For many, art is a commodity reserved for the most privileged, a perception that has plagued art institutions for years as audiences have remained exclusive. The intersection of money, art and power is real. Yet all of us who have been moved by a piece of music, or gasped at a painting, or felt like running our fingers over a sculpture, know that the true power of art lies in its ability to spark debate, advance agendas, and reshape the way we think about the world.
So while television and film use the work of black artists to help push an art-power agenda, there is still plenty of room to showcase the power of black creative expression, to move viewers beyond passive, decorative elements, toward the change we seek. Surface depictions do nothing to advance these stories, or undo the ever-sung phrase, “We are not a monolith.”
Don’t let the artwork be flattened
Art is more than something rich people love. Art has the ability to make us ask questions, spark difficult conversations, hold up a mirror, and inspire us to look deeply at ourselves. And while it can be rendered on a flat surface, the voices and emotions poured into the artwork should not be flattened. This becomes especially important when presenting the work of those whose voices and emotions have historically been invisible and unheard.
The final bell hooks asked, “Who have we allowed but the black preacher to have an emotional voice?” before saying to say that hip-hop, in its beginnings, allowed a radical and emotional voice before becoming imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal hip-hop. Have we reached this point with art?
Maybe not. But we need to see how art is an expression – of love, of exploration, of rage – and not just an adornment for the wealthy.
In the fourth episode of HBO Max’s “Sex in The City” reboot, “And Just Like That,” Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is invited to the home of Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker), a black woman with whom she desperately wants to befriend. Surrounded by art, Lisa’s stepmother shares her disapproval of art collecting and Charlotte comes to the defense of her new friend. She names some of the most prominent (and my favorite) black artists as previews of their work appear on our screens.
She then praises Derrick Adams as likening him to Beethoven, validating the work of a black artist within a bastion of white creativity. And finally, she anoints Lisa.
“With Lisa’s watchful eye, the family is in great shape. [financial] hands.”
Everyone around the table is impressed. So to speak, these artists presented themselves as voiceless sidekicks. But what would we have gained if Charlotte engaged Lisa’s stepmother in a back-and-forth about how Deborah Robert’s portrayal of children sparks conversations about vulnerability, about being seen, about innocence ? Or if Lisa explained that the work of Mickalene Thomas pushes the ideas of black femininity, power and gaze? Or if Charlotte and the mother-in-law examined Adams’ work together, instead of mentioning Beethoven, a white composer. A review of Adams’ work might have offered viewers the opportunity to engage with a work of art, beyond passive decoration.
A fuller embrace of black creativity might be Ava Duvernay’s centering of black artists on OWN’s “Queen Sugar.” During the first season in 2016, the show featured New Orleans visual artist Brandan “BMike” Odums in his 35,000 square foot #StudioBe. Amid Odum’s paintings of modern martyrs like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant, the character known as Micah discovered the Black Lives Matter movement.
Let screen access be gateway access
Even before the coronavirus pandemic closed the doors, people of color were less likely than their white counterparts to visit art spaces. This is for a range of reasons, with racism topping the list. As the spread of deadly diseases, racism, and barriers to entry (transportation, time, money) continue to keep some people away, consider how screens can create access. If screen-based media is consumed like never before, providing unprecedented access to the stories and expressions of those who have been historically underrepresented, screen access provides the opportunity to interact with what we only see. not all in a gallery space.
Now, a screen can’t replace a gallery, but it’s there to spark curiosity, spark questions, and spark a search for answers. For this, let the work exist on the walls without the characters going through it through long shots of the work. Allow viewers to form their own opinions, to discern their own lessons.
“The role of a black artist is the same as a teacher or a black lawyer, to challenge,” says Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing,) the love interest of rising black artist Isiah (Kofi Siriboe), in the movie “I Really Like It. If we’re going to believe this, then the artwork needs to be embedded in an ongoing conversation, not strategically placed to send a subliminal message. If screens can allow us to consume stories, they must also allow us to digest expressions.
Pro Tip: Saying You’re Awake Doesn’t Mean You Are
Talking about owning the work of black artists is not enough. Hanging pictures of black people and works of black artists on the walls is not enough. Whether it’s photographs of Stacey Abrams or Nelson Mandela hanging passively above desks in “Billions,” or Charlotte highlighting her awareness of black artists in “And Just Like That,” declaring awakening is not going to happen. that so far.
Still, characters and plots can forestall diluted change by claiming the shortcomings of their efforts. Instead of passing on a store-bought social conscience, what if the characters in these productions, those seeking art or power, acknowledged that trends led them to the work of black artists? Imagine what could happen if, instead of focusing on the representation of black bodies, equal space was given to black abstract artists like Shara Mays, Alteronce Gumby or Kennedy Yanko?
Over the centuries, in hallowed halls, art has served as a metaphor for power. But as Yusef Davis (Michael Ealy) said in “Love Really,” “Black people create shit out of thin air everyday. If that ain’t art, I don’t know what And if so, the increased representation of black artists is likely to change the way we consume, think about, and appreciate art as we move toward an anti-racist future.
“But what happens when these trends are over?” artist Deborah Roberts asked me on a recent phone call. “Will we be seen again?
While these are great questions with no clear answers, the unprecedented on-screen attention given to black performers is a step in the right direction. But as Ealy’s character says, “You can’t just be better – you have to be a unicorn.”
Lise Ragbir writes essays on race, immigration, arts and culture, and relationships. Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, she now lives in Austin, Texas.