Blacks buy into art that is affirming -- not boring

January 11, 1998|By GLENN MCNATT

AMERICANS' favorite picture is a blue landscape with animals and well-dressed people in it, according to a new poll designed to uncover what kind of art we like.

Former Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid commissioned the study as part of a project called "Painting By Numbers." They found out what ordinary people wanted in a picture, and then they painted it.

When a sample of Americans was polled, "a whopping 88 percent favored a landscape, optimally featuring water," the New York Times reported. "Respondents also inclined toward realistic treatment, visible brushstrokes, blended colors, soft curves. They liked the idea of wild animals appearing, as well as people -- famous or not -- fully clothed and at leisure."

Well, that may be, but Komar and Melamid don't have a clue when it comes to black people, a great many of whom definitely do not like blue landscapes. They think blue landscapes are a white thing -- boring, boring, boring.

"I don't understand it," says Paul Schmidt, proprietor of Rogers Custom Framing on Mulberry Street, whose mostly black clientele is mostly unmoved by the blue landscape sitting atop a small chair in his shop.

"White people ask about that picture all the time," Schmidt says, "but my black customers hardly ever even mention it."

What black customers like is black art, says Schmidt, who is white. And so, like any good businessman, he stocks a selection of the kind of merchandise his customers want to buy.

The market for black art has exploded in recent years, according to Schmidt and industry sources. The growth of the black middle class, which has doubled in size over the last generation, has fueled a new demand for artworks depicting African-Americans in an appealing way.

Dealers like Schmidt, who sell popularly priced prints and paintings -- the kind ordinary people buy to decorate their homes -- have been hard pressed to keep up with the trend.

Meanwhile, a newly visible cadre of black artists -- Tom Feelings, W. H. Johnson, Verna Hart, Sam Nelsdon-Odoi, Ray Isaac, Arlene Case, Joseph Holston, J. Steptoe, Ted Ellis and many, many others -- are having their works appreciated and bought by a newly empowered black middle class.

So what is "black art"? And is it really that different from "white art"? In truth, the answers to both questions are probably more sociological than aesthetic.

But if the catalogs of prints, drawings and photographs specializing in black art are any indication, there certainly are some broad, general tendencies.

Black people like pictures with other black people in them, in settings that suggest that black people are just as lovely, interesting, capable and caring as anyone else.

They like pictures of old black people whose faces reflect the wisdom of experience and pictures of young people whose faces express hope and promise.

They like pictures of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and whole families together; pictures of curious, energetic, happy children; pictures of men and women in love; pictures of people dancing, singing and telling stories, pictures of people enjoying life and each others' company.

Some will dismiss these images as illustration rather than art -- a kind of black version of the pictorial happy talk epitomized by Norman Rockwell's paintings for the Saturday Evening Post during the 1950s and '60s.

Rockwell's paintings were deliberate idealizations of white American life, but their innocence was mostly benign. Rockwell thought that if he showed people as better than they actually were, reality might eventually catch up to the ideal. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rockwell was one of the few illustrators of his day whose black subjects were as fully realized and as human as his white ones.

The black art of the 1990s doesn't depict racial conflict or the grinding despair of the ghetto. It doesn't deal with drive-by shootings, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, school failure or unemployment. It is as removed from the grittier aspects of contemporary urban life as are those ubiquitous blue landscapes. It is art intended to make people feel good about themselves.

It has been said that the difference between art and illustration is that art aims to change our consciousness, while illustration merely enhances what we already know.

But black people have been put down, disparaged, distorted and dehumanized for a long time in the American visual arts. Just to be able to see oneself as an ordinary human being, who can be happy or sad, serious or silly, loving and beloved just like any other human being, is itself a revelation. Black art is an art for people for whom "art" -- white, Western, European art, at least -- was once an enemy.

That is why I think the explosion of black art is a hopeful sign. It DTC is a step along the way toward black people reclaiming their cultural heritage and reaffirming the immense contributions they have made to this country, not only in music, dance and the theater, but in painting, sculpture and the other visual arts as well.

I hope it will lead them eventually into the city's museums, galleries and art schools, not as marginal outsiders but as engaged viewers intent on reclaiming a cultural legacy that rightfully belongs to them as Americans and as human beings -- blue landscapes and all.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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