Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke
Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life, I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. Anybody who’s read Harold Cruse’s scathing dissection of black leadership, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, knows his argument that each generation of black leaders has failed from an inability to conceive black liberation totally and systemically. Meaning they failed to develop agendas that fused protest and reform politics with self-help economics, sophisticated cultural critiques, and a Marxian take on the political economy of capitalism. Twenty years later, the void Cruse railed against remains. If you think I’m going to try to fill it, you got another think coming. I’m bold but I ain’t that bad. This whatchamajiggy here is about how black aestheticians need to develop a coherent criticism to communicate the complexities of our culture. There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to The Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture. Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white institutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.
Given the lack of debate and discussion among educated blacks today, Harold Cruse’s remedies for the black intelligentsia’s failings seem more quixotic now than 20 years ago — particularly because back then the civil rights and black power movements were producing a generation of artists and activists who could be provoked into getting hot and bothered. (You ask a buppy mofo his stand on the race, he’ll tell you he favors Carl Lewis.) Cruse presaged the black cultural nationalist movement as conceived by Amiri Baraka and Ron Karenga. While the founding fathers have long taken deserved lumps for the jiver parts of their program (like the sexist, anti-Semitic, black supremacist, pseudo-African mumbo-jumbo paramilitary adventurist parts), to their credit they took black liberation seriously enough to be theoretically ambitious about it. Perhaps their most grandiose scheme involved trying to transform a supremacist sense of black cultural difference into the basis for a racially bonding black American zeitgeist — one that would serve blacks as Judaism was believed to have solidified Jews. The plan was to convince 30 million people they constituted a nation, not only because they were an oppressed minority, but also because they were superior to the corny white man and his Western civilization.
A considerable amount of this philosophy was developed by Baba Baraka, formerly a prized black stepchild of Western modernism. Baraka has acknowledged that he derived his black supremacist gumption from African-American music, which definitely represents the one modernist arena blacks are the masters of. (It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius. But that’s a whole other dissertation.) The leap from perceiving the genius of jazz to envisioning an Afrocentric master race is quite a doozy. Generously, it could be understood as an extremist’s reaction to blacks being classified for centuries as subhumans without culture and history. Given that context, let’s be generous. Two decades ago, Malcolm X implored blacks to cast aside their differences and unite against the common foe we all caught hell from, the white man. Yet that dream of black unity addressed racial oppression more meaningfully than it did the more crucial dilemma of cultural identity. (If being black meant nothing but being oppressed by white people, black liberation would have no meaning. Like if white people weren’t around to be mad at, people into being black would be out of a job.)
What the cult-nats made possible is a conception of black culture where anything black could be considered an aesthetic object of contemplation more beautiful than anything produced by the white man. In this sense the cult-nats were our dadaists. While the dadaists tried to raise anarchy to an artform and bring Western civilization down with style, the cult-nats figured a “black is beautiful” campaign would be enough to raze Babylon, or at least get a revolution going. The cult-nats’ black-übermensch campaign obviously didn’t do much toward liberating the masses, but it did produce a post-liberated black aesthetic, responsible for the degree to which contemporary black artists and intellectuals feel themselves heirs to a culture every bit as def as classical Western civilization.
This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provocative avant-garde black art of the ’70s and early ’80s (cf. Miles Davis, David Hammons, Senga Ngudi, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ishmael Reed, Charles Burnett, Pedro Bell, George Clinton, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Pryor, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison) owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. (Admittedly, most of these artists have at one time or another confused a passion for black exotica with detached representation. On the other hand, we all know there’s not a single freak in their work without a counterpart even more out-the-box somewhere in the kinky wilds of black America. Such is our mutant diversity.) What’s unfortunate is that while black artists have opened up the entire “text of blackness” for fun and games, not many black critics have produced writing as fecund, eclectic, and freaky-deke as the art, let alone the culture itself. (Some exceptions: Henry Louis Cates, David Levering Lewis, Lorenzo Thomas, Nathaniel Mackey, Adrian Seaward, Clyde Taylor, Houston Baker.) For those who prefer exegesis with a polemical bent, just imagine how critics as fluent in black and Western culture as the post-liberated artists could strike terror into that bastion of white supremacist thinking, the Western art world.
In Art After Modernism: Essays on Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art. (Like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western modernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal exhaustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety; that since Thomas Pynchon shabbily disguised Ornette Coleman as McClintic Sphere in V., black alienation has gotten confused with existential parody; that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas; that since I heard a snotty white DJ say he stopped thinking Parliament/Funkadelic was stupid disco when Brian Eno cited them as an influence, I’ve known George Clinton was right when he said that as soon as white folks figured out funk was intellectually acceptable they’d try to hop on board the Mothership.) To this post-liberated black aesthetician, Wallis’s whine sounded like an invite to bomb the white bastion rather than know my place relative to it. At first I thought I’d have to go it alone, but then I discovered a smart, empathetic white man I could cannibalize — one all ready to see MOMA collapse in the dust with an Air Jordan high-top at its throat.
A big round of applause, then, to my host culture-bearer, Hal Foster, senior editor at Art in America, editor of the post-mod collection The Anti-Aesthetic, and now author of Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press, $9.95 paper), a primer in poststructuralist discourse and debate with its sights on bringing about the end of Western civilization in theory. Taking aim, he blasts away at those involved in rationalizing capitalism through the culture industry. For people who look toward critical theory as a way to outthink the powers that be rather than to disguise fuzzy thinking behind hermetic verbiage, Foster makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t see theory as an end in itself, but as a “toolkit” to pry apart the hidden collusion between the corporate class and its artsy running dogs, like big bad MOMA and those messy Neo-Expressionist painters. Having arrived at the astounding conclusion that criticism is of marginal value to the art marketplace, Foster prizes his marginality as license to speak “out of place.”
The margins from which Foster speaks are indeed extreme — so extreme that by book’s end he’s set himself up against not only pluralism, Neo-Expressionism, postmodern architecture, primitivist-modernism, and The New Criterion crew, but Barthes, Baudrillard, Hegelian dialectics, and the very idea of Western history. (The “enemy” identified throughout Recodings is “the white, patriarchal order of western culture and its pretenses of sovereignty, supremacy and self creation.”) In the early sections Foster goes about exposing those postmodern artists who profess autonomy from corporate power or pretend to be political by acting like social outlaws. To this end he is such a thorough deconstructionist that not even artists he admires escape his powers of dissection. Though his demolition of Neo-Expressionism (“The Expressive Fallacy”) comes as no surprise, it’s unexpected when an infatuated appreciation of Robert Longo’s work ends on the downbeat. “A utopian principle of hope may be evoked here but no actual community is engaged. This work has no social basis (other than the dominant class whose representations are collided). Its mix of archaic and futuristic forms attests to this absence — as does its apocalypticism, which is symptomatic of the failure of the dominant culture (and its ‘artist guardian’) to conceive social change in terms other than catastrophe. In the absence of such a social basis utopian desire may well become a will to power — or an identification with the powers that be.”
Behind the facades of the postmoderns, Foster never fails to detect the presence of the corporate class. Echoing Baudrillard’s crucial revision of Marx, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Foster opines that the corporate class, having achieved mastery of accumulation, now desires mastery of “symbolic production,” meaning mass media and modern art. The “penetration of the sign by capital” is a major theme of Recodings, along with the problems that penetration represents for those committed to “cultural resistance,” Foster’s favorite form of theory-mongering.
Where others find total freedom in the pluralistic postmodern marketplace, he finds no more than the franchised freedom of the commodity. Here artists suppress all desire for social change and are rewarded for producing consumable art, “safeguarding social inertia by participating in an illusion of democracy.” Equally suspect is the return (through Neo-Expressionism) of the myth of the modern artist as bourgeois transgressor and last refuge of “humanist values.” (This gets kinky when you consider how much transgressive shock value, and hence “humanism” in modern art, derived from the moderns’ primitivist ideas about Africa.) Though these myths once served early modernism by making the artist an adversary of the bourgeoisie, today they serve the corporate class by making artistic transgression “a posture available to everyman.” (Reading this brought to mind the Jean Michel Basquiat behind the bar in the Palladium’s Michael Todd room.) Attacking postmodern architects for elitism, Foster finds in their vernacular revivals not a populist modernism but a supercilious lowbrowism, not a regeneration of modernist ideals but a regression to classic architectural forms for the myths of authority they sing to the powerful.
For Foster, the most provocative American art of today situates itself at a crossroads where representations of sexual identity and social life can freely intervene in critiques of institutional art, mass culture, and the corporate class. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman are artists Foster finds significant because they don’t just make consumable objects but also manipulate signs, seeking to make “the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” The history of these artists’ practices begins in the adversarial site-specific work done in the ’70s by Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. At that time their work centered on confronting the power of the museum to marginalize radical art, updating Duchamp’s antiaesthetic. Yet Buren believed that the real perfidy performed by galleries and museums was not aesthetic but economic: they protected the very idea of the art market by supplying exchange-value to art. Foster notes that this critique became particularly crucial once the bourgeoisie had abandoned its classical culture for a consumerist one, and reinvested in the museum as modernism’s warehouse. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and other feminist manipulators of “sign-value” revise the work of these male artists by mocking the power invested in official language. In “For a Concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,” Foster draws on Baudrillard’s critique of a belief held clear by Marx, Walter Benjamin, and the Russian constructivists: that political art must be aligned with the production of the industrial worker. Baudrillard found that model faulty because it identified the white male worker as the sole force for social progress. This denied the significance of struggles by those outside or subordinate to production: students, blacks, gays, women. Because the site of their struggles is as much for representation, for significance and signification within academia and the media, their active resistance of patriarchal and racist practices must take place there. The intent is not to segregate the struggles of blacks, gays, and women from those of the white male worker under capitalism, but to equalize them. Rethinking political art today means recognizing that per Foucault, power derives its authority not only from social consent and economic determinism but from those “disciplinary institutions” which control behavior and the body through “social regimens” (at work, school, the corporation) and “structure our lives materially.”
It is the realization that disciplinary institutions produce “socially adjusted individuals” which has brought poststructuralist concerns with representation, sexuality, textuality, and totalization to the foreground of contemporary political art. Baudrillard recognized that the commodification of culture has rendered obsolete the distinctions between art and commerce, culture and economy, and any reading of signs (art and media) as if they were impenetrable by capital. Since the corporate class dominates symbolic production, art has become a capitalist comprador, out to protect commodity values rather than those of classical bourgeois culture. “According to this position, the bourgeoisie no longer needs a traditional culture to impress its ideology or retain its rule; the commodity no longer requires the guise of a personal or social value for us to submit to it: it is its own excuse, its own ideology.”‘
Traditionally, modern art has sought to resist collusion with capital or shock the bourgeoisie through either primitive transgression or formal elitism. But these strategies failed to be truly radical because they didn’t intend to better society and may, says Foster, even have prepared society to consent in the “social transgressions of capital.” He believes that the shock-of-the-new impulse of early modern art contributed to “subtly reconciling us to the chaos of the late-capitalist world.” Nostalgia for avant-garde transgression Foster finds not only nihilistic but of little value to political artists today. What he proposes is a practice which views culture as an arena where “active contestation is possible.” From this vantage point, capital would not be seen as a megalith to be shocked and liberated by, say, “primitivism,” but as a network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adversarial deconstruction. Resistance, then, doesn’t aim for transcendence of corporate culture’s limits into some mythical liberated zone, but for critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism.
Foster believes these interventions could become more than merely theoretical if Western political artists were able to forge cultural revolution alongside subcultural Others — those whose collective practices not only create new languages of representation but signify a disbelief in mass culture, modernism, and the West. Among these subcultural practices he cites reggae, black gospel, and Latin American fiction. Where others such as Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Guattari have sought out subcultural codes to call the West’s supremacist ideas of history and difference into question, Foster closes Recodings by pronouncing that Western theorists should chill, and open the field for blacks, gays, and feminists to command the critical foreground of cultural resistance.
What Recodings has to say about cultural resistance, commodification, representation, and Western supremacy is fascinating to mull over from a black perspective, particularly since so much black aesthetic and political debate has for years been concerned with these issues. If I’m so gung-ho about integrating Foster’s poststructuralist toolkit into a discussion of black culture, it’s not because black culture lacks Foster’s mind but because it lacks his bent for knowing and dissecting his subject in total. In the past, the sectarian nature of black art and politics has worked against a “unified field theory” of black culture. The person who seems to be moving most determinedly in that direction is, ironically, a white man, Yale’s Robert Farris Thompson, whose books and lectures on African art and philosophy in the “Black Atlantic tradition” are milestones of comparative analysis on the continuum which runs between black culture in Africa and the New World, spiritually, aesthetically, and philosophically.
Thompson’s work disproves and demolishes at every turn the myth that classical African culture doesn’t derive from as systematic and highly evolved a tradition of critical thought as Europe’s. (Yoruba sculpture, for example, is no less a product of conscious conceptualization than art in the Greco-Roman tradition. The difference isn’t a matter of intellect but of intention.) Thompson articulates the critical infrastructure at work in classical African art, music, and dance, and its impact on the New World. Yet even that breadth of learning barely touches on what black culture has evolved to in 20th century America. I’m pushing for a popular black poststructuralism because we need theoretical and critical tools as exacting as those that produced a work like Recodings: writings which ask hard questions about where our culture stands in history, what total liberation means to black people living now, and how black art can continue to express that desire for freedom. Another reason, more self-involved in nature, is that I’m part of a generation of bohemian cult-nats who are mutating black culture into something the old interlocutors aren’t ready for yet.
Though nobody’s sent out any announcements yet, the ’80s are witnessing the maturation of a postnationalist black arts movement, one more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before. The people in this movement find no contradiction in deriving equal doses of inspiration from influences as diverse as Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa, William Burroughs and Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman and Sun Ra, Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten, Toni Morrison and Laura Mulvey, George Jackson and Samuel Delany, Albert Ayler and Andrei Tarkovsky, Rudy Ray Moore and Nam June Paik, Black Elk and Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and Joel Peter-Witkin, Chester Himes and Jacques Tati, Ishmael Reed and Maya Deren, Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee, Jean Rhys and Nona Hendryx, Antonin Artaud and Amiri Baraka, Robert Farris Thompson and Professor Longhair, Julia Kristeva and Chaka Khan, Kurt Schwitters and Coptic scrolls, Run-D.M.C. and Paolo Soleri, Fredric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland, Katherine Dunham and Meredith Monk, Darryl Dawkins and Ndebele beadwork, Ramayana and Elegba-Eshu, Kathy Acker and Nina Simone, Audre Lorde and the Maasai, Duane Michals and John Coltrane, Skip James and Bill Viola. Cornucopia for a New Negro Bohemia? Hey, every generation’s got to have one. And that list of odd couples only represents those favored by the freaks I know about. (No telling what kind of black bizarro worldviews are being cooked up by members of the cadre still underground.) But even though quotation is the postmod thing to do, I’m not just namedropping here. The point is that the present generation of black artists is cross-breeding aesthetic references like nobody is even talking about yet. And while they may be marginal to the black experience as it’s expressed in rap, Jet, and on The Cosby Show, they’re not all mixed up over who they are and where they come from.
These are artists for whom black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary, for whom “black culture” signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices; they feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance. No anxiety of influence here — these folks believe the cultural gene pool is for skinny-dipping. Yet though their work challenges both cult-nats and snotty whites, don’t expect to find them in Ebony or Artforum any time soon. Things ain’t hardly got that loose yet.
Black culture as these artists know it is a debased commodity within black and white popular media, and even within the avant-garde. Their targets for the kind of “cultural resistance” and “intervention in codes” Foster speaks of are complicated by the artists having to take on racist representations and black self-hate simultaneously. For these reasons Spike Lee’s success, in both commercial and artistic terms, with She’s Gotta Have It, represents a coup of staggering proportions. It is in fact a populist black poststructuralist’s dream.
Not only does Lee overload his “joint” with black in-jokes and semiotic codes (I’m thinking now of the references to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edwin Perry, and Black Reconstruction that turn up, as well as things like using straight-ahead jazz to underscore hiphop humor, and the conjugation of “drugs” and “jheri curls” to mark them as equally vile) but he pushed such an uncompromisingly black vision to blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels. Lee’s making a success out of a film shot for jackshit with a collectivist cast and crew demolishes Hollywood’s mega-budget mystique. Now, if all that’s not culturally resistant, I don’t know what is. And Lee’s staunch raceman interviews have been even more rad, breaking on Whoopi’s blue contacts, Michael’s nose, The Color Purple, as well as threatening letters from Quincy Jones’s office (not to mention the MPAA, which he says tried to give him an X because softcore black sexuality tweaked their uptight, racist nerves). The sweetest aspect of Lee’s success is that the only formula it offers for those who’d desire to emulate or exploit it is faith in the brilliance of black culture. What we need now is black criticism as balls to the wall as She’s Gotta Have It.
Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, sophisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick. What I envision is an Afrocentric cross between MIT, MOMA, MGM, Macmillan books, and Motown, a self-supporting facility equipped to bankroll a braintrust of B-boys, feminists, philosophers, visual artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, theologians, historians, political activists and economists, and produce their findings and artifacts for mass audiences. Since I can’t underwrite this black tower of Babel, I can at least target a few white whales for it to harpoon, a few black holes for it to get sucked up into. First off, if it were to take up the Brian Wallis project, a study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art, there’d be a need for an encyclopedic reference book on black visual culture.
Given the kind of money the de Menils are sinking into their Eurocentric project, Images of the Black in Western Art, I’d hire a staff of editors, designers, and critics (Richard Powell, Judith Wilson, Kellie Jones, and Rosalind Jeffries come to mind) to produce a multivolume bricolage of black images from every source conceivable: police mugshots, graffiti, Cubism, race riots, newspapers, hair product ads, comics, black independent cinema, advertising, music videos, lynchings, minstrelsy, break dancing, iconic jazz photography, Bauhaus furniture, images of blacks in Western art, modern art by black artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Leroy Clarke, Skunder Boghossian, Calvin Reid, Al Loving, Senga Nengudi, Daniel Dawson, Charles Abramson, Janet Henry, Houston Conwill, Ed Love, Rikki Smith, Nelson Stevens, Selim Abdul Mubdi, Edgar Sorrells-Adewale, Emilio Cruz, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, Lorna Simpson, Jack Whitten, Randy Williams, Sandra Payne, Jules Allen, Pedro Bell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Chong, Romare Bearden, Wilfredo Lam, plus the art of every black ethnic group in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The text for these volumes would be drawn from as varied a collection of sources — all making for a veritable postmodern bible of black visual representation and critical difference. Publish that bad boy and all this bulljive we hear about the impoverishment of black visual culture would have to cease. Next on the agenda would be a series of symposiums on topics like Institutionalizing the Production of Black Musical Geniuses; the First Annual Conference on Black Mother Wit, Phylogeny, and Dub; Zen and the Art of Skip James; Harlem as Hyperreality: Reading Chester Himes; Rags, Hickeys, and Wops: The Etymology of Doo; Jazz and the Heat-Death of the Universe (A Comparative Analysis of the Death of the Author in Postmodern Painting and Jazz); Breakdancing as Telemetry; Genii in the Genome: George Clinton and Jeremy Rifkin’s Rhythm Theories of Evolution; Race Mutation Theory and Quantum-Black Myth; The Mathematics of Graffiti: Ramm-El-Zee’s Ikonoklast Panzerism; The Political Economy of Scratch; and Beat the System to Death: Bootstrap Capitalism and Guerrilla Warfare. The possibilities are frightening. You fill in the blanks.
Now I know some people are going to read all this and level charges ranging from silliness to rank sophistry to Bakuninism. Let them come on with it. My mission is clear. The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon.
This is the beginning. We’ll be inviting some of the people you’ve just read about to get together and tackle issue raised in this essay. The results will appear in future issue of VLS.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 10, 2020