Q. You've written a great deal about black art and about the failures of criticism in that field. What brought you to that subject?
A. Both my personal bias -- and necessity. You see, I went to college in all-white private institutions . . .
A. The Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, places like that . . .
Q. Do I hear the islands in your voice?
A. You do. I'm from Jamaica. My early education had a sort of British colonial background. I was shown the white tradition. But being black I was forced to confront the other side of that coin. Most black artists have to reeducate themselves sooner or later. If you go to the Art Institute or the Rhode Island School of Design, or wherever, you're in a community of white people and white values. You don't think about it all that much until you leave school. Then you're forced to. Then you live in the black community and you're confronted more acutely with black issues. Most black artists have had to rethink their basic approach to art.
When I left school I was doing stripe paintings, very much in the mode of Stella, and was much involved with Noland, and after a while I just froze. I had to ask myself, where did I get such images? The more I thought about Stella and Noland, the more I knew that's not where my art is coming from. I began to realize the importance of cultural coincidence. And of myth. Many black artists talk bitterly about the fact that whites who write about their work ignore the mythic content, the content that is African or Egyptian. The whole business of black myth is very important, but crtitics leave it out.
Q. So To understand black art you have to understand black myth. What about black politics?
A. At school we accepted the assumption that art and politics don't mix, that art is apolitical. Black people don't see that. I don't know of a black artist -- and I think 've probably met every major black artist -- who does not believe fervently that politics is a central aspect of art. Most black artists assume their political role is to educate people to the cohesive collective values of black people. In order to understand the common iconography -- in order to gain one -- you're going to have to educate.
Q. How does the general situation of the black artist differ from that of the white artist?
A. Well, I'm fortunate. I have a job and all of that stuff. But most black artists, including me, have a problem with commercial galleries. They feel that when they walk in there, people see them first of all as black, I suspect -- for me it's a suspicion, but others feel much more firmly about it -- that commercial galleries, which are white, don't think much of blacks' potential marketability. They can't move you around quite so freely among their rich clientele. Therefore they're reluctant to take you on.
Q. Some black artists sell well in commercial galleries. True, most of them work in the modernist tradition, and that's where the dealers make their cash. It's harder for Ed Love.
A. That's because of the kind of art he does.
Q. It's not the bigotry of dealers . . .?
A. I'm in no way convinced it has anything to do with bigotry. It's simple marketability. Can I sell this, or can I not sell this? But you're right, abstract artists tend to have it much, much easier.
There are some black artists, I know, I won't mention names, who are terrified of being identified as black. Most feel that they're taking a chance, and that by standing up for something they're losing the commercial game. They won't make it, they won't be written about, they won't be picked up by galleries. They think that if they were doing mainstream things, they'd have it much easier. There is this terrible split among black artists. Some of them won't talk to one another. Some think that abstract artists have sold out, betrayed the cause. One of the things I try to do in writing is unify that split by pointing out African tendencies in abstract art.
Q. Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, they're giants of abstraction.
A.Or Anthony Braxton. He's a giant, too. You put your finger on it.
Once, in 1971, the editor of Islam magazine asked me, "Why are you doing abstract art?" I said, "You, of all people, shouldn't ask that. Where is their figurative art in Islam?"
Q. Many black artists feel it is their duty to acknowledge and celebrate the black community, the black tradition. Fulfilling that duty may cost them the white buyer. But blacks don't buy them either.
A. No. They don't.That's a big problem. There are several obvious reasons why black art doesn't sell. First, black people don't have that kind of money. And secondly, those that do don't buy art in relation to their wealth. Thirdly, blacks, in general, don't put the economic value on art that the white community with money does. So many blacks try the white gallery scene again and again, and development a deep resentment for what they perceive to be rich white people who may be interested in their work but who wouldn't want to talk with them, or associate with them in their neighborhoods. wThey begin to think those art buyers are their enemies. They resent working in that world.
Q. How can a black artist make art that sells but that isn't a cop-out?
A. It's very tough. There's a fourth factor, and that's black iconography. Someone has to articulate that iconography. Most people look at art with their ears. The consciousness has to be articulated.
Q. You can't see Audubon unless you know birds; you can't read a seascape if you've never been to sea?
Q. What's left, then, for the artists whose work is vehemently black, who can't sell in the black community, who are denied access to the white?
A. What's left for them is hope. They hope that the black community will sooner or later develop its own critics. And that their art will become a sort of criticism.
Q. What is the situation at the University of Maryland?
A. You mean for a black professor?
A. There are five of us in the art department out of 50 or so. Art history people there are very nervous about teaching black art as an integral part of mainstream 20th-century art. They still see African art as something that influenced Picasso and Matisse. They see it in terms of European tradition. Black artists need advocacy. Some white artists don't think that's important. They think it's propaganda. Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm always suspicious of impartiality in art.
Q. What would you advocate? What makes black art different?
A. Well, one of the conclusions I've come to recently is that many black artists seem to have a kind of natural discomfiture with painting. Blacks in most of Africa did not have a strong tradition of painting. They did not come here as slaves with a strong tradition of painting. Their tradition is much stronger in three-dimensional objects. In the art of many blacks, the sense of painting as painting is very weak.
Q. Is easel painting automatically European?
A. You can't be hypocritical. Once you're into easel painting, you're into a European thing.
Q. The piano is a European instrument. Theolonious Monk isn't European.
A. Okay. The saxophone is European, too.
Q. Today the confidence that art can change society is dying all about us.
But in the black American community it may still be alive. Many black artists believe deeply that their art is part of the struggle.
A. I believe that firmly. Black people are most interested in changing where their heads are at. Can art make Reagan more humanitarian? I don't think black artists think about art that way. James Baldwin said that social change in art has to do with a black kid looking at a black kid and thinking him beautiful. We're interested in a cultural cohesiveness, a sense of who we are as a people, what your image is, what is beautiful to you. Those are the changes black people are really interested in.