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Modernism And The Harlem Rennisance
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Modernism And The Harlem Rennisance
An essay on the concept of modernism and the harlem rennisance.
[1,199 words]
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Modernism And The Harlem Rennisance

The nature of art will always be in conflict with popular critical demand, because the mere aesthetic of creation itself is given to so many variables and variants, that it is inevitable that it will somehow conflict with the norms of whatever society in which the art is created. And the Harlem Renaissance had more than its fair share of demands put upon it. On its way to being the first major movement in the history of African American Art to synthesize the myth, ritual and structure of black history into various forms, it underwent numerous aesthetic conflicts which centered around race and individual identity. In selected works of painter Palmer Hayden, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, You can see how artists created a space for their own personal expression by either navigating through or rebelling against the demands of the time.

The primary demanding artistic voice, in relation to the fact that they were tied into the general buying public, was that of the white patron. Now to paint their involvement in the Harlem Renaissance in merely damning terms short changes the complex nature of the personal and financial relationships that they had with the artists that they were supporting. Patrons like Charlotte Osgood Mason and Carl Van Vechten were not only instrumental in getting the work of numerous artists to a broader stage, they provided the financial support in which they could do the work itself. Real estate developer William Harmon established the Harmon Foundation, a program which highlighted African American achievement in the art, literature and various humanities.

But the greater truth was that the patrons, like the public itself, were not interested in the specificities of the art itself as they were in their own set definitions of it. The art exhibitions of the Harmon foundation quickly turned into caricatured formula and the demand of exoticism from whites in other art forms was so great that rarely any work that had themes beyond that proved profitable.

An excellent example of how an artist used the demands of his time and his median to create unique work is Palmer Hayden's " Nous quarte Au Paris" (http://www.nku.edu/~diesmanj/nousquatre.jpg) On the surface it reeks of stereotypes and racial pandering, with the lips and heads of the card players grotesquely out of proportion with their bodies. But if you look closer, you can see the coolness of their suits, smoothness of their facial demeanor and the sophisticated form of bluffing that comes with the ritual of playing cards, as shown by the response to their received hand. The painting expertly plays to convention and idiosyncratic artistic expression by adopting stereotypical images and giving them a succinctly dignified identity, therefore robbing them of the power to hurt.

Another voice of artistic demand came from one of the most formidable giants in African American Literary History, W.E.B Dubois. One cannot sing enough praises to Dubois's, " the souls of black folk," one of the most sophisticated books ever written about race, and a vital document in the history of American letters. But by the time of the renaissance, the finely nuanced vision of an inter class artistic and cultural utopia that guided his book, had eroded into a cantankerous Marxist dogma blanketed in the rhetoric of racial uplift. There were no guidelines, just rules, and the primary one was to create art to " move the race higher"; which meant an artist couldn't create an image in which white people could constrict as a stereotype.

To many it seemed like a sound policy, but to Langston Hughes it meant suppressing part of his humanity, something that he couldn't live with. In his essay " The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/360.html) Hughes argues for the right for an artist to view the humanity of their environment in whenever terms they see fit. "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame" Hughes said. " If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too." In response to the Positive image demands of Dubois, Hughes is not arguing for negative portrayals instead of positive ones. He is simply saying that the demands of art supersede and give greater reward than the mere portrayals themselves.

The third and probably most important artistic demand of the Harlem Rennaisance was the ones that the individual artists put on themselves. Here is where an array of factors play a part, from the aforementioned patronage and Dubois's faction, to an artists environment, knowledge of form, sense of self and overall personal well being. You can see those factors in the different and complex structural aesthetics of the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Cullen's quest to be seen in a universal spectrum by using the form of the sonnet is a compelling one, and much of the poetry that he wrote will last as long as people retain an interest in the English language. One cam empathize with his need to break free from the paternalistic stereotypical constraints of race regarding African American artists, especially the ones propagated by the patrons of the Harlem Renaissance at the time. And to describe his poetry as merely raceless overlooks the complex way in which he explored the terms of being a black artist( " Yet do I Marvel") recalled experiences of racism ( " An Incident") and the oh so complex cultural ties that African Americans have with Africa ( " Heritage") (http://www.nku.edu/~diesmanj/cullen.html)

However, one can see Hughes point when he implicitly mentions Cullen in " Racial Mountain" as an artist in conflict with his color.( Cullen is the black poet Hughes is talking about in the first few paragraphs of the essay). Hughes isn't criticizing Cullen's blackness per-se, as the opening paragraphs seem to indicate. The true message of Hughes's beef with him can be seen in the last sentence of the second to last paragraph of the essay; when he says " An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must never be afraid to do what he might choose". He isn't criticizing Cullen's wide artistic scope, which ranged from Blake to Keats, he is just saying that it was a shame that that wide scope couldn't include the beauty of the jazz and the spirituals. It is in his art which provides the most sterling example of his aesthetic; as in poems such as Jazzonia, The Weary Blues, The Negro Speaks of rivers and Theme for English b, Hughes displays a poetic gift steeped in the nuances of Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs and Walt Whitman's free form style( which in itself was influenced by spirituals). (http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Langston_Hughes)

The constraints of environment play a part in the creation of any art work as well as the form itself.The unique environmental obstacles against which the artists of the Harlem Renaissance labored to create not only influenced the forms of art in that movement; these obstacles were one of the factors which contribute to the enduring beauty of this important chapter in the history of American Art.




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July 2004

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