Let’s start with two forms of black conservatism. One is social and the other artistic. For an excellent description of social conservatism, see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2008 essay This Is How We Lost to the White Man, about Bill Cosby, the most prominent exponent of this position until his overthrow in 2015. The social form of Der Black conservatism expresses the feeling that, according to Coates, “Black America was lost” and the “absent father crisis, the rise of black-on-black crime and the spread of hip-hop” were not just the ” successes” of the 1960s” but rather “the black community … is committing cultural suicide”.
The artistic form of Black Conservatism has other fish to fry. Indeed, the nature of their program rejects the profit motive and popular culture in general. The artistic position, for example, looks something like this The Cosby Show as culturally inferior and even worthless. What matters most instead is technical excellence (listen to Coltrane’s giant steps) and deep tradition (read floor by Jean Toomer) in the production of black art. These sentiments were formalized in the 1970s by literary and jazz critic Albert Murray, who included novelist Ralph Ellison and artist Romare Bearden in his circle.
In the 1980s, the world-famous jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the controversial cultural critic Stanley Crouch joined this group, which to my knowledge was exclusively male. Nevertheless, Bearden, who died in 1988, is probably the only major 20th-century artist who acknowledges the otherwise neglected genius of the black composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams and dedicates an important work to him, “The Piano Lesson.” (This work, completed in 1983, inspired a play of the same name by August Wilson, an artist whose theatrical productions expressed both forms of Black conservatism.)
What Bearden and Ralph Ellison had in common, according to Albert Murray’s artistic conservatism, was modernism. Now, this European movement, which began in the late 19th century and culminated in the works of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and Arnold Schoenberg, has a complicated history that this post will not elucidate. But understand that European modernity has two apparently incompatible sides. One relies on innovation, the other on the preservation of culture. One looks ahead, the other looks back, and the two never look at each other. I think that drove the American poet Ezra Pound insane. This is also the reason for TS Eliots The wasteland is such a beautiful mess. It’s experimental and traditional; it draws on the everyday language of its time and on long-dead languages. (In the end, however, Eliot collapsed and he joined the Church of England.)
The same contradictions, but in a Black American context, are found in Ellison’s only novel, That invisible man, and the post-war paintings and especially collages by Bearden, which often did not look traditional but were about black tradition and black roots stretching back to Africa. Incidentally, as a theorist, Murray tried and ultimately (one might even bitterly say bitterly) fail to resolve this modernist contradiction in Black conservatism—but that story is for another post, which I will probably never write. Murray died in 2013.
Romare Bearden: Abstraction at the Frye Art Museum has two parts. One examines Bearden’s most abstract works (1952-1963) and another the period (1964-1975) when he boldly combined technological innovations and treatments with black traditions and textures. No doubt Murray preferred the second movement (and, frankly, I did too), as its form of modernism preserved the richness and depth of Black America’s culture and experience. In these works like “Fish Fry” and “Evening 9:10, 461 Lenox Avenue” we can see the music that directly inspired August Wilson, who called Bearden one of his “4 Bs” (the others) Jorge Luis Borges, Amiri Baraka and the Blues).
Let’s wrap up this quick note with Albert Murray’s description of Bearden’s creative background and process:
Speaking of other forms, my friend, the late Romy Bearden, learned to paint by listening to music—or learned to apply the dynamics of music to painting. But he got it from someone in his medium. He went down to talk to Stuart Davis about what Stuart Davis had learned from modernists, so-called modernists, in France, and Davis wanted to talk to him about Earl Hines’ use of the interval. Bearden realized he already had a sensibility – his sense of form, which he responded to every day, could be applied to the medium in which he worked. He became a pure improvisation painter. He would write something down to see how it relates to another shape. Just like playing around on a keyboard.
Romare Bearden: Abstraction, which runs until September 18, features “fifty-five paintings, works on paper and collages” by the great American artist. Do not miss.