|Catalog Essay by
Charles White is a young artist of thirty-six who has created a body of work which is unique in the art of present day United States. It is an art for which the observer feels an immediate appreciation and love. The human image, studied from life, is paramount in it. The strong faces and bodies it presents to us express a joy in life and confidence in the future of humanity. They radiate an exalted beauty. This art enlarges and transforms our understanding of our fellow human beings.
To understand this art we have to see that its peace and serenity do not come out of an avoidance by the artist of the violence and misery of our times. On the contrary, they appear because the artist has studied with such penetration the history of the fight for liberation of the Negro people of the United States, and has made himself so completely the spokesman of his people. The strength and determination of this art speak for victories won, which these works so convincingly express. Out of this rises the hope for the future. And similarly, the clarity of these paintings and drawings, the unobtrusiveness with which the technique so completely merges with the subject, speak not for a simplification of art, but for the conquest by the artist of some of the most complex
problems of art in our time.
Not only does Charles White's art speak for the Negro people of the United States, their staunchness in the face of every form of oppression, and their rich contribution to United States cultural life. It speaks for the democratic beliefs and hopes of the great majority of the American people. It speaks for the small but growing group of American artists who are restoring and carrying further the traditions of artistic realism, in the face of the dominant movements among artists towards "pure form" and the "unconscious." It speaks for the achievements and worldview of the working class in the twentieth century.
In extracting the lessons of this art, we have to see it as a stage in the development of the art of the Negro people of the United States, and as a stage in the development of United States art as a whole.
In tracing the cultural contribution in America of the Negro people, scholars who can see it only in a one sided way, ask, "Is this culture 'African,' that is, not 'American,' or is it 'American,' that is, not 'African?" Neither is the whole truth.
Africa was the center of a rich tradition of music, poetry, dance, story creative handicraft, pottery, wood and metal work, and sculpture. This artistic tradition was part of the heritage of the people dragged to America as slaves.
Obviously, this cultural tradition could not continue to exist in America in the form it had taken in Africa. For reason the conditions of life were different. For another, the slaveholders made every effort to wipe it out, just as the decimation of the African population decimated so much of the artistic traditions on the continent itself.
Part of the rationalization of slavery was that the slaves could not be considered to be human beings. But it was as impossible to dispossess completely the people dragged from Africa, and their children, of a cultural life, as it was to take away their humanity simply by an arrogant declaration to that effect.
At the time of the War of Independence of 1776-81, the slaves in the North American colonies numbered 750,000, about a quarter of the total population. And both in the colonies, and in the independent republic, the Negro people created a cultural life which was distinctively their own, and at the same time had an effect upon every side of life in the country.
Scholars such as the outstanding work of Lorenzo D. Turner plus contributions from others such as Melville J. Herskovitz have shown that much of the African languages have infused the English speech in America. Similarly preserved in altered versions were many African folk tales. The hymns, or spirituals, and plantation dances created by the slaves became the greatest single body of folk music and folk poetry brought into being on North American soil. And they have become a common possession of the American people.
The preservation of African elements was not due to mere inertia. Rather, this was an active part of the struggle against slavery itself. Thus to possess a language of their own, which the slave-holders regarded as perhaps a clumsy inability to master English, was a weapon to the slaves.
The religious services of the Negro people, embracing Christianity, took on a communal character that was characteristic of African life, just as it had also been characteristic of the early Christian communities in North Africa, Syria and Armenia. They seized upon the popular elements in the Bible and Christian doctrine stemming from the ancient struggles of the slaves against oppression. Thus what happened was neither a wiping out of the African cultural tradition nor a simple continuation of it, but a qualitative change, in which the creative traditions and imagination of the people took new forms. This new cultural life reflected the welding together of the people who had come from many different African tribes, in the struggle against slavery, and the first steps towards the formation of a Negro nation within the United States nation.
There had been an unbroken tradition of struggle against slavery from the time of the slave trade, with insurrections on the ships, continuing with organized plots and revolts such as those of Denmark Vesey in 1822 and Nat Turner in 1831. Even the escape of the slaves from the Southern slave states to the Northern free states and to Canada took the form not merely of individual flight but of an organized anti-slavery movement.
This was the character of the Underground Railroad. A heroic figure such as Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave, returned seventeen times to the slave states to lead new groups to freedom. This history contributed to the history and common culture of the Negro nation taking shape.
The Negro spirituals deserve a brief examination not merely for the light they throw upon this developing culture but because they have been, along with the entire tradition of music of the Negro people, an important influence upon the art of Charles White.
The spirituals were a devoutly religious music and poetry, created by a people to whom the only acceptable religion was one that renounced slavery, that fought Jim Crow and that embraced the need for freedom and a better life in the real world. Their words were taken from the Bible and from the traditional hymns of Protestant service. Melodies and harmonics also were adapted from these hymns. At the same time they were formed in the antiphonal tradition of African communal music, and embraced typical African melodic phrases, harmonies, intonations and rhythmic patterns.
The great singer Roland Hayes writes that only when he became familiar with the African language forms did he realize the true character of both the melodies and the word sounds, which seemed superficially to be mispronunciations of English.
The power which has made these spirituals so precious an addition to the world heritage is the realistic character of their imagery both in music and words. The melodies, whether joyous or sorrowful, speak of the common experiences of people in the real world. Biblical lines which could refer directly to freedom, or else it translates the Biblical and hymnal thought into new images from real life. "The Promised Land" could refer to Canaan or to the Northern free states. "Pharaoh's Army" could refer to the slaveholder's power. "One of these Mornings at Six o'Clock, the Little Old World's Going to Roll and Rock," could refer to the Last Judgment or to the end of slavery. "Steal Away" could be a signal for escape. "There's No Hiding Place
'Round Here" could refer to the sinner before God, or to an Underground Railroad signal.
The spirituals were, like all folk music, a social possession and the cumulative product of individual creations. An African chieftain, enslaved, created the great crucifixion song, which is also a cry of protest, with the words,"They nailed him to the tree, and he never said a mumbling word, not a word, not a word." His great-grandson, Roland Hayes, now sings this song on his programs. Harriet Tubman created the spiritual, "Go Down Moses, Go Down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, Let My People Go." Not a one of these spirituals could be said to have been created directly for the purpose of being an anti-slavery weapon, for insurrection or flight. Yet the slaveholders early in the nineteenth century recognized the danger of in this form of religious service by making it impossible for the slaves to read the Bible. They made it a punishable offense to teach a slave to read and write.
The broad function of the spirituals was to give the Negro people a communal solidarity, and to express their human dignity against the forces, which denied them the right to live as human beings or even call them human beings. The imagery in word and music has such strength because it always has a social character. Thus the sad songs, however sorrowful, speak not of an individual's troubles in a hostile world, but of a social sadness, of others struck down, of an oppression shared by all.
Yet folk art was only one arm of the cultural struggle. The other arm was the demand to be allowed to master and use the great world heritage of culture, particularly the developed forms that had arisen in the period of the cracking of feudalism and the revolutionary rise of the bourgeois nations. The Negro people fought for the right to education, for the means to educate themselves, for the command of every aspect of literature, music and painting, as well as the mastery of natural science, history and politics.
This demand met with great obstacles, not only in the slaveholding South but also in the "free" North, where racism was rampant and Negro people were denied the right to vote, and, in many places, to attend schools. Yet there were remarkable achievements.
The most celebrated Shakespearean actor of the mid-nineteenth century was a Negro born in New York, Ira Aldridge, although only in Europe was he able to get some of the recognition due him. He died in Lodz, Poland, in 1867.
There were phenomenal musicians, such as Elizabeth Greenfield, the singer chauvinistically advertised as "The Black Swan." At her concerts in New York, in 1853, Negroes were prohibited from attending. Another was the blind pianist and composer, Thomas Greene Bethune, known as "Blind Tom," who was said to have a repertory of 7,000 pieces.
In the graphic and pictorial arts we find a similar situation. The great African sculpture tradition could not be continued under the conditions of slavery, but the creative skills remained. Negro slaves were widely used as artisans, and as James A. Porter has pointed out, much of the beautiful wrought iron work, carpentry and wood carving still to be seen on old Southern houses was a product of their hands.
In the North, a few were able to fight their way to artistic mastery. Among them was Robert M. Douglass Jr. (1809-87), who took an active part in the anti-slavery movement, and whose work was highly praised in his time, although his paintings have all disappeared; Patrick Reason, (born c. 1817), an excellent graphic portrait artist; Robert S. Duncanson (1821-71), who was sent to Europe to study art by the Anti-Slavery Society, and who produced extremely beautiful romantic landscapes, as well as at least one group portrait that broke the unwritten law then ruling the art world by portraying a Negro family with dignity; Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901), another fine landscape artist.
And with Edmonia Lewis (1845-90) the sculpture tradition was recaptured. She became one of the leading sculptors of her time, as well as one of the outstanding American women in cultural life. She spent many years in Rome, and in her life we see the dilemma faced by so many Negro artists.
At home there are constant slurs, and constant segregation, as well as a chauvinistic attitude extending to the most "cultured" patrons of art, who establish rules as to what is "good taste" for the Negro artist.
In Europe there is an atmosphere of greater freedom, but the price paid is the loosening of national ties, the pressure to take on a "cosmopolitan" academic style.
Typical of the heights that could be attained by Negro people, given the slightest opening, is the towering figure of Frederick Douglass, whose life and thought are one of the strongest influences on Charles White, his figure appearing in every phase of the artist's work.
An escaped slave, Douglass became the leader of the movement for the abolition of slavery, a brilliant orator, editor and writer, and the most profound political thinker to appear in nineteenth-century United States. He saw the entire sweep of American life realistically and critically because he based himself on a complete identification with the enslaved Negro people.
Like no one else in his time, he traced the corruptive influence of slaveholding and the cotton financial interests upon every aspect of the country's life. He saw that the preservation of United States democracy itself meant an uncompromising fight against this "enemy within," which had so crushing a grip upon the nation's councils. He fought the jingoistic nationalism that rose to particularly virulent heights in the1840s and the time of the Mexican War. He denounced what he called the "bloodhound" war against the Indians in Florida, the predatory war against Mexico, and in 1851, the hysteria being aroused even then in the press for the separation of Cuba from Spain and its annexation by the United States.
In a ringing speech delivered in 1865, after the close of the Civil War, he warned against the dissolution of the Anti-Slavery Society, saying of slavery, "It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth."
How prophetic this speech of Douglass was can be seen in this "Great Betrayal" of 1877. The last Northern troops were removed from the South, providing a full assent to the assault that had already taken place by the former plantation owners and their hired mobs, with massacre, lynching and terrorization, against the civil rights of the freed but unarmed Negro people. This assault was connived as by Northern industrial interests, and their political representatives.
We can see from this point the shaping of the problems that would be faced by Charles White and other Negro artists. We can also begin to see the crucial importance of the developing culture of the Negro people to the health and progress of American cultural life as a whole.
The maturing of critical realism in the arts of the United States was overlapped by the rapid transformation of the economic life into one of monopoly, capital and imperialism. The last quarter of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth saw the work of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London and Theodore Dreiser in literature; Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer in painting, followed by the "New York Realists" such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Lusk and George Bellows; the great cartoonists, Thomas Nast, Art Young, and Robert Minor; in music, the experiments with American folk idioms of Charles Ives and the stimulating impact of the visit of Antonin Dvorak.
These artists embarked on a searching and sober scrutiny of the realities of American life, in the light of the hopes and promises of the Declaration of Independence, and the democratic principles with which the nation had started. This movement could have continued on to a penetrating survey of the Civil War and the American past, but it was overtaken by imperialism.
This was the era of the rise of trusts, and the increasing investment of capital outside of the nation's borders; the war against Spain with the seizure of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and the economic imprisonment of Cuba; the "big stick" wielded by Theodore Roosevelt against Nicaragua, and the support of the Diaz dictatorship in Mexico.
The transformation of the Negro people, free of slavery, into an oppressed nation, was part of this imperialist drive. Indeed, the "great betrayal" of 1877 may be called an opening fanfare to the rise of United States imperialism.
The renewed oppression of the Negro people, and its rationalization, as in the time of slavery, fostered a stream of racist caricatures and stereotypes in literature, drama, song, pictorial art and cinema. This inhumanity spread its corruption throughout American cultural life, its racism repeated in chauvinistic slurs and attacks upon the other masses of working people, including the millions invited as immigrants from Europe and Asia to work the land, build the railroads and sell their labor power in mines, mills and factories.
Just as the Negro people, as treated in the great mass of commercial "popular" novel, story, graphic art and cinema, were not considered to be really "American," so labor, especially when it defended itself by unions and political action, was not considered not quite "American."
History was written from a racist point of view. Great figures such as Frederick Douglass were wiped out from general consciousness. The tremendous contribution made by the Negro people to their own liberation from slavery, both before and during the Civil War was deliberately lied about, ignoring the genuine democratic achievements of Negro and white people together, justifying the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching and massacres. And even today the parasitical, petty and treacherous leaders of the slaveholding Confederacy, and their generals, are transformed into myth-heroes, gallant, chivalrous and kind-hearted.
Thus the United States people as a whole were robbed of a real knowledge of their own history. The effect of imperialism, rising in intensity in the twentieth century, was also an enormous increase in
subjects, giving them realistically human characterization evoking something of the feeling of the Negro spirituals.
Yet his gain in the freedom to work as an artist was counterbalanced by his loss of national ties. At the same time he remained a symbol of the stature to which Negro artists could attain an answer to the cries of "inferiority" which rationalized the super-exploitation of the Negro people, as working people and as an oppressed nation.
Two young artists who would become important figures in the 1920s and '30s, Aaron Douglas and Hale O. Woodruff, came to Paris to study with him.
Harleston (1882-1931), born in South Carolina, typified the growing independence heroically won by Negro people in the South itself, the most virulent center of the racism poisoning the cultural fabric of the entire country. His paintings, such as "The Old Servant" portrayed the Negro people with pathos, dignity and depth of character. In his work the approach to the subject is that which would reach so high a development in the art of Charles White. He turns to the life of the Negro people, not to narrow the scope of his art, but to take up precisely the themes that are forbidden by the conventions of the art world.
It is these themes that it is most important for the American people to know. And this work, the Negro does not beg for favors or for "sympathy." He looks scathingly and critically at those who pretend to be his "superiors." He portrays the moral superiority of his people, who possess the strength and dignity to which comes from a life of productive labor, who do not lynch, murder, or corrupt the processes of justice, who have no racist hatreds for other peoples, who have no desire to live by exploiting others.
In spite of the constant obstacles faced by the Negro artist, such as poverty, discrimination and the difficulty in acquiring an education, an increasing number appeared in the twentieth century. They could not be isolated from the currents flowing through the American art world as a whole. Indeed, part of their development was the demand to be able to "do everything," to master every aspect of art. Negro painters, poets, novelists and musicians won a greater recognition than at any previous time in history.
Part of the price of this recognition, however, was the subjection of the artist to pressures that were little more than a disguised chauvinism. Something of this kind of pressure may be seen in the 1920s, a period referred to in studies of the art of the Negro people as the "Negro Renaissance," or the "Harlem Renaissance."
The period was not really a "Renaissance." If the term is taken to mean a leap to maturity of the Negro artist, this had happened much earlier. If it means the emancipation of the Negro artist, this was far from accomplished.
What really happened was a widespread "discovery" of the art of the Negro people by white patrons and critics.
This "discovery" had the positive effect of bringing not only the artistic achievements and potentialities of the exploited Negro people, but also the question of racism and of national oppression, to the forefront of the country as a whole.
But there was also a pressure on the part of the patrons and "discoverers," not consciously motivated perhaps but none the less effective, for the Negro artist to abandon his ties to his own people, and to embrace a shallow cosmopolitanism, misnamed "universality;" in other words, to see art as a special way of life, a world of its own, with no ties to real life, society and the struggles of his fellow human beings. And a seemingly opposite trend, but equally destructive, was to praise the "discovered" artist for his "Negro" characteristics, seeing this as a sort of "primitivism."
Negro art was praised as some strange atavism, the "Congo drums" appearing in the midst of a "decadent" and "effete" civilization, bringing in a "reality" consisting of the vitality of movement untrammeled by thought, representing the "archaic conscious" and the "eternal myth."
On the one hand the Negro artist was offered "social equality," an equality however limited to a few art centers and salons. On the other hand he was often exhibited and "admired" in these centers as a strange and marvelous exotic apparition.
Similar to the treatment of Negro painters and poets was the treatment of jazz. Jazz, as it had been developed by the Negro people, was a richly melodious music of song, dance and march, infused with the haunting and expressive folk strains of the "Blues." This music had roots that stemmed from Africa, and also embraced the spirituals, hymns and plantation dances, as well as Latin American strains and a wealth of the folk music that had grown on the North American continent.
Talented Negro musicians, robbed of the opportunity to develop themselves fully as musicians, often used the improvisational possibilities of jazz as a form of poignant musical expression. But in the 1920s and 30s jazz was vulgarly commercialized by the "tin-pan-alley" music industry, transformed into a blaring and insensitive music. At the same time "pure jazz" was discovered by the esthetes, who praised it as a kind of "uninhibited" music "of the jungle."
Europe was not free of such trends, as may be seen in its own jazz cults, and in compositions on jazz themes such as Milhaud's ballet, "La Creation du Monde" and Krenek's opera, "Jonny Spielt Auf." These works had nothing in common with the real life and art of the Negro people.
The "rediscovery" of African sculpture in the twentieth century also came to be bound up in with such trends. This African tradition was not generally appreciated for its powerful realistic and historically progressive qualities.
To do this it was necessary to see them in terms of their real place in the development of society and art, separating their realistic imagery and craftsmanship from the elements relating to magical beliefs and religious ceremonial practices. Instead, however, the sculpture was used as a justification for a purely twentieth-century sophisticated primitivism.
The depression economic crisis of 1929 ended much of the wealthy dilettante patronage of Negro artists, and with this the illusions of a "Negro Renaissance" vanished. But the voice of the working class was heard, and the art both of the Negro people and of the country as a whole took a leap forward.
The W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) art projects started as a "work relief" program for the unemployed, brought into being the first widespread public art sponsorship in the United States. The projects fostered art education, easel paintings, graphic workshops, and an extensive program of mural painting on public buildings.
Fresh winds began to tear at the bonds of segregation. A number of Negro artists found themselves able to get work on the projects, giving them an opportunity to develop themselves as artists.
These projects were created by the "New Deal" legislation of the Roosevelt administration, but behind them was really the force of militant demonstrations of the unemployed and the great growth of the trade unions, organizing masses of workers in the great monopoly-controlled industries into industrial unions.
A drive developed to unionize industry in the South, with bitter strike struggles that brought an increasing number of white workers side by side with Negro workers. The young Communist Party of the United States exerted a strong influence, raising the cry of defense of the unemployed and in stimulating and leading the drives to organize the workers in the monopoly industries.
In this period the Communist party made its historic formulation showing the Negro people of the United States as an oppressed nation.
Of course such a concept had been long developing in rudimentary form as part of the thought of the Negro people, being expressed as early as the Michigan Negro Convention of 1843, and in the writings of Frederick Douglass. And from the 1930s through the 1950s Marxist thought and scholarship made an extensive contribution to the task of unearthing and publicizing the truth of American history, particularly that relating to the Negro people, which had been initiated by such men as Carter G. Woodson, William E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Leroy Locke.
Some of the contributions are James Allen's "Reconstruction," Harry Haywood's "Negro Liberation," Herbert Aptheker's "American Negro Slave Revolts" and "A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States," and William N. Foster's "The Negro People in American History," as well as Howard Fast's novel "Freedom Road."
Some of the Negro artists whose work appeared in the1920s and 1930s were the sculptor Richmond Barthe, and the painters Aaron Douglas, Horace Pippin, Hale O. Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence. They came from different backgrounds, and displayed many different styles, reflecting the trends moving through American art as a whole.
And yet putting their work together, one sees clearly that they represent a unique and powerful force in the country's art. The memory of is always alive in them of the bitter struggle, against forbidding obstacles, to gain command of the tools of culture. This struggle was both a historic one of the Negro people, and repeated in their own individual lives. And so, to them, art is not something to be treated lightly, made into a plaything, or into a personal idiosyncrasy.
The trend they represent is one towards an art with its roots in real life and in history, with a sense of social responsibility and a contribution to social consciousness. Even though not consciously planned this way, in many cases, it is an art of the Negro nation, embodying the psychology and community of culture that had developed in the long history of struggle against slavery, racism, Jim Crow and national oppression.
At the same time it is an organic part of United States art as a whole, leading the way towards an art that would give the United States people a consciousness of their real existence.
Barthe, who was born in Mississippi and studied and worked in Chicago, produced a realistic sculpture of human beings which, while it had no surface resemblance to African sculpture, showed a far greater grasp of the essential lessons of the old great art than the cubist works which pretended to be in the "African" spirit.
Douglas, born in Kansas, studied in Paris, returning to become one of the leading figures in the "Renaissance" of the1920s. In his work he applied techniques reflecting the influence of the French post-impressionists to subject matter taken from Negro life and history.
Pippin, a wounded veteran of the First World War and self-taught, began painting in his forties. Categorized as a "primitive" because of the simplification of his drawing and color, he portrayed with deep poignancy the horrors of war and the life of the Negro poor.
Woodruff, born in Illinois, also studied in Paris, and applied some of the techniques of abstraction and expressionism. He did oils, watercolors and woodcuts, and also one of the outstanding series of historic murals of the 1930s, recounting an uprising on a slave-trading ship of the year 1839.
Lawrence, working in a flat style with simplified outlines, created a number of powerful narrative series of paintings, on such themes as "John Brown," "Toussaint L'Ouverture," and "The Migration of the Negro."
In the 1920s discussions began to arise among Negro artists of which way the Negro artist should go. These rose to a climax in the 1930s.
One school of thought argued that Negro artist had to paint so that his work would be indistinguishable from that of a white artist. He should take up the "universal" themes of art. Any favoring of themes from the life of Negro people, it was claimed, was a provincialism, a self-imposed segregation.
On the other side, it was argued that while the Negro artist should take every side of life as his province, his special task had to be the life of his own people, their history and their struggle for freedom. The Negro artist had to take the lead in fighting racism, in revealing the humanity and dignity of his oppressed people, in showing their kinship to all other peoples. With such an art he could educate the country and the world, replace lies with truth, and attain a true universality.
This is the setting in which the young Charles White appeared as an artist in the late 1930s. He belonged to a new generation of artists that would be far more sharply divided than that which had come to maturity in the 1910s and 20s.
One group of American artists would move to a kind of "non-objective" art, covering canvas with geometrical figures, vague curving shapes, or smears of paint, and a militant self-centeredness, an abandonment of any social thought. It is this group that is today sponsored and favored by such centers as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Charles White, however, studied every facet of the problem as to which path the Negro had to take. He chose that one which made him the militant spokesman for the Negro people. He also studied every movement which claimed to be the "freedom," "progress," and "liberation" of art.
He came to the conclusion, after years of experiment, that to take up the subject matter of the Negro people's life, and the social theme, was not enough. It was necessary to recapture the realistic methods of art that had almost been lost in the twentieth century "liberation." The artist had not only to study real life, but also to learn again how to capture all the manifold qualities of real life in art, including the richness, psychological depth, beauty and grandeur of the human being.
Charles White was born and educated in Chicago, and perhaps no other city could have produced such an artist at such a time. Chicago, the second largest city of the United States, was one of the main centers to which masses of the Negro people migrated in the first three decades of the century, driven North by the poverty of life and racist violence of the South.
In Chicago, more than in any other Northern city, the Negro people entered mills and factories, becoming an industrial working class, and organizing into trade unions. Chicago, in 1917-18, had been the center of the first successful drive in the United States to form a union in a mass-production industry, that of the great meat-packing trusts.
One of the leaders of the packinghouse workers was William Z. Foster. In Chicago, before any other Northern city, the Negro people began to play an independent political role.
Three decades after the last Negro legislative representative had been wiped out from the South, by the rising tide of lynching, Chicago again elected a Negro to Congress, Oscar de Priest.
The force for democratic progress represented by the Negro people was early recognized by reactionaries, who attempted to segregate and intimidate them, inciting racist riots.
One such bloody riot took place in 1919; a year after Charles White was born. It can be added that in the year, 1954, that this is being written, Chicago is again the scene of such reactionary-inspired violence, aimed at keeping the Negro people segregated in a ghetto.
Charles White's father was a steel and railroad worker, who died when Charles was eight. His mother had come from Mississippi to Chicago, and was a domestic worker.
He received directly from his parents the devotion to working people, their rich potentialities, their dreams of a world without exploitation, their great capacity for love of one another that have remained with him throughout his career. His parents had the respect for culture typical of the working people.
They bought him a paint set at the age of seven, and also a violin, which he studied for several years. But it was impossible for him to devote himself to art except in the few spare hours a week left over from the task of making a living. He worked as a restaurant bus boy, waiter, cook, newspaper boy, valet and sign painter.
The first painting of Charles White that has been preserved, "The Tired Worker," was done in 1935 at the age of sixteen, before he had any formal training.
But from the age of fourteen he had come into contact with a group of Negro artists, and had learned from watching them work whenever he could. He and a group of youths, unable to afford the tuition of an art school, would combine their money to send one of their numbers to the Art Institute for some lessons, and he would teach the others what he had learned.
Only at eighteen did Charles White get formal education, winning a high school scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. He finished a two-year course in one year. At twenty he was on the W.P.A. art project.
The painting, "Tired Worker," reveals both his great talent and his working-class consciousness. This is seen not only in the subject, but also in the handling of it, with deep realistic and tender observation.
The worker is portrayed not as a symbol, but as a human being, in whose face one can read a wealth of experience. The hands are enlarged, and obviously painted as strong worker's hands. The table is tipped out of perspective, to emphasize the strong form created by the oval of the arms, hands, shoulders and head.
There are weaknesses to be noticed, as we look back from the perspective of the artist's later work. The contours of the body are not as firm as they would be drawn later, and the body itself tends to disappear, to be less substantial than the head and arms.
Yet remarkable is not only the depth of feeling communicated by the work, but its unity and the directness of its impact. It is not merely a transcript from life, but the work of an artist who has thought deeply about life.
Charles White in his first years of work announces himself as a Negro artist. One thinks of the words of Frederick Douglass at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1853. "Sir, as a colored man I do speak; as a colored man I was invited here to speak; and as a colored man there are peculiar reasons for my speaking. The man struck is the man to cry out. I would place myself—nay, I am placed among the victims of American oppression." And this comes out clearly in his first mural painting, "Five Great Americans."
It was done for the Illinois Federal Arts Project, for which he worked from 1938 to 1940. This mural is a great step forward for the artist of twenty as the "Tired Worker" had been for the lad of sixteen.
One of the notable achievements of the Federal Arts Projects had been the opportunity they gave to artists to paint murals, to adorn public buildings, to play a social role, and give the people a consciousness of their history. And Charles White's "Five Great Americans" is in itself a notable event in American art history. It brings into pictorial art, in one great panorama, the fruit of the effort to bring to the United States people their "forgotten history." It takes up the historical struggles of the Negro people and adds to such widely known figures as Booker T. Washington and Marian Anderson, heroic leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who had been ignored, practically "wiped out of existence," by the prevalent histories taught in schools.
The mural is a triumph of organization, and of deep thinking powerfully realized. The three figures in the center, Frederick Douglass, the freed slave, and the lecturer Booker T. Washington, are monumentally handled, their bodies creating a classic structure. The perspective is tipped upward to make the painting dramatically compelling to the onlooker. Framing the center, repeating the circular sweep of the listening audience, and yet with a striking character of its own, is the band of Negro people being led by Sojourner Truth, who fought not only for Negro liberation but for women's rights.
On the right two scenes are integrated; one shows Marian Anderson, who revealed, as similar fine musicians had shown for a century, the ability of the Negro people to make a creative contribution in every branch of culture; the other shows us the great scientist, George Washington Carver.
Remarkable, along with the powerfully realized central figures, are many secondary figures, who are realistically handled and yet add to, rather than detract from the impact and unity of the whole.
Thus the escaping slaves are each a human being with individuality, expressing as well the militancy of the fight against slavery, and the three-person audience in the center is finally characterized.
In this period Charles White embarked also on the black-and-white art in which he would become so finished a master. Typical is a crayon drawing, done for the Illinois Federal Arts Project, called "There Were No Crops This Year." The tragic faces of the man and woman of the farm are set off by the expressive and strong oval pedestal formed by their arms and shoulders, and the hands are deeply communicative, almost "speaking."
Three other Charles White murals of this period take up the history of the Negro people of the United States, of which two are reproduced here. One, done on the arts project, for the Associated Negro Press, deals with the "Negro Press and Its Founders."
It celebrates the victories in the long struggle of the Negro people for a public voice, for a foothold in the press whose freedom was so circumscribed by racist discrimination and the brutal laws of the market place.
The three figures are John B. Russworm, editor of the first Negro newspaper, "Freedom's Journal," which appeared in 1827, ad took up the fight against slavery; Frederick Douglass, dominating the scene, whose papers, "The North Star," "Douglass' Paper," and "Douglass' Monthly" played so powerful a role in the movement for abolition of slavery and in the fight for the democratic conscience of the United States; T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the "New York Age," in the 1880s and 90s, who, among other things, pointed out that the oppression of the Negro people was bound up with the exploitation of labor by capital.
The heads are fine portrait characterizations, and the relations of the human figures to the machinery are excellently handled.
In the mural "Techniques Used To Fight," done for the Chicago Public Library in 1939-40, White creates a compelling composition of human figures, making a simple impact and yet with its individual motifs clearly delineated.
We see the appeal to reason; the uncompromising defense against violence, as in John Brown's attack upon the citadel of slaveholding; the church pulpit, and its appeal to the community conscience; the book, representing the power of the printed word; the folk musician and balladeer.
Typical of Charles White's thinking is the central place given to the Negro women. It reflects the staunch and often leading role played the by women in the history of the Negro people, as it is also being played today.
In the latter two murals a move may be observed towards a stylization of painting and drawing technique. In "The Negro Press" it is seen in the lines of the newspaper sheets, and to some extent also found in the sharply accented lines of the faces. In "Techniques Used To Fight" it is found in the stylized linear patterns of the garments, faces and hair.
This reflects the impact upon White of the experimental techniques which at the time clamored for the attention of every artist who thought himself to be "advanced," free," "modern." For most of the next decade, Charles White would be influenced by those techniques.
He was never interested in "non-objective" art, or in abstraction as a "liberation of art from nature." What he sought with these techniques was a greater intensity of emotional impact, and a heightened symbolical quality in his images, along with a way to attain solidity and strength.
Thus "Techniques Used To Fight" has a tightness of composition throughout the entire mural, not found in the previous murals, as well as a new complexity of formal organization. The feeling of movement is conveyed strongly throughout, with the short linear rhythms contributing a flame-like intensity of feeling.
Yet a contradiction is created. While, in these murals, the stylization of line and of rhythm make for a strong immediate impact on the eye, affecting even the sense of touch, creating a high tension and excitement, these same styles make it more difficult to disclose the inner sensitivity and psychological depth of the human beings who are the subject.
The contradiction was one experienced by every social-minded artist of the period. Almost necessarily, they felt the appeal of these styles seemingly so bold in their departures from tradition, and calling themselves the "future" of art. Charles white, in working through this contradiction, moved to a leading position in United States art.
During this period of the 1940s, he was continually faced with the practical problems of how to live and work as an artist, which are always doubly forbidding for a Negro. Such continually recurring problems could only be partly mollified by philanthropic grants, such as the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which he won in 1942.
In spite of his physical frailty, he was in the army for a year. For two years, 1947-49, he was in a hospital, suffering from tuberculosis.
It was not so much any single event in his life which shaped his art, however, so much as the deep thinking engendered by the world-wide fight against fascism, which was so profoundly connected with the fight for civil rights of the Negro people, and the fight for freedom of the colonial peoples, in Asia and Africa.
In all of these struggles the working people all over the world were playing a leading, heroic role. After the anti-fascist war, they were playing a similar role in the struggle for world peace.
What Charles White began to see was that the conflict of styles was not simply that of one arbitrary style against another, but that of an essentially petit bourgeois view of "negation" in art, against the working class view of beauty, development and progress in art. And this realization was accompanied by a change in his view if the relation between an artist's work and the life around him.
In the early 1940s, his concept of was that of artists banded together to fight for art against a hostile world, although what he produced was at the time a social-minded art.
By the late 1940s he had come to the conclusion that the artist had to play a social and progressive role in real life as well as art, and also had to find ways to link his artwork more directly to the crucial demands of his time, and to the working class itself.
Two pictures of 1942 illustrate White's experimental styles. Rejecting what he feels would be a superficial or merely documentary likeness to real life, he seeks through styles moving away from realism to give a greater intensity and meaning to his work. The human image, however, remains, as always, primary in his art.
The painting "Negro Youth" shows White's interest in Picasso, whose "Guernica" mural of 1937 had electrified a host of progressive artists.
The paint is used not to evoke light, atmosphere, or the textures of flesh and garments, but rather to imitate physical materials abstracted from real life. Accordingly the painting looks like a construction in wood and cardboard. The head seems to have been carved in wood. Its flowing lines form a counterpoint to the geometrical background, in which one flat plane is visualized behind another. Yet something of the sensitivity of a human being comes through.
The drawing "Native Son" is less geometrical, closer to expressionism in its intensity of swirling rhythms. Technically, it exhibits the great mastery White was gaining in the black-and-white medium, the varied pen strokes and pen-created textures approaching the tonal variety of paint. Yet this is one of his least congenial works, due in part to it theme.
"Native Son," the novel by Richard Wright, was a "Dostoevskian" approach to the defense of the Negro people, one that did them, and the truth of their lives, great harm.
It was an untypical portrait, which really accepted the caricatures and canards thrown against the Negro people, and tried to explain them psychologically, as a kind of neurosis caused by poverty and oppression.
This the racists would readily admit, since it would allow them to keep their premises, namely that the Negro people were "different."
The truth is otherwise, for the Negro people throughout their history, living under the most oppressive conditions, have shown a morality, sanity and dignity far higher than their oppressors.
White's artistic recreation of "Native Son," for all of its technical accomplishment, is one of his few works in which the observer feels no kinship, no common ground between himself and the subject.
He searches steadily for ways to bring deeper human insights, and a broader range of social idea, into his work. His development in this respect, like that of all United States art, suffered heavily from the reaction-inspired liquidation of the Federal Arts Projects, including the program for murals on public buildings. Even today, for all the beauty and effectiveness of Charles White's work, it is lamentable that he has no opportunity to work in the breadth of scope of a mural painting.
In the portrait of the artist's mother receiving a letter from her son in the army, done in 1945, the artist's tender affection comes through despite the stylization of the face and body. And the painting has almost the effect of a mural, with on the left the smokestacks symbolizing the factories and working class life of Chicago, and on the right the clapboards symbolizing the flimsy shacks in which the working people, particularly the Negro, are forced to live.
Equally moving, and reflecting the contradictions of capitalism, with its "recession" and unemployment in the midst of wartime production, is the portrayal of a Negro worker, tired and hungry. He is standing before a poster ironically calling for workers to enter industry to take up the "fight for freedom."
The two paintings of musicians of 1947 reflect the love for music which had been in the artist's early childhood. In performing the "Blues," and jazz, Negro musicians had generally been forced into the position of playing the buffoon before white audiences, and the typical portrayal of a jazz musician in popular commercial art had a similar grotesque character.
White portrays the humanity of the musicians, which is to him an essential character of the music as well. The increasing depth of human portrayal is seen as well in the drawings of this year.
A powerful stimulant to White had been his visit in 1946 to Mexico, where he had worked with and become an honorary member of the Taller de Grafica Popular.
It is noteworthy that just as the great Mexican mural art of the 1920s had exercised a profound influence upon the mural art of the United States in the 1930s, so this organization of artists, serving the needs of the Mexican common people with strong and beautiful prints, reflecting their lives, thought and political movement, had an equally moving effect upon United States artists seeking to reach and serve the common people.
The great forward step made by Charles White is seen in the two splendid pen-and-ink drawings of 1949. They show the mural-type breadth of social and historical theme being recreated in the black-and-white medium, and also show the artist bending his art directly to the service of the new intensity of struggle by the Negro people for equal rights and liberation.
An aftermath of the anti-fascist war had been a determined drive by the Negro people to break out of the slums and ghettos to which they were largely confined in the Northern cities, and to win the right to vote in the Southern states where the majority still lived. Major victories were won, although there was an increase in police violence, the racist corruption of justice in the courts, and especially in the South, bloody casualties. One of these drawings takes up the case of the Trenton Six.
In 1948 six young men in Trenton, New Jersey, were tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged hold-up and murder of a storekeeper. The conviction was obtained through methods long familiar to the Negro people, namely intimidated witnesses, fabricated evidence, forced confessions which the defendants were not allowed to repudiate in court, the stifling of evidence that would have disproved the prosecution's case, and the raising of a racist hue and cry against the Negro people as a whole.
Fortunately, the obscurity in which the prosecution tried to keep the case was blown away. After a protracted struggle, during which this drawing was done, a retrial was won.
Four of the defendants were eventually freed, while two remained in jail, to "save the face" of the prosecutor, one dying there.
The drawing shows, symbolically, the six defendants, and the sister of one of them, Mrs. Bessie Mitchell, who had fought from the start to bring the light of truth and public knowledge upon this typical example of "legal lynching."
The other drawing does not refer specifically to the right to vote, but has that as part of the associations it evokes. It shows the Negro people breaking through the barbed-wire bonds of oppression, with the weapons of education, culture and political rights, under the inspiration of the heroic figure of a century before, Frederick Douglass.
And in these drawings we can see that the stylization of the human head and body, while still lingering as an element in the artist's style, is on the point of being sloughed off.
The new transformation and qualitative leap to a completely realistic style comes with the 1950s.
The change, if we compare Douglass of the 1949 group drawing to the Douglass of 1951; or if we compare the symbolic drawing of 1949, affecting as it is, of a young man, with lacerated hands, moving through the sharp-pointed gates typical of the Southern plantation, with a leafless tree behind him, to the "Gideon" of 1951.
"Gideon" is the central character of Howard Fast's novel, "Freedom Road," dealing with the Reconstruction era in the South following the Civil War.
We can trace the development if we compare the still somewhat stylized "Young Woman with a Doll," of 1950, to the touching painting of a young Negro woman of 1951, and to the portrait of this period, done long after her death, of the great blues singer, Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith had bled to death after an accident, not being allowed to enter a hospital "for whites only."
The richness of tones White can attain in a linoleum cut, and the breadth of social theme he can embody in a small print, is seen in the symbolic portrait of Harriet Tubman, called "General Moses," who had been one of the great "engineers" of the Underground Railroad, returning to the South seventeen times, after her own escape from slavery, to lead new groups of slaves to freedom. She had also led a group of scouts in the Civil War.
Charles White's European journey, in 1951, extending to the People's Democracies and the Soviet Union, has a stirring effect upon him. He was able to see first hand the breadth of the peace movement, drawing its inexhaustible resources of strength from the youth and working people of all countries, a "sixth world power."
He was startled to find how much his works had become known in other lands. And he confirmed his own decision, already made, that his path of realism was the only one that could bring true process in painting.
From this new perspective, he saw that the current of realism was by far the major and growing world trend; that it was eagerly accepted and responded to by the masses of people, who saw the real life of their country captured in art, with its heartwarming beauties.
The common people over the world has selflessly defended their land against fascist brutality, and repaired the ravages of war. And it was this role that was now recognized in the imagery of the new art.
In contrast, it was obvious that the cults existing in a few countries of "non-objective" and "abstract" art were of no importance to art, were unloved by the people. They were hollow apparitions, blown up to monstrous proportions by a few museums; dealers and galleries that pretended to direct and represent the art taste of a country.
With such works as the paintings "Goodnight Irene" and "Lovers" of 1952, and the six drawings of 1952-3 that were reproduced in a portfolio by the magazine Masses and Mainstream, we can see Charles White's movement towards a forthright and uncompromising realism.
Realism, of course, does not refer to art images that resemble objects as closely as possible. Essential to realism is that it is the product of deep and true thinking about life, which shows itself in the choice of images, the selection and development of details, in the relationship of the images to each other, and therefore in the all over, concrete form of a work of art, which artistic is its mastery of the human subject, which it must realize as fully as possible, make into an "object," able to arouse a sense of kinship in and move the observer. And for this it is necessary that the artist develop his technique and style to embrace the "laws" of the human subject, its real nature; that this technique and style become a means to explore, discover and disclose the sensuous richness of the human being, including the way in which its inner sensitivity and psychological depth outwardly show themselves.
How much these discoveries can inspire a greater richness and freedom of art techniques themselves may be seen in the fine shadings created by the strokes of the lithographic crayon in "Douglass" and "Gideon," and the pen cross-hatchings of "The Mother," of 1952.
The painting "Goodnight Irene" takes up again the theme of the great musical tradition of the Negro people, being dedicated to the folk singer, Huddie Ledbetter.
"The Lovers" describes the artist's own feelings of the awakening of love.
The drawing, "The Mother," makes an interesting comparison to the "mother" of 1945, receiving a letter from her son, and to the pen drawing of 1949.
These new works have a quality that is distinctly part of the working class view of life. The working class view of life today, as it expressed in art, must include images, of course, depicting the character of the destructive forces of the world. It must show human suffering. But it cannot limit itself to this. It cannot say that this is only a world of destruction and misery, or that it is a world of chaos. For this imparts only feelings of impotence.
And today, in every part of the world, new forces are rising. The masses of people, of whom the great majority are the working people, are discovering their own strength and potentialities; the development possible to them as individuals, as they move collectively to make the world fit for human beings; the deep capacities they have for love for one another. And something of this beauty of life as the working class sees it caught in these late works of Charles White.
There is still some exaggeration, of the hands in "Lovers," of the feet in "Goodnight Irene," but it does not detract from the organic unity of the human body.
A profound quality that Charles White has achieved in the drawings of 1952-3, and the subsequent works, is that along with the particular quality of the human image, they embody so deeply the general quality of the artistic human image. They are particular in that each face and figure is that of a distinct, fully realized, recognizable person.
What the artist chooses to emphasize, however, and brings out so strongly in the development of his detail, is the general quality of the image; namely the expression of the feelings, experiences, sorrows and hopes that masses of people hold in common.
Thus the observer, if he or she has any social feelings, will react with a deep sense of kinship to the people represented.
In this way these drawings become a powerful blow against racism and exploitation, and for world peace. They speak for the kinship of masses of people over the world, regardless of ethnic or national origin.
Today the "Cold War" hysteria, with its fear and nightmares, fosters images, in cinema, books and "comic strips" of racist contempt for colonial people, of chauvinistic nationalism, of brutality, violence, suicide, murder, sex-obsessed naturalism and obscenity. Or else it portrays images of people who seem to the observer to be strangers, speaking only of the eternal loneliness of life to the artist.
Charles White's art tears at this evil fabric, this poisonous, stifling garment of hate. Thus it educates all who see it.
One of the characteristics of realism is that it puts the human image into typical actions and social relationships, thus disclosing the relations between thought and action, and not only the life of the individual but the movement of social life. It achieves this typicality not through symbolism in the old sense, the simplification of the image into a "sign." Rather it expands the human image with a richness of particular detail.
But these details are not arbitrary. Each is selected through the artist's thought, so that it out of many possibilities, it becomes the one that typifies the common thought and actions of the people, those that accompany the collective actions or are characteristic of the forward movement of society.
Thus the drawing of a woman and a dove, "Dawn of Life," in which the face is suffused with a tender beauty and sweetness, speaks obviously of those who are determined to bring peace on earth.
"Harvest Talk" speaks of those close to the soil, and of the dignity of human labor, transforming the earth.
"Ye Shall Inherit the Earth" speaks of the love of a mother for a child, and the fierce determination of parents that their children shall be protected from the forces of human selfishness and destruction.
"Lets Walk Together" speaks of the unity of people, the strength they find in this unity, their support and love for one another.
And when we compare this moving work to the "Tired Worker" of 1935, we see how great a territory Charles White has traversed. On the surface, it may seem that he has gone back to the early style, but this is, of course, not so.
The qualitative leap is in the content of thought, which is now extremely rich and permeated the work. This is realized in the clarity of style, so that each figure is now firm and strong in contour, each line conveys a meaning, the figures are fully defined in face and body. They have a complete naturalness, and yet the thought they embody gives them a classic unbreakable quality and monumentality.
We begin to see qualities that belong in the area of socialist realism. For ages, it was the exploiters of their fellow men who largely commissioned artists to paint their portraits, demanding that the artists depict them like gods, or in resplendent robes and ceremonials that would emphasize the difference between them and the rest of humanity.
They could not see the great mass of common humanity, on whose labor they lived, as human beings. Bourgeois social and critical realism was able to look upon the miseries of the peasantry and working people with commiseration, but could not address itself directly to them as it audience.
It took centuries of conflict and social development to bring to the fore of social consciousness the true character, the depth and potentialities of the greatest part of the people, the working people, whose labor has made possible all the achievements of civilization and the discoveries of science; in other words, to make human relations really and truly human.
And in this art of our times, it is the working people who are the central figures. It is moreover to them that art such as Charles White's is primarily addressed, although it speaks to all who are ready to learn. Its beauty is the disclosure of human relations in their most human form, namely corresponding to the deepest hopes and real potentialities of people. And the great truth of our time is that not only are such human relations possible and "practical," but that they are the only conditions under which humanity itself can continue to live.
There are many pressing artistic problems that Charles White has yet to solve. One is the realm of color. His painting has made great strides, but his color does not have the added sensuousness and luster, in comparison to his drawing, that the medium make possible.
One of the destructive elements of the "advanced" and "modern" teachings of the past fifty years was practically to eliminate from the tools of the artist the rich and malleable use of color, opening the eyes to the most evanescent qualities of light, atmosphere, the human body, and the world of nature, the color of a Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer.
Charles White has long rejected the illusory "progress" of color transformed into thin decorative surfaces or crude "material for its own sake." But he is only on the road to mastering the secrets of realistic color.
Another problem he faces is the reflection of more complex actions and human relationships, thus enlarging the sweep of themes in his art.
Charles White, at thirty-six, is at the threshold of a new step forward in his art. During the experimental 1940s, the problem of what to paint became as great as how to paint it. Now subject matter comes thick and fast, and ideas are constantly flowing, for they are engendered by the artist's active thought and participation in social life.
The beginning of this new period may be seen in the work of 1953-4. There is a new version of Frederick Douglass that, in comparison even with the splendid lithograph of 1951, gives the figure a more alive and immediate presence.
Again the theme of music appears, in "Musicians," showing an old "veteran" of the trumpet and a young follower, carrying forward with a new gentleness and naturalness, the motif stated in the musicians of 1947. It has a quality somewhat new for Charles White's art and an addition to his breadth of life, namely an engaging, tender humor.
This humor and tenderness, combined with a deep seriousness, is seen as well in the drawing of 1954, done for a Harlem clinic, of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. They are given a fine characterization.
The artist sees them in his mind's eye, not at the height of their heroic career, but as young women, "contemplating" the course that they would soon take up. And this humor belongs, for it was Harriet Tubman who, in her escape, walking off the plantation in her disguise, sang to the other slaves before the eyes of her "master," the spiritual, "Goodbye, I'm Going to Leave You, I'm Bound for the Promised Land." The portrayal of a young woman clasping a dove, with doves flying about, is again the peace theme, and there is a telling association in the fact that this young Negro woman, proclaiming the determination for peace, stands something like the Statue of Liberty.
The preliminary sketches for "Freedom Now" and "Young Farmer" announce works in progress that will take up new and complex questions of people, nature and society.
Most wonderful of all, however, is "Song of Life". In its perfect naturalness, it seems to be a scene from daily life.
Yet even more than in "Let's Walk Together," the people appear at the same time to be giants. And this is due to the fact that so many long pondered themes, and so many historical threads, come together here.
The monumental woman at the left is an embodiment of the heroic role Negro women have played in United States history, from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to a Mrs. Rosa Lee Ingram, now confined in a Georgia prison.
We see again the theme of music and song, which has played so communal a role among the Negro people, and both in church and secular use has been so powerful a means to assert the grandeur, dignity and unshakable strength of the oppressed and exploited people. We can see clearly how deeply Charles White's art has been influenced by the great currents of music of the Negro people, not only in the works specifically depicting music, but also in his understanding of the character of his people.
A central theme of this work is the new set of ties being formed between the Negro people of the United States and the people of Africa, different now in nationality and in two or three centuries of history, yet standing together in their fight against imperialism, against the enslavement of colonial peoples, against all forms of racism, chauvinism and national oppression. And this picture reveals the happiness radiating from those who live as sisters and brothers.
In the same spirit is "Solid as a Rock," the woman so familiar and completely realized that we seem to have seen her sitting somewhere in the neighborhood this morning, and yet who stands for all of working-class womanhood, determined that the world will be a place in which people can live as human beings.
For more than a century, a host of artists have seen their freedom to lie in opposition to society and the hypocritical moral strictures it tried to impose upon art. Beauty, they claimed, was its own morality. Devotion to art was an ethic of its own. Yet this attitude, however militantly expressed, only led to an abandonment by art of the social field of action in which it had made its greatest achievements.
What resulted a lessening of the content of art, an increasing superficiality of its form, and an impotence of the artist himself.
And now, stimulated by the working class, as in the art of Charles White, we see a solution of this "insoluble" problem of art and morality. For it has been solved by real life. Morality to the working people is not a pious precept, but a way of life. It is a realization of the dignity of labor, of the helpfulness of people to one another, of the truth that each person can progress only by assisting at the progress of others.
And so a new moral art appears. It does not consist of allegories with goddesses labeled "Wisdom" or "Justice" placing laurel wreaths on crowned heads, or trampling upon other figures labeled "Vice". It takes the form of unadorned human images, studied from the real life and forward movement of the working people, with deep love and understanding. It reveals how high is the moral stature of the working people, above those who live by the self-centeredness of a cutthroat life, it listens to those who frantically cry that every man's hand must be raised against every other, that war is deep in the human heart, that human beings are powerless to change their conditions of life. And it laments for the destruction that these proclamations still promise. But it also smiles, for it knows that such beliefs are already archaic, and are a part of a human pre-history that is rapidly passing away.
Return to top of page
© COPYRIGHT 2002 Charles White
Images of Dignity|
All Rights Reserved.
E Mail: info@charleswhite- imagesofdignity.org