"The black artist used to tell himself, 'I am an artist who happens to be black,'" said Robert Stull.
"That's changed. Today he'll say, instead, 'I'm a black, an African-American, who happens to be an artists.' That pretty well explains why all of us are here."
Stull is chairman of the art department at Ohio State University. He is also the chairman of the board of the National Conference of Artists, an organization of 1,000 black artists, teachers, scholars and collectors meeting here this week.
"We are here to speak with one voice," said NCA vice president Jon Lockard. "We are here -- excuse the expression -- to exercise our clout."
Blacks once had little, and black artists even less. But the members of the NCA seem to have a lot. Three hundred of them went to the White House yesterday to meet with President and Mrs. Carter, Joan Mondale, Effi Barry and Livingston Biddle, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
"If it weren't for Joan Mondale, if it wasn't an election year, do you think we'd be here?" asked Lockard.
The president told his guests that he liked art, and that black artists had seen "the tragic changing into the triumphant." He mentioned 10 elder black artists -- Richmond Barthe, Romare Bearden, Margaret Burroughs, Ernest Crichlow, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald J. Motley, James L. Wells, Hale Woodruff, and the late Charles White -- whose works are now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Carter said that they had worked "with courage under difficult circumstances" as they "expressed their protest" during recent "wrenching decades."
"It wasn't like that for me," said Richmond Barthe. "I have had a splendid time."
Though many young black artists in the NCA speak bitterly about the experience of their elders, Barthe, 79 -- the dean of America's black sculptors -- smiles with delight when he recalls the past.
"It's true I come from the Deep South, from Bay St. Louis, Miss., but I never experienced the prejudice other Negroes speak of.I believe in reincarnation. I suppose I must have been very good in some previous incarnation, for this whole life I've been reaping. And most of my supporters have been not black, but white."
Barthe says "the bus driver won't accept my senior citizen's card. He said, 'You don't look 65.' I said to him, 'Why should I?' My grandfather smoked, as I do. He had a glass of whiskey every day. He lived to 105.
"I'm not an artist of the blacks. I've done portrait sculptures of people of all nations, from Chinese to the Swedish. I left the United States just after World War II and spent most of the next three decades in Jamaica and in Europe. I wasn't popular with the Negroes of New York when I left the country. I loved the legitimate theater. I lived downtown among the white people -- not uptown in Harlem.
"I did Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet, Laurence Oliver as Hotspur, and Maurice Evans as Richard II. I did Gypsy Rose Lee three times.My latest actor is James Garner -- he's one of my best friends. And, of course," said Barthe, "I did black faces too."
"I sold the beauty of the black people to whites -- not to the Negroes. In those days, the Negroes did not know how beautiful they were. And if you called a Negro black, he would knock your block off.
"Of the artists at the Corcoran, my favorite is Charles White. He was one of my best friends. He used to call me 'The Legend.' I'd fix him. I'd say, 'Okay, you old master you'."
Barthe's kind of delighted complacency is extremely rare among the other members of the NCA.
One of them is young Ed Hamilton of Louisville, Ky.Twenty-three of his welded metal sculptures were just shown in that city. They were given rave reviews, he says, but not one of them sold.
"It's hard to be black, and it's hard to be an artist. It's doubly hard," said Hamilton, "to be both at once."
"I didn't discover my blackness until I was out of art school. I'd looked at European painting, I knew about the masters -- but I knew next to nothing about my people's past. The discovery changed my art. It also changed my being."
Hamilton, like most artists, admits when asked that he is "leery of groups," yet he's just joined the NCA. "My membership card is still warm," he says. "As blacks we've learned the hard way that if we don't march together we are never going to make it. I, too, used to think I was an artist who happened to be black. Now I understand it is the other way around. I'm a black who happens to be an artist.
"If you think things are tough now, wait. I know that art is a luxury. Nobody needs a major piece of outdoor metal sculpture. I know when people run out of cash, they are going to stop buying. Well, they already have.
"I don't know if there's a depression coming -- but if there is, it won't be anything new to me."
There were a dozen TV cameras and 300 yellow chairs in the East Room of the White House.The members of the NCA were directed to their seats by ushers in white gloves. When the president walked in, his guests stood and applauded. He spoke for a few minutes, introduced the artists with whom he shared the dais, and then said, "Goodbye, everybody" and went back to work. Rosalynn Carter, Joan Mondale and Mr. and Mrs. Biddle remained half an hour in the reception line outside.