Black Conceptual Aesthetics and the Politics of the Imagination

November 25, 2019

Written by guest blogger Katie Schaag.

“Because white men can’t police their imagination,” Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen, “black men are dying.” The violent policing of black bodies in public and private spaces necessitates fugitive practices. In response to the racist imagination, the minoritarian imagination invents avant-garde aesthetic techniques and political tactics to resist surveillance in public and private spheres.

On a recent visit to the 30 Americans exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I was reminded of the tension between representation and abstraction in modern and contemporary African American visual art. Kehinde Wiley’s realist portraits monumentalize his subjects’ beauty and power within an art historical framework, Wangechi Mutu’s playful collages abstract the female form, and Rodney McMillian’s minimalist sculptures index traces of quotidian black lives. With vastly different styles, these artists approach the problem of representing African American subjects in a racist visual culture by inventing aesthetic systems designed to disrupt normative perception and re-signify blackness.

Within this broader context of the politics of the imagination in African American visual art, the Black Conceptual Art movement has developed particularly generative experimental tactics. As an artistic practice, Conceptual Art prioritizes abstract ideas over physical objects, moving toward dematerialization. Black Conceptual Artists such as Adrian Piper, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope.L synthesize language and image to deconstruct concretized forms of blackness.

As Ligon’s etchings Untitled (I do not always feel colored) (1990) and Untitled (I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background) (1991) suggest, citing Hurston and Ellison and echoing Fanon and Foucault, visibility is often a trap. While the politics and aesthetics of representation require showing up and speaking out, this requirement can be a burden, restricting freedom of motion to cast off and take up new forms of being in the world. The politics and aesthetics of the imagination is not subject to the strategic essentialist compulsion for efficacy: the imagination is free to experiment.

In my article “‘Will blackness please step out and take a curtain call?’: Ed Bullins’ Conceptual Theatre” in Modern Drama 62.3 (Fall 2019), I situate the Black Theatre Movement within the larger context of Black Conceptualisms in visual, literary, and performing arts. Reading Amiri Baraka’s “Revolutionary Theatre” manifesto as a call for contemplative interiority, I suggest that Bullins answers Baraka’s call by scripting instructions for fugitive performances of the imagination. Bullins’ dramatic texts A Short Play for a Small Theatre and The Theme is Blackness build on Marita Bonner and Jean Toomer’s avant-garde experiments with the genre of closet drama (plays to be read instead of staged) to innovate the genre of the Conceptual Play.

Oscillating between script and performance, appearance and disappearance, Conceptual Plays resist essentialized representations of blackness on the public stage with capacious abstractions of blackness on the page and in the mind. While the Black Theatre Movement is known for its investment in representational aesthetics and political activism, my research suggests that Bullins and Baraka (and other BTM playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy) invent a Black Conceptual Theatre invested in the dematerialized politics and aesthetics of the imagination.

Katie Schaag is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. She earned her PhD in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a specialization in performance studies and visual cultures. Her essay “Biological Plasticity and Performative Possibility in the Work of Catherine Malabou and Curious” is published in Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations. Her book project, Conceptual Theatre: Race, Gender, and Dematerialization, explores the political potential of thought experiments in minoritarian avant-garde closet drama, digital media, and performance.

Read her latest article in Modern Drama entitled “‘Will Blackness Please Step Out and Take a Curtain Call?’: Ed Bullins’s Conceptual Theatre” free for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

Share this post
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someonePrint this pageShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

{ 1 trackback }

“Black Conceptual Aesthetics” Post for University of Toronto Press Blog | Katie Schaag
November 26, 2019 at 11:47 AM

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: