The Role of Racism in American Art during the 1930s And 1940s Essay
American history has been marred with controversial issues such as racism perpetrated by the whites towards their African American counterparts. The system of chattel slavery established at the very outset generated intense debates for over two hundred years even in the framing of the major founding documents of the nation.
This also led to the onset of the civil war. Many Americans presumably of European ancestry suspect that they have ties to the Romany, Middle Eastern or African-descended people. These ideas originate from interpretation of family stories, physical features, inclinations, heirlooms, or photographs. Many blacks who have family stories that include a Native American ancestor will point to the black foot as the possible tribal identification (Chin, 2004).
Racist perceptions and inequities were deeply embedded in American society in the 1930s. The idea of racial difference was accepted as self evident during this time. By the end of the 20th century, however, scholars and theorists began to reevaluate this concept. They argued that the notion of racism is based on social constructions rather than in biology. Thus, they said that racism is a social relation (Langa, 2004).
During this period, in New York City, an unusual number of artistes responded to international issues, both by addressing them in their art and also by organizing demonstrations, conferences, and fund raising events. Their visual images caricatured fascist leaders, protested war’s horror generally, and highlighted the deadly results of the civil war. This period also oversaw the increase in number of many leftist organizations. However, many right wing attitudes and organizations also flourished during this period.
It is important to note that antifascism also acted as a defense of artistic freedom. Many American artists came to newly admire the constitution’s democratic protections for freedom of expression. Essays calling attention to the dangers of fascist expression and the benefits of American political freedom proliferated in both the main stream and leftist art press. Many artists during this time came to understand how important freedom of expression is to their livelihood.
Racism therefore affected American art in many ways during this period. The history of racism reflects the complex social relations through which racial differences have been defined. Racism shaped the American cultural ideologies and individual self definition. During this period, artists and viewers drew the scientifically false but historically meaningful terms such as blacks, whites, and African Americans, to construct and defend their own personal and social identities.
There were many deliberating effects of prejudiced beliefs about racial differences. One of them is the isolation of Americans from other ethnic communities. In response, some elite black renaissance developed alternative aesthetic theories that were pretty much kind of ‘race positive’ rejoinders. For instance, during the 1930s some black intellectuals called on black artists and writers to celebrate the ideal of ‘negritude’.
They also called upon them to recapture the cultural values of their African heritage and create works that self consciously emphasized their own racial identities and the cultural accomplishments of the black Americans. However, whiteness remained the unstated category of normative identity in America. It was a term threatened by both visible and invisible racialized and ethnic differences believed to menace American democracy’s supposedly pure ‘Anglo-Saxon’ foundations.
Since whiteness was an attitude, most of the works done by whites were accepted as universal expressions of human experiences. It was quite rare for whites’ audiences to similarly generalize from works created by African American artists. The works done by blacks were expected to hold relevance only to the black community during this period (Muller and Elvehjem Museum of Art, 1989).
Chin, L. J. (2004). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination: Racism in America. Westport: Praeger Publishers,
Langa, H. (2004). Radical Art: Print making and the Left in 1930s. New York. University of California Press.
Muller, M.L. and Elvehjem Museum of Art (1989). Imagery of Dissent: Protest art from the 1930s and 1960s. Wisconsin: Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
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