Art on My Mind: Visual Politics by bell hooks

Race, gender, and identity are important lenses with which to examine art and lived experience, and bell hooks is one of the most brilliant authors of our time in this regard. I recently finished her collection of essays, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, and to be honest, it took me a long time to finish because her work is meant to be discussed, contemplated, and explored in-depth. Over 22 chapters, she covers a huge range of profound and intensely intimate topics within the intersection of race and art: from art as an active resistance to white supremacy, to challenging the historical and majority view of critics, white audiences, even black audiences to approach artwork without first fixating only on the blackness of the images. She also delves into personal interviews with black artists and architects like Alison Saar, Margo Humphrey, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, LaVerne Wells-Bowie, and Emma Amos, and reviews artwork by Jean-Michell Basquiat and Felix Gonzalez Torres. It would actually be an impossible disservice to attempt to summarize this book! Instead, I’ll pull out a few highlights from the chapters and highly recommend that you read this book yourself. 😀

In her introduction, she says, “the uses of time, the choices we make with respect to what to think and write about, are part of visual politics… As we think and write about visual art, as we make spaces for dialogue across boundaries, we engage a process of cultural transformation that will ultimately create a revolution in vision.” This is a very important point for me as an artist, educator, and activist. Many of my white friends ask how they can be involved in racial justice work, maybe expecting to hear a response of going to a protest or voting. While these actions are important we should be careful not to limit our response or capacity for political activism. In the above quote, bell hooks is pointing at the power both our attention and intention have to act artistically and politically. When we choose to spend our time instead of exclusively studying white male artists, but instead study black, women, gay, hispanic, trans artists, we are engaging in a visual politic that will create a different visual of the world. Being politically active is about changing our perspective, intention, and attention. I find this point to be incredibly empowering and uplifting because it offers a tangible practice. This is the premise of her book.

In the first chapter, she makes a really important counterpoint, inspired by Michelle Wallace’s Invisibility Blues, “Our capacity to value art is severely corrupted and perverted by a politics of the visual that suggest we [black artists] must limit our responses… Clearly it is only as we move away from the tendency to define ourselves in reaction to white racism that we are able to move toward that practice of freedom which requires us first to decolonize our minds. We can liberate ourselves and others only by forging in resistance identities that transcend narrowly defined limits.”

Margo Humphrey, The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face, 1991.

The above quote, bell hooks is encouraging and challenging black artists to create art that reflects the wide diversity of human experience as a deeply liberatory action. Margo Humphrey (born June 25, 1942), an American printmaker, illustrator and art teacher, is a great example of an artist who approaches art in this way. On page 196 she describes her artwork: “The art that I make is intentional. The stories are personal, and I draw on African-American experience – that to me is the foundation – but the values in my work transcend the specific and address the universal as well.”

Hooks also explores photography and the way, “cameras gave to black folks irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images. Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central. ” Representation and control of the image of blackness remains a crucial realm of struggle, and acknowledging and reclaiming photography as a tradition within black culture is as she says on page 60, “a way to contain memories, overcome loss, and keep history in the resistance struggle while having fun.” Hooks shares a whole chapter on her own personal reflection on impact of photographs in her childhood.

Check out this Art21 video with Carrie Mae Weems explaining her series of photographs entitled, “The Kitchen Table Series.”

Hooks also interviews Carrie Mae Weems (born April 20, 1953), an American artist is best known for her work in the field of photography. Her award-winning photographs, films, and videos focus on serious issues that face African Americans today, such as racism, sexism, politics, personal identity, complex, dimensional, human experience and social inclusion. Her photos are a powerful testament for the ability for photography to reclaim representation and the write history with an intentional visual politic.

One of hook’s first interviews in the book is with Alison Saar. They discuss the influence of dreams, the primacy of material, the spiritual power reflected in her sculptures. She describes her work as, “a mix of sacred and profane, a process of exorcism. These are constructive ways of facing tragic, painful experiences. And that’s how the slaves survived all that pain – through creating, by making music, dance, poetry.”

An installation shot of five sculptures by Alison Saar: “Rice” (sickle), “Cotton” (bale hook), “Indigo” (hoe), “Sugar Cane” (machete), “Tobacco” (tobacco knife) all 2018, made of wood, copper, ceiling tin, bronze, tar and vintage found tools. (Jeff McLane / L.A. Louver)

Hooks also writes an incredible chapter on Jean-Michel Basquiat, paying tribute to his art by deeply inquiring into the Basquiat’s paintings, whose work, “holds no warm welcome for those who approach it with a narrow Eurocentric gaze.” In art, the gaze is often regarded as a context of power – who is looking at who, both in and at the art. Here the Eurocentric gaze can only recognize Basquiat, “if he is in the company of Warhol…. as a part of a continuum of contemporary American art with a genealogy traced through white males: Pollock, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Twombly, and on to Andy.” To only see Basquiat’s work in the context of whiteness, is to completely not see his art. Rather, Basquiat was grappling with the pull of a genealogy that is fundamentally “black” (rooted in African diasporic “primitive” and “high art” traditions) and a fascination with white Western traditions.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Irony of a Negro Policeman. 1981. Acrylic and oil paintstick on wood. 72″ x 48.”

His work hinges on “the politics of dehumanization, the colonization of the black body and mind, marked by the anguish of abandonment, estrangement, dismemberment, and death. His works speaks of dread, terror, being torn apart, made to “serve” the interest of white matters. His images are ugly and grotesque, because that brutality is ugly and grotesque. To see and understand these paintings, one must be willing to accept the tragic dimensions of black life.”

On page 47, hooks references visual artist Fred Braithwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy), a friend of Basquiat’s, when he says that for the established white art world, and the Eurocentric, multiethnic public, to look at Basquiat’s work, and truly appreciate it, they must first examine themselves…”they have to try to erase if possible all the racism from their hearts and minds and then when they look at the paintings they can see the art.”

Hooks is a teacher, so she also includes pointers how to encourage more marginalized artists from an earlier age, “…if a cultural climate of support is established at the outset of a young artists commitment to doing artwork there is much greater likelihood that this work will develop and mature (page 140).” She suggests a variety of way to support young artists’ commitment to art-making: 1) creating art scholarships for gifted children who lack the means to pursue their work (especially buying supplies); 2) encouraging a system of inter-art relations that would reward the sharing of knowledge, information, and art skills across boundaries of race, class, gender, age, etc.; 3) encourage critical conscious in small groups that creates a context for dialogue where conflicting viewpoints can be discussed.

As a white woman teaching art in a majority black city and Title 1 school, I need bell hook’s teachings to ensure I am encouraging my students to explore the wide range of their experience, ideas, hopes, fears, dreams, and visions, and to not shy away from difficult conversations around racism, prejudice, classism, and sexism. I am excited to share these (and more black and non-white) artists with my students, and to support them by creating a positive environment for art-making and critical thinking! Thanks for reading ❤

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