Baulig and F&M's Center of Liberal Arts & Society for making this forum possible.

Banks is a sociologist at Mount Holyoke College. Her talk was based on her dissertation, published last year (order it for your libraries here). Banks interviewed over 100 black art collectors in Atlanta and New York and has documented a typology of patronage, collecting, and re-presenting. Black artistic patronage is caught up with a race of legitimation and story-telling focusing on distinctly black narratives. Most striking is the prominence of figurative representation with abstraction entering the home only when the motifs have clearly African folk origins. As one might have expected, the black middle class stays clear of any controversial art. There is very little Glenn Ligon or Kara Walker and there is no attempt to address the vibrant cultural production of the ghetto. While the white middle class becomes obsessed with pimps, hoes, bling, and gangstas, the black middle class wants to keep it out of the home. The art of the middle class is conservative, occasionally bordering kitsch. Glenn Ligon's retrospective just began at the Whitney, following the Kara Walker retrospective. The black middle class is clearly not in-step with the Whitney. Like all middle class minorities, they will not take artistic risks. They will collect only after legitimation has occurred by a dominant authority, in this case, the (predominantly) white art world.

Franklin & Marshall's owns the collection of one of America's greatest black Abstract Expressionists, Bill Hutson. Hutson was a faculty member in the Art Department at F&M. One of our art history students, Jessica Jackson, spent last year conducting an oral history project documenting Hutson's artistic and social struggles. Black artists were ostracized in the 1960s if they chose to use the language of abstraction. Patrons like Spike Lee have categorically rejected any black art that does not reflect some political (read: figurative) black content.

Hutson's story and Banks' analysis are particularly interesting with a recent news item on the art collection of the White House, see Randy Kennedy, "This Museum Has a Lived-in Look," New York Times (Mar. 16, 2011). The item of interest is the following incident: "When the first lady changed her mind in 2009 about hanging a painting by the African-American artist Alma W. Thomas in her office, some critics accused her of giving in to conservative commentators who criticized the painting as a fraud because it reworked and paid homage to a famous Matisse collage. The first lady’s office took great pains to say that the removal had nothing to do with politics; the painting just didn’t fit the space where it had been intended to hang." Alma Thomas' Watutsi (Hard Edge) --above-- was painted in 1963 and corresponds with the Hutson's period of abstract work. Watutsi resembles Matisse's collage Snail (1953) -- left-- but the issue of "plagiarism" that dominated the media coverage is less interesting. What is more interesting is America's general discomfort with abstraction. Forget about the issues of collage, which is by definition a derivative genre.

The moment that art becomes "representational" of identity it is reduced to a boring equation, it becomes illustrative. As Kara Walker or Glenn Ligon has taught us, identity is produced through the production of art not through its consumption. Since the birth of modern art, the Avant-Garde had a special relationship with the Middle Class, which it tended to critique and try to shock. The incorporation of the avant-garde into the mainstream is an old story, but it's a central part of the Art Story. To look at art simply as a sociological illustration provides an important slice, but it robs it of its essential function. The postmodern critique might in fact take the argument a step further and argue that art is ONLY a process of legitimizing the middle class. In the 1960s, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu studied the French middle class and produced one of the most influential studies of art and sociology, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Banks wants to argue that class is too thin of a lens. Building on Bourdieu, she has adds the lens of race. It's a wonderful contribution, but at the end of the day, the processes of class trump race. To put it another way, race may provide the narrative content but class still commands the appropriative process.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States