JANUARY 22, 2017
IN THE VIDEO “How to Be a Successful Black Artist,” Hennessy Youngman (the parody alter ego of artist Jayson Musson) gives a few key pieces of advice: appear angry, exploit slavery, follow black intellectual fads, be exotic. And whatever you do, never reveal “the man behind the curtain. Don’t let them know that your dick be regular or that you have a savings account or that you recycle. Because that shit is bad business.” This satirically strict set of rules is not so far from the truth, according to art historian Derek Conrad Murray, whose latest book is as much about the limits imposed on black artists as it is about post-black artists’ attempts to evade or transcend them.
Post-black is a weird term. Murray describes it as “elusive” and “slippery,” while Youngman flat-out says: “‘Post-black,’ I don’t know what the fuck that means.” The term evokes the awkward blindness of “post-racial,” the cringe-worthy complacency of “I don’t see color.” But, as Murray states in the beginning of his book, “post-racial and post-black are not the same thing”: the “black” in post-black refers to a construction of what blackness is, and post-black is an “effort to redefine the parameters of blackness.” Murray’s book gives a language and a shape to that experience, both for black artists seeking to identify and stretch the limits placed on them and for art audiences of all backgrounds and races who want to better appreciate their work.
The first step is to understand the obstacles. Many of the barriers facing black artists (such as the expectation of exoticism) come from outside the black community, having their origins in the history of white supremacy. But there are also internally constructed barriers, explains Murray, erected as part of a “mandate […] to be authentically black.” Addressing politics is a key part of this mandate. This has been true at least since the 1960s, when the Black Arts Movement developed as the cultural arm of Black Power, and artists were tasked with producing symbols of racial unity and uplift. This expectation never really went away, according to Murray. “To be a black artist,” he writes, “is to foreground one’s racialized identity at the expense of more universal aesthetic concerns.”
This is not to say that all black artists create this way, but that it’s what’s expected, and that it probably makes for an easier path to success — hence Youngman’s tongue-in-cheek advice to seem angry and exploit slavery. These are limits that any artist might chafe against, including Jayson Musson, the creator of the Youngman character, whose 2014 show Exhibit of Abstract Art, Murray claims, illustrated the artist’s “subtlety, formal sophistication, and historical awareness,” though not “his comedic brand of racial self-flagellation.” It’s no coincidence, Murray suggests, that most critics ended up panning Musson’s not very “black” show; New York Times reviewer Ken Johnson even expressed the desire that Musson be more like his hip-hop-slang-spouting alter ego. “If Hennessy Youngman made paintings and sculptures,” Johnson mused, “what would they be like?”
Murray includes this show in his book as one of many examples of post-black art — not because Musson didn’t address blackness per se, but because he’s one of many young black artists who’ve positioned themselves as individuals rather than as mouthpieces for the black community. For some scholars this positioning is the definition of post-blackness; journalist and cultural critic Touré, for example, in his 2011 book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now, cites President Obama and Oprah Winfrey as examples of post-blackness because “[b]lackness is an important part of them but does not necessarily dominate their persona.” But Murray seeks to take the definition further, to show how post-black artists push back not only against the obligation to address politics, but also against another aspect of “authentic blackness”: masculinity — specifically, in the words of performance artist and scholar E. Patrick Johnson, “in its most patriarchal significations.” As Murray explains it, there’s an expectation for black males to behave as ultra-virile and ultra-hetero; as Youngman put it, “don’t let them know that your dick be regular.”
Of course, machismo isn’t confined to the African-American community. In fact, as scholars from bell hooks to Cornel West have pointed out, patriarchal thinking — with its focus on authority and physical dominance — is actually tangled up with white supremacy. These mindsets are complexly related, the connections between them made thornier still by a history of conflicts between various activist groups, but Murray takes the time to walk his reader through the steps of how masculinity specifically became a defining element of black authenticity, as epitomized by the “father/leader/rebel” figures of the Civil Rights era.
A recurring example is Malcolm X, whose image is even featured on Murray’s book cover, though not in its usual form. This particular Malcolm X has bright magenta lips, two circles of red blush on his cheeks, and streaks of blue eye shadow behind his glasses. The image is from a coloring book of African-American icons, and the vivid makeover was dreamed up by a child as part of artist Glenn Ligon’s Coloring series (ca. 2000). As a book cover it’s conspicuous, even controversial. Some might well see it as a mockery of politics, but the degree to which the feminization of Malcolm X appears blasphemous, explains Murray, is an indicator of how “the iconic figure has become so readily associated with heteronormative resistance and clichéd hyper-masculine blackness.” The makeup “queers” Malcolm, interrogating the viewer’s expectations of gender and sexuality.
“Queering” is Murray’s verb for post-blackness. It’s the action of gender-bending and fluid sexuality that he finds again and again in the work of post-black artists — from the entwined female figures in the paintings of Mickalene Thomas to the cross-dressing videos of Kalup Linzy — and it’s crucial to his understanding of the post-black phenomenon. Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights seeks to expand the definition of post-blackness by showing how artists operate in a society that isn’t only racist, but also homophobic and sexist. In many ways, it’s an art-centric argument for intersectionality — another word, like post-black, that tends to be contentious, if only for its academicky sound.
But while they share a textbook flavor, both terms (at least when post-black is understood the way Murray presents it) address a fairly straightforward reality: that oppressed groups don’t all live in separate bubbles, and that it’s probably wise, as Murray puts it, “to challenge conventional thinking that pits the political needs of oppressed groups against one another.” This is the vital work post-black art does, vaulting the boundaries of expectations to reveal the complexities of individual experience and the potentials of individual creativity. “Within his world,” as Murray writes of artist Kalup Linzy, “anything is possible.”