By Elliot J. Reichert
Each time I venture deeper into the tangled economy of art making and its contingent endeavors, I ask myself: What good is art? I am not an artist, but I work with artists and artworks every day. By all accounts, I should believe deeply in art, and yet I routinely question its value. As such, when I go to look at art, I often search in it for signs of doubt, and I am usually comforted to know that I am not alone in my questioning. For if contemporary art can be united under one banner, it would be doubt itself: doubt about politics, about social relations, about economic and class structures, about the very importance of human life. Ironically, this might be why I gravitate toward art in the first place, despite my ambivalence toward its significance. Art turns my fears into forms; it makes real what I cannot, or do not want, to imagine.
Last week, I went looking for doubt when I visited “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” but I did not find it, at least not at first. If the artists who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had any ambivalence about the efficacy of art, all traces of this uncertainty have been smoothed away by the repeated rehearsal of its history. In this year of its fiftieth anniversary, the Museum of Contemporary Art has honored the AACM’s legacy with an expansive exhibition of the music and art of black cultural nationalism in Chicago. Founded on Chicago’s South Side by a group of jazz artists, the AACM combated the pervasive social and institutional challenges confronting black musicians in the mid-1960s with radical experimentation in music and politics. Working collaboratively amongst themselves and with other radical collectives such as the Chicago-born African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), these artists drew on the rhetoric of black nationalism in the pursuit of new forms for black art.
Accordingly, the show is full of strident politics rendered in bold forms. I was stunned by a graphic print by Barbara Jones-Hogu titled “Unite (AfriCOBRA),” which repeats a call to nationhood in bold letters over a sea of afros and raised black fists. The captivating visual rhythm of Jones-Hogu’s design appears as a graphic score for a sonic rallying cry, testifying to the intertwined purposes of radical black aesthetics with its concurrent politics. The print seemed to have arrived here from another dimension. How could an artwork be so direct in its address and so emphatic in its message? How could it assume the willingness of its viewer to agree with its pronouncement? Where was its hard shell of silence, its reluctant withdrawal?
Surrounding this work, a sea of vitrines hold concert posters, photographs of performances, membership cards, roll calls, and other AACM ephemera. Gathered together, the traces of music and art bear witness to the collective ethos of the movement, in which categorical separations between ways of making dissolved into a unified—but not homogenous—revolutionary aesthetic. Solidarity among these musicians and artists was not merely the matter of a spoken promise and a shared ideal. It manifested constantly in a multitude of tangible and immaterial collaborations that stoked a collective self-imagining and galvanized the polity of black life.
Swept up in this pageant of conviction and collectivity, I was surprised again to find the gradual return of ambivalence. Things that looked like the cleaner, more polished versions of these older artifacts began to emerge: a shelf of album covers produced by the fictive “Pride” record label, an array of shiny symbols clustered on the floor, a leather-wrapped drum surrounded by attentive microphones despite its silence. Performance, improvisation and, chiefly, musicality were the threads that stitched together these works and hinged them to the legacies of the AACM, AfriCOBRA and the other works from this earlier moment. At times, politics resurfaced obliquely in these contemporary works, as they did in the words of Malcolm X drawn between the staffs of a musical score: “America is a society controlled primarily by racists and segregationists.” Indeed, but why arrange these words to music? This, I realized, was not a question I would have asked of this artwork had I not seen it in the context of this show. After witnessing the revolutionary parade of historical opposition, the artworks of a roster of great contemporaries did not seem merely ambivalent; they felt nostalgic, or even cynical. On the way out of the show, I passed by a stage and stools made by John Preus, who crafted them from the discarded desks and chairs of some of the fifty public schools closed last year by Mayor Emanuel. Unlike much of the more polished work inside the galleries, the work of this Chicago artist reminded me that despair can be generative, and failures can be salvaged to make platforms for new action.
From the MCA, I took the southbound Red Line to the Logan Center to visit a group exhibition called “Three The Hard Way.” Named after a 1974 blaxploitation film in which a trio of black heroes save the day from a neo-Nazi organization bent on black genocide, the show gathered new works made by three artists-in-residence at this South Side arts center. The title itself is a reminder that the revolutionary rhetoric of black cultural nationalism did not simply disappear only to be reprised in today’s contemporary art. As its tenets held true to an even greater mass, Black Power penetrated popular culture, rendering it both populist and commodified.
Ayana Contreras traces the contradictions of this broader incorporation of Black Power in archival arrangements that include issues of Ebony and Jet magazines, found photographs and books by Frantz Fanon, among other things. An open copy of Ebony from 1969 discusses the recent shift from a Civil Rights-era “integration-oriented movement to a cultural and political revolution of black consciousness, self-development and self determination.” Nearby, an issue of Life from the same year declares that “Black Is Busting Out All Over,” claiming that recent movements for black equality were “brought about by advertisers and fashion arbiters who are finding out that black is not only beautiful but good business.” No complex curatorial statements are needed here, as the works speak for themselves. In David Leggett’s “Chiraq,” a mixed-media collage, the head of a teary-faced black girl floats above a cartoonish burst of flames on a dark field. The image might have been cut from the front page of a Chicago Tribune feature covering the city’s violent reputation. Disembodied, her visage is set loose from the specificity of her tragedy and made to represent a longer history of violence to black bodies, an abstraction that is both profound and dangerous. In an adjacent room, a floor-to-ceiling projection by James T. Green shows a computer desktop crowded with some of the most widely circulated YouTube videos of recent police violence against black bodies. The windows are dim, but the titles are visible and the central frame spins perpetually with the grey orbit of a stalled buffer. Doubt abounds in these works, but its ends are pensive and potent, not merely cynical.
The threat of genocidal neo-Nazis might seem like the work of science fiction, and yet, the recent protests in South Carolina have seen swastika-adorned flags carried by white supremacists. History tells us that atrocity does not announce its evil like a bad guy in a movie. When it happens, it is organized, official and uniformed. In the face of this, doubt is crucial, as it compels us to question the way things appear to be. Perhaps then, art does some good, especially when it does it the hard way.