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Part 2 Rachel
The Harlem Renaissance


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Part II - How significant is the distinction between avant-garde art and mass
culture to modernist art?

In order to assess the significance of modernist art, and visual art in
particular, it is important to identify the distinction between avant-garde art
and mass culture, and their impact upon the development of black art and the
Harlem Renaissance. According to Massimo Bontempelli, avant-garde art is "an
exclusively modern discovery, born only when art began to contemplate itself
from a historical viewpoint"(Poggioli, p14). The avant-garde is that which is
cutting-edge and particularly experimental, but more specifically, is an
attempt to transcend aesthetic autonomies of high art and comment upon society
within a social sphere (Kantaris). This acknowledgment of the existence of mass
culture and the modern human condition, gives rise to such artistic movements as
the Harlem Renaissance.
The phenomenon of urbanisation and aggressive capitalist expansion issued such
a heightened cultural reaction within the social and political environment, that
modernist artists embraced many differing influences in search for appropriate
means of expression. David Harvey describes the social climate of the early
twentieth century in terms of "time-space compression" or "the annihilation of
space by time", in which capitalism impressed the desire for faster speed and
turnover within the urban environment (Kantaris). It is considered that this
development of mass-industrial capitalism gave rise to a community obsessed with
consumption and homogenization - fittingly branded as mass culture. As a
result, there arose an overwhelming nostalgia for the lost myths governing an
ordered and organic sense of community (Kantaris), and artists harnessed a
primitive essence in their work. This is particularly evident in Pablo
Picassos Les Demoiselles dAvignon (1907).


The Cubist movement was influenced largely by African art and sculpture, paving
the way for an increased interest in black art and the New Negro movement
(Modernism and Modernity, p2). Within the fine arts tradition it became
necessary for artists to reach beyond their own resources in order to find this
vital organic element. Ironically, in adopting African-American cultural
idioms, western modernism has in effect drawn upon anothers vernacular
tradition so as to comment upon their own popular or vernacular culture. In
doing so, the validity of artistic specifications in the arena of high-art are
questioned (Modernism and Modernity, p2). The visual art of the Harlem
Renaissance therefore embraces the very essence of modernist style, by
introducing a sense of duality between high art and mass culture. This ambiguous
distinction between popular and high culture is perhaps the basis of
avant-garde art.
Below is Lois Mailou Jones Les Fetiches an example of the primitive nature
of Harlem Renaissance art.

Lois Mailou Jones Les Fetiches

Like many avant-garde movements in Europe, the Harlem Renaissance embraced all
art forms in an attempt to "dissolve art into social life" (Kantaris). The work
of artists such as Archibald J. Motley Jr often featured Harlem blues and jazz
music, focussing on the moving body of the black performer with "sympathetic
identification with the aesthetic and cultural values of the performers and
their audience" (The Blues Aesthetic p1). Once again, it is interesting to
note that jazz perhaps a hybridized commodity for the masses, is incorporated
into the once autonomous world of fine art (The Blues Aesthetic p2).

Archibald J. Motley, Jr, 'Blues'

The distinction between avant-garde art and mass culture is particularly
significant when analysing Modernist art, as it is this very issue that typifies
much of the work of Modernist artists. The morally bankrupt condition of western
urban life brought about a fascination with a sense of otherness(Blackboard 5,
Primitive/Primitivism, p2), creating the impetus for the Harlem Renaissance
and allowing the emergence of input from the oppressed Negro race. The
avant-garde attempts to fade the line between popular and high culture with the
refreshing, innately organic contribution of African folk culture the Harlem

Driscoll, Catherine. "Primitive/Primitivism." Week 6 Course Material. Semester
2, 2001
Kantaris, Geoffrey. "Avant-garde / Modernism / Post-modernism." M. Phil. In
European Literature Fictions of Modernity. 1997.
Poggioli, Renato. "The Concept of the Avant-garde." The Theory of the
Avant-Garde. Cambridge mass: The Becknar Press of Harvard University Press,

Smethurst, James. "Southern Road and the New Negro Renaissance". The New Red
Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930 1946. Oxford
University Press, 1999.
http://www.english .uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brown/smethurst.htm

"A Blues Aesthetic" and "Modernism and Modernity". Modernism, Primitivism,
Neo-Primitivism, Harlem Renaissance, Imagining Africa.