In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Black Aesthetic

  • Introduction
  • Main Theoretical Frames
  • Feminism, Womanism, and Queer of Color Critique
  • Contemporary Black Studies as Aesthetic Theory

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African American Studies The Black Aesthetic
by
Alessandra Raengo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0126

Introduction

Aesthetics is commonly associated with ideas of beauty and the philosophy of the arts, yet, as a specific branch of philosophy aesthetics establishes itself in the eighteenth century to reflect primarily on sensorial knowledge. However, with Kant specifically, “form” rather than the senses becomes primary in order to ground the possibility for the universality of judgment of taste. In this latter capacity, aesthetics becomes also a regulative discourse on the human and provides the foundation for the concept of the “disinterested” liberal subject who alone is allowed full participation in the sphere of politics. Thus, as conceived within the Kantian philosophical tradition, aesthetic has a necessarily antagonistic relationship to blackness, which it excludes from its concept of the human, the subject, the public sphere, as well as any idea of the beautiful and the universal. Theories and practices of black aesthetic, therefore, intervene in this antagonism at a number of levels: by critiquing the universalist premise of Western aesthetics or rejecting it altogether; by contesting its implied ideals of beauty; by returning it to its earlier formulations, more attuned to sensorial knowledge, rather than formal thinking as philosophy of the arts, in order to claim everyday practices as sources of meaning and value; by exposing how aesthetic philosophy has been instrumental to processes of racialization; by embracing the political valences of judgment of taste; by critiquing the processes of evaluation that are intrinsic to aesthetic judgments; by offering alternative aesthetic traditions rooted in the specificity of black cultural practices; and by offering blackness itself as an aesthetic practice and black studies as aesthetic theory.

Main Theoretical Frames

Historically, the concept of a Black aesthetic has been strictly connected to the perception of the value of black art and expressive culture, and its distinctiveness and contribution to broader American culture. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, this perception always bears political consequences. During the Black Arts Movement, the black aesthetic achieved its most deliberate nationalist formulation; Gayle 1971 in Black Arts Movement, for instance, describes it as a political tool for liberation to be waged by maintaining an organic and representative relationship between artists and their community. While, at times, it might be hard to fully distinguish between black aesthetic practices, which have emerged since the Middle Passage, and the reflection on the philosophical and political work they can perform—a distinction some scholars, such as Moten 2003 and Moten 2017–2018 (in Contemporary Black Studies as Aesthetic Theory), strategically refuse to make (see also Scope of the Black Aesthetic)—a focus on the explicit debates about what constitutes a black aesthetic allows us to identify several recurring concerns. First is the relationship between aesthetics and politics: for Barrett 1999, aesthetic judgment is always political because it involves processes of valuation. Yet, aesthetics is political also in a deeper sense, especially for those scholars, such as the authors of Moten 2018 and Lloyd 2019, who have identified how the Kantian formulation of aesthetic philosophy’s distinction from the political sphere categorically excludes nonwhite subjects. Therefore, for Taylor 2016, Taylor 1998, and Morrison 1992, racial formations are already aesthetic phenomena and aesthetics is a racial project. The second concern has to do with the stakes of aesthetics as a philosophical project: What are, or might be, its boundaries, asks Taylor 1998—that is, what counts as aesthetic object or aesthetic practice—and how are they negotiated? By whom, and in what circumstances? Third is what Gordon 2018 identifies as the possibility of self-definition of a black aesthetic as a theoretical tool that can draw its own boundaries and produce its own systems of valuation and therefore reflect on the value and meaning of black lives as they are lived in their own terms. Fourth, in this boundary-making capacity, a black aesthetic is always also reflective of changing notions of black identity and community, and of the relationship between the two. Fifth, as Ellison 1995 put it, is the question of the freedom of the black artist and whether black art or literature is bound to perform, or can be free from, a sociological function. Additionally, and unavoidably, the black aesthetic is also a site of elaboration of ideas of blackness, what counts as such and who might lay claims to it. Echoing the influential formulation in Hall 1992 regarding popular culture, reflections on the black aesthetic always implicitly ask: What is the “black” in “black aesthetic”?

  • Barrett, Lindon. Blackness and Value: Seeing Double. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Explores the unbreakable relation between blackness and the work of value as both force and form, violence and boundary. While not explicitly about aesthetic theory, this book is essential to understanding the implications of aesthetic valuations as always essentially racialized.

  • Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage International, 1995.

    Canonical collection of essays on literature, music, cinema, and culture, more broadly, through which Ellison articulates his aesthetic vision against what he perceives to be the confining demands of black ideology or the prevalent critical expectations for black literature to perform a sociological function. Originally published in 1964.

  • Gordon, Lewis. “Black Aesthetics, Black Value.” Public Culture 30.1 (2018): 19–34.

    DOI: 10.1215/08992363-4189143

    Champions the need for a theory of the sensory and symbolic dimensions of everyday life that grants it meaning and value. Yet, building on Frantz Fanon’s focus on the “crime of appearing,” it also questions whether aesthetics is an intrinsically colonial project that cannot be decolonized. Aesthetics is ultimately a question of human value, the source of that value, and therefore about the humanity of black people.

  • Hall, Stuart. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” In Black Popular Culture. A project by Michele Wallace. Edited by Gina Dent, 21–32. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992.

    Champions the instability of the signifier “black” and insists that it is the concept of the “popular” that fixes the authenticity of mass cultural forms, giving the impression that it could lead to the recovery of “something pure,” or that “black” could function as a test of authenticity. Influential in the dismantling of prescriptive ideas of black aesthetics and in establishing aesthetics as a dynamic realm of meaning-creation.

  • Lloyd, David. Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780823282401

    Critiques aesthetic philosophy as a regulative discourse of the Human that is responsible for the exclusion of the Black from the liberal, universal, and disinterested Subject. Kant deployed it to create a space for politics by forging a universal Subject that could be represented by the State, and therefore a racial regime of representation. If the category of the Human is aesthetically produced, so is the space of politics.

  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

    Critiques the silence surrounding the implicit whiteness of the American literary canon and therefore exposes the racial biases of canonical aesthetic theory. Morrison’s close readings of the Africanist presence in white literary texts offer examples of black aesthetic criticism in practice.

  • Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

    Regards all black expressive practices as aesthetic and aesthetics as always political. Drawing from a number of literary, musical, visual, and performative works, predominantly from the BAM period, the book ultimately relies on black aurality and black sound to perform a critique of valuation in what it describes as the “resistance of the object.”

  • Moten, Fred. Stolen Life. Vol. 2 of “consent not to be a single being.” Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822372028

    The second volume in Moten 2017–2018, it includes a critique of the racist foundation of Kantian aesthetic philosophy as regulative principle that is undone by the power of the imagination it seeks to regulate. Blackness is theorized as unregulated generativity, a jurisgenerative runaway principle that imbues Kant’s own formulation of the universality of judgments of taste.

  • Taylor, Clyde. The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract—Film and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    Critiques the universalist premises of the “aesthetic contract” sustaining Western culture’s equation of beauty with moral good. Grounded on an attachment to the mythology of the originarity of Greek aesthetic thinking, practice, and philosophy, the aesthetic unfolds in Western history with the convincing power of a classical Hollywood film. In order to pursue a more inclusive humanism, aesthetic thinking should be rejected in favor of practices not subjected to its regimes of taste.

  • Taylor, Paul C. Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119118527

    Argues that black aesthetic is the philosophical work performed by black expressive culture and practices as they create and maintain black life-worlds. Racial formations are aesthetic phenomena and aesthetics is a racial project. It explores three main modes of intersection between aesthetics and politics: political aesthetics, when the aesthetic advances political projects; aesthetic politics, when aesthetic judgments and practices become models for political actions; and the politicization of the aesthetic.

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