Folk Wisdom and Artistic Appropriation

Historical Essay

by Tommy Lott, excerpted from "Black Consciousness in the Art of Sargent Johnson," in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, A City Lights Anthology, 1998

Sargent Johnson appropriated the decorative sculptural styles of ancient folk cultures, integrating them with modern, more contemporary art practices in a syncretic approach which best describes his art style. Criticism of his work by other Harlem Renaissance artists reveals tension over the traditional role of race in African American art and the ability for appropriated decorative art to be considered a fine art. Inspired by Alain Locke, Johnson exemplified much of the same philosophy toward portraying a new black aesthetic in the contemporary art scene through his hybrid art form and his representations of Southern black people. Despite this alignment, Johnson went largely unnoticed by Locke, who held high expectations for African American artists to surpass the decorative arts.

What is the relevance of Johnson's success as both a Harlem Renaissance artist and a WPA artist for understanding the myth of racial tolerance? This question involves several issues pertaining to the relationship between elitism in art and the politics of representation.

When Locke advocated the appropriation of black folk culture by artists, he had a European model of nationalistic art in mind. Harlem would be a Mecca for the black renaissance in art just as Dublin and Prague were centers where European artists gather to mine their national folk cultures. But what about the excavation of folk culture by intellectuals, black or white? Johnson's art is not to be confused with the folk expression of the Africans or the Indians, whose technique and imagery he appropriated. But if Johnson was black and Indian, why should we construe his use of folk techniques as an appropriation? Both Locke and Bufano expected modern art to rely on folk cultures as a source of inspiration for contemporary ideas. When Johnson began working in the black Oaxacan clay used by the Zapotec Indians he was not interested in making pottery, or sculptures that were a part of their traditions. Neither were any of the African masks in his series meant to be part of the African folk tradition. Rather, he aimed to incorporate ancient principles of aesthetics regarding sculptural forms into a transformative practice by combining Western with non-Western elements. This hybrid form is not to be confused with any of the folk forms from which it is derived. It is in this sense that we can best understand Johnson's appeal to folk sources, which he appropriated in a manner similar to the appropriation of African art forms by European artists such as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani .

There is a certain amount of ambivalence that can be associated with Johnson's appropriation of folk art, as well as his representations of Southern black folk. He was quite aware of the political thrust of his images of African-Americans in an era of legal segregation and racial oppression. For this reason he subscribed to Locke's philosophy and attempted to create a new black aesthetic in contemporary American art. As I have already noted, his peer acceptance by other bay area artist bodes well for the social objective Locke had set for the renaissance artists. Johnson was a perfect instance of Locke's notion of cultural democracy whereby American artists of all races are at liberty to draw on native folk sources for raw materials and inspiration. The problem with this notion, as we have seen in connection with Bufano's philosophy, is that the inclusion of African-American images in mainstream art is quite compatible with the denial of social equality to African-Americans.

Alain Locke and Johnson's Critics

Even as a mentor who pulled strings behind the scene to arrange exhibitions of both African and African-American art Locke often criticized the work of the Renaissance artists. He was primarily concerned with the development of Negro art and often stated his criticisms generally. Hence, it is not always clear whether he had Johnson's work in mind. His scant remarks specifically on Johnson's work were always favorable, but some of his criticisms of the Africanist school of African-American art, if applied to Johnson's art, would constitute a misunderstanding. This suggests that, at best, Locke's attitude toward Johnson's work was indifferent. There is a bit of irony in Locke's oversight of Johnson's work, for, more than anyone else, Johnson demonstrated the veracity of the aesthetic principles Locke advocated.

The most telling criticisms of Johnson's art were leveled by other African-American artists. In some cases the criticism of his art impugns Locke's aesthetic theory as well. James A. Porter, a student of Johnson's aunt, May Howard Johnson, and a co-exhibitor with Johnson in some of the Harmon Foundation exhibitions, praised Johnson's modeling technique but preferred to view him as a "ceramic artist," rather than as a sculptor creating works of fine art in various materials (Porter 1940). Needless to say this charge presupposed a questionable theory of art to which neither Locke, nor Johnson subscribed. Porter rejected Locke's call for a race tradition in African-American art. He argued that this would foster the segregation of African-American artists from other American artists. Putting aside the question of whether Locke's strategy for bringing about the incorporation of African-American art into mainstream art was sound, there remains a question of whether the work of artists who are inspired by African art to study ancient craft and decorative styles should count as fine art. Although Locke did not want to grant primacy to museum art as a standard of aesthetic achievement, his mild praise for Johnson's art suggests that he expected African American artists to produce work that surpassed both the African and European masters. He invoked one of the guiding principles of African decorative art, "beauty in use," to contest the idea that only museum art has aesthetic value, or counts as fine art. Locke even quoted art critic Roger Frye's comments regarding the technical superiority of African sculpture to support his own belief that sculpture would be the forte of African-American art. (Locke 1936).

Locke praised Richmond Barthe's famous sculpture of a mother holding her lynched son as a work of fine art and took special note that it contained a non-propagandistic racial content. We can only speculate as to whether he would have said as much for Johnson's masterpiece, Forever Free, a wood sculpture covered with lacquered cloth. This piece along with one of his lesser known works, Negro Woman, were based on the mother-child theme in one of Johnson's earlier drawings titled Defiant and in numerous abstract works from his later period. Both Negro Woman and Forever Free display Johnson's preference for the ancient technique of applying color to sculpture. According to Johnson these forms allowed him to express a racial dimension in his art. "I am concerned with color not solely as a technical problem, but also as a means of heightening the racial character of my work. The Negroes are a colorful race. They call for an art as colorful as it can be made." (Johnson 1935).

It was precisely this art deco feature of Johnson's work, along with a complete disregard for Johnson's endeavor to develop techniques better suited to capture the racial aspects of his art, that provided the basis for Porter's low esteem. Locke instead seemed more dissatisfied that none of the African-American sculptors, including Johnson, had advanced beyond either the European, or African masters. Perhaps, Johnson's attempt to transform ancient practices went largely unnoticed by Locke because he viewed decorative arts as a less advanced cultural development. As part of the African folk heritage, for Locke, decorative arts would constitute the "raw materials" for fine art. He argued that, in its mature stage, African-American art will display universal aesthetic principles derived from many different cultures. Unfortunately, Locke failed to realize the extent to which Johnson's study of ancient techniques of applying color to sculpture, his use of images of Third World people, as well as his commitment to representing the beauty and dignity of the Southern black peasant, followed through on this proposal.

True Negro Types

His appeal to this image of Southern black people to construct what he considered to be more authentic visual representations of the race follow many of Locke's stipulations regarding "genuine Negro portraiture" and "true Negro types." For example, Locke referred favorably to the painter Aaron Douglas's earlier "Negro type studies," but was critical of Ronald Moody for his inattentiveness to "racial types" (Locke 1939). In visual art, as in ethnological studies, a racial type is constructed from certain physical features that are selected and idealized as a model for representing a particular group of people. For Locke, the visual representation of ideal racial types were meant to counter not only the negative effects of racist stereotypes and caricature, but also "Nordicized" images created by African-American artists. Locke invoked the need for "representative" African-American art when he defended his choice of German artist, Winold Reiss, to illustrate the 1925 "Harlem" edition of Survey Graphic (Locke 1925a). Just as Locke must have known he would face heavy criticism from many who thought he should have commissioned an African-American artist who would portray African-Americans from the usual Eurocentric perspective, Johnson must have known in 1935 that his rejection of the "mixed Negro of the cities" in favor of representing the African "primitive" type would confront similar expectations from San Francisco's black urbanites.

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