Beyond “Is this Good/Positive/Authentic?”: Black Visuality, Black Performativity, and the Art of Blackness


From Futures Initiative Faculty members Amber Musser and Michael Gillespie

Often, when engaging with works of art by Black creatives, the question of “is this good?” proliferates. “Good” art often is tasked with authentically representing Black experience and usually accompanied by a politics of social uplift or respectability. In other words, the dominant question is “does this art make Black people look good?” What might happen, however, when the idea of “good” is removed from the picture? What kinds of criticism might emerge when critics start to think about a wide variety of Black experiences? What happens when the task of art is not to provide social uplift, but to foster creative exploration? What might art criticism look like when it investigates what art is doing and how it is doing that rather than presume an outcome? What if ambivalence was a guiding principle of criticism devoted to the art of blackness. We instead insist on the necessary complication and rigor of blackness.

These are some of the guiding questions that we had in mind when we (Michael Boyce Gillespie and Amber Jamilla Musser) co-created the Fall 2021 Futures Initiative course, “Black Visuality, Black Performativity.” This class is devoted to the study of the art of blackness as a political, historical, cultural, and artistic proposition. It provides an introduction to the critical studies of art and culture while exploring the consequential ways that blackness is enacted and rendered in the arts. Dwelling in and with the heterogeneity of ‘black,’ this course examines the shifting hermeneutics of black through the visual rhetoric of blackness. The narrative of the class is structured around various epistemological and aesthetic themes/tendencies that inform black visuality and performativity in the arts (e.g. film, television, literature, music, new media, photography, dance, painting, performance art, installation art).

In order to shift the ways that we engage with art and art criticism and to foster our commitment to highlighting a diverse set of art works and critical methodologies, each course session applies these critical frameworks to works of art/ performance not discussed in the text. We modeled these methods of analysis by sharing our own work. Amber presented on Titus Kaphar’s A Pillow for Fragile Fictions (2016)—an installation featuring a glass bust of George Washington containing a small quantity of rum, tamarind, lime, and molasses atop a marble pillow—in order to show how Kaphar connects Washington to slave trading while also allowing space for one to imagine a different order of blackness, one connected to tamarind, to circulate. Michael presented on Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience (2015), an experimental film that ruminates on blackness, fugitivity, death, and the ecstatic. In sharing our perspectives on these works, we performed the critical reflexivity necessary for critique—the class was privy to both our vulnerability and our critical intimacy as we worked out our arguments as well as our interest in thinking about what these works of art could do. One of the things we are pushing the students to understand is that the art of blackness requires a critical attentiveness to the object as something more than merely an anecdotal illustration of some tired and reductive grand theory about blackness and Black people.

Students took these prompts and ran with them. When explicating Daphne Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution, on black feminist music criticism, a student produced their own remix of an out-of-circulation song. Another student uncovered the soul music history behind a sample used in one of MIA’s songs in order to describe the Afro-Asian sonic collaborations that Elliott Powell analyzes in Sounds From the Other Side. These twice-a-semester presentations enables us to move our understanding of course material beyond what is circulating in the text, to model what it means to approach black art through these different frameworks. These are also exercises in community-building, as each of us learns more about each other by learning what art we are interested in and the multiple different frameworks that we each have for approaching art. And, to return to the central question at hand, these presentations help us all think about the broad array of the art of blackness and the different ways that it can signify if one is willing to expend care and attention. The class has become a generative opportunity to address the specificity of art as creative interpretation with particularly attention to culture, historiography, performativity, and aesthetics.

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The Futures Initiative
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