Modernism, Essentialism, and “Racial Art”

Reviewer Amy Lyford’s summation of Jacqueline Francis’ book Making: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America captures the problematic essentialism of race in making an artist distinctly “modern” in the 20th century and still perpetuates today as we see “contemporary” non-white artists as defined by their ethnicity or nationality. Caucasian whites are not ever singled out for their race in artist bios. Even though racial constructs and ethnic backgrounds are important contributors to each individual’s story and identity, a lopsided classification is still used today.

“In constructing her account of “racial art,” she interweaves discussion of both contemporary theory and art-historical debates about multiculturalism and racialized identities with close reading of a wide range of primary sources drawn from the artistic culture of early twentieth-century New York. In doing so, she clearly defines the racialized identities and cultural positions these three painters were imagined to inhabit by their predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon audiences; perhaps most important, she also takes the time and space to explore how the artists negotiated those racialized identities within their careers and their paintings. She focuses on the agency of each painter within the context of defining “racial art” and the ways in which each artist was particularized and racialized as an essentially modern artist because of his cultural difference—i.e., because he was not white. In this way, Francis helps readers to see in concrete terms how each painter grappled with a range of complex pressures, social and cultural conditions, and aesthetic demands even as each worked to achieve his painterly ambitions. With this masterful analysis of primary sources which are likely little known to general readers, Francis reminds us that black, Asian, and Jewish artists like Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber were perceived as essentially modern in the early twentieth century because of their “race.” Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber’s embodied, nonwhite, non-Westernized or ethnicized, non-Christian identities echoed modernist appropriations of the “foreign” and the “primitive” in ways that seemed to be “natural” in the eyes of white critics and curators. Yet one of the book’s greatest strengths is the way in which Francis presses readers to recognize how each of these artists mobilized the specificity of racialized “essence” with which he was typically labeled—Negro, Oriental, Jewish—in ways that at times resisted or manipulated those racialized “essences” for his own artistic purposes.”-

– quoted from this site here


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