Modernist Visual Culture Group Projects
Ben Hagemann Group G
Do you think modernist visual culture reflects changes in the modern world or itself produces new perceptions of the world?
Its a chicken and the egg question, but we can safely answer with one word: both. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between each answer. If modernist visual culture reflects change in the modern world, we are referring to modernism as a critique of socio-cultural modernity, playing a secondary role. If modernist visual culture produces new perceptions of the world, we are looking at modernism as a constituent of socio-cultural modernity, which is a primary in socio-cultural evolution.
The Harlem Renaissance had a simple, yet crucial theme: To bring about the greater acceptance and equality of Afro-Americans in America, by showing the black people to be intelligent, cultured and creative. This was achieved by encouraging Afro-Americans to produce works of art that were relevant to their race-identity (we can easily see distinctive primitivist themes) while drawing upon the wealth of inspiration from European styles , so that the white community could see that black people were not the savages they were once thought to be. From this perspective, it is easy to suggest that visual culture during the second Harlem Renaissance (the first was largely a literary and a musical movement) was producing new perceptions of both the world and black people. If it were not for artists such as William H. Johnson, blending cubist and primitivist themes to produce an African American urban scene , would white people ever have developed an appreciation for black art?
Turning to the other side of the coin, it is apparent that the Harlem Renaissance would never have taken place if it were not for the support of a small but influential and wealthy section of the white community. This being the case, we could say that the Harlem Renaissance was reflecting changes that were already taking place in the modern world. Upper class socialites such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason took part in a system of patronage of the arts in Harlem, a necessary step towards encouraging young Afro-Americans to even bother themselves with painting, writing or sculpting (there were no shortages of black musicians at that time). Unfortunately, these types of white supporters were still quite bigoted, despite their easygoing natures. They regarded blacks people and their art as novelty, a display of the savage and primitive side of human nature, which white people had supposedly lost over the centuries.
Nonetheless, these people did help the artistic community in Harlem, in particular the visual arts, which are quite difficult to maintain without adequate patronage. They also had taken the first step in conscious realisation of the human brotherhood suggested by Appiah. They had learned to accept the cultural differences of the black people, while helping to blend the black culture with their own, effectively downplaying the significance of these differences.
In closing, it should be said that it is impossible to define an artistic movement strictly in terms of its influence on, or its response to changes in the world. They are merely perspectival discourse, which enables students of the arts to learn and analyse the history of human socio-cultural evolution. Both sides of this issue are important in the consideration of not only the Harlem renaissance, but any other social movement that has ever existed. Social movements are always influenced by the events that lead to their formation, and they always have impact on the Movement of Society that follows.
Lemke, Sieglinde; Primitivist Modernisms: Black Culture and the origins of Transatlantic Modernism; Oxford University Press, New York (1998).
Scott, William B. and Rutkoff, Peter M.; New York Modern: The Arts and the City; The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (1999).