Zanna's Reviews > Art on My Mind: Visual Politics

Art on My Mind by bell hooks
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it was amazing
bookshelves: feminism, favourites, working-class
Recommended to Zanna by: Rowena

It's difficult for me to convey what I see as hooks' central concern here without sounding hopelessly general. She is very much engaged with what art can do for people, personally and thus politically, and in passionately arguing the case for it she delineates and criticises the structures of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as they are reproduced in, sustained by and do the work of exclusion and limitation inside the art world. She echoes Michele Wallace in lamenting the absence of black critics writing about art, partly because this contributes to the lack of intelligent writing about the work of black artists; often she finds that no theoretical framework exists to 'read' the work of artists such as Alison Saar, leading to misguided attacks on work, overdetermining focus on biography and essentialist authenticity that reinscribe racist and sexist tropes. She points out that sustaining motivation to write this material as a black woman is difficult, since male and white female critics so often present radical insights without citing or mentioning the women of colour who have done the work, while that work is frequently ignored or dismissed.

I was reminded of Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. Sontag called for an 'erotics of art', clearly meaning the erotic in the sense of Lorde's essay 'Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power' but I can't imagine bell hooks needing to hear such an injunction; I don't think it would occur to her to write about art starting from anywhere but pleasure, feelings, empowering self-awareness. The issues of interpretation that Sontag so strenuously grappled with are sailed through effortlessly here - hooks finds and upholds the deepest insights and dedicates effort to their fullest and clearest illumination, often employing anecdotes from her own life, and quotes from diverse sources.

She investigates the reasons (beyond representation) why the majority of African Americans do not feel that the art world is relevant to them, and don't see fields of art work as open to them, and many of her conclusions here segue into encouragement for black artists and non-artists to find ways in. She aims to help "create collective awareness of the radical place that art occupies in the freedom struggle and [how] experiencing it can enhance our understanding of what it means to live as free subjects in an unfree world"

In discussing the work of her friend, Alison Saar, hooks underlines how accusations of appropriation and an obsession with authenticity can become a tool of exclusion and perpetuates the othering and exotification of black artists. Appropriation need not be exploitation, she argues. Saar's appropriation of 'folk art' imagery and styles allow her to engage and extol the beauty of everyday life. While she herself is an academically trained artist, her use of these styles speaks to her embrace of the mysterious connections and longing for community that everyone feels, in her case, as a woman with African American heritage, connections to the rural South where she herself has never lived. Hooks sees in Saar's work an honest exploration of soul by a seeker who goes where the soul leads: "that vernacular emphasis on cultivating the soul, searching for depth and meaning in life, was continually connected to experiences of pleasure and delight

I was really moved by the discussion of the power of snapshots and the cultural practice of filling walls with family pictures in black homes like the one she grew up in. Such curatorial spaces allowed black people to celebrate their own lives and images free from the surveillance of the white gaze.

In Diasporic Landscapes of Longing, hooks looks at the work of Carrie Mae Weems and criticises the way her work is often approached "as though the sign of racial difference is the only relevant visual experience her images evoke". In discussion with the artist, she agrees with her that those who see images like her Ain't Jokin' series as straightforward ethnographic documentation are ignoring the serious issues it raises. Their conversation draws attention to the ways whiteness tends to diffuse radical potential in art work by seeing only 'rage' when race is marked ('this is as true of the liberal and progressive white gaze as it is of the conservative right'), or assuming that this is the only subject black artists can meaningfully deal with. Hooks also writes about Weems' images of African sites as anticolonial:
Weems has insisted on rituals of commemoration that can be understood only within the context of an oppositional worldview, wherein intuition, magic, dream lore are all acknowledged to be ways of knowing that enhance the experience of life, that sweeten the journey[...] Weems imagines a diasporic landscape of longing, a cartography of desire wherein boundaries are marked only to be transgressed, where the exile returns home only to leave again
on Lorna Simpson: "she depicts black women in everyday life as if our being brings elegance and grace to whatever world we inhabit"

In Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary, hooks rhapsodises the spirit-healing powers of beautiful things around us - in opposition to 'hedonistic materialism… offered as a replacement for healing and life-sustaining beauty.' she laments that "unlike the global nonwhite poor, who manage to retain an awareness of the need for beauty despite imperialist devastation, the vast majority of the black poor in the US do not harbour uplifting cultural objects in their homes. This group has been overwhelmingly encouraged to abandon, destroy or sell artefacts from the past." she suggests "Rather than surrendering our passion for the beautiful, for luxury, we need to envision ways those passions can be fulfilled that do not reinforce the structures of domination we seek to change."

In Women Artists: The Creative Process, beginning by sharing her own need to spend time in solitary reverie, hooks passionately defends the creative's right to time, not only to work undisturbed, but to relax and contemplate. Comparing the lives of famous white male creatives she admired to those of women, she saw that successful men always seemed to have support a support network of people who 'both expected and accepted that they would need space and time apart from the workings of the everyday to blossom, for them to engage in necessary renewal of spirit' whereas for women such time is often, as Adrienne Rich puts it 'guiltily seized' I was reminded of Sara Ahmed's thoughts on philosophers at their tables in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

One of the most interesting essays to me is Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice in which hooks writes appreciatively about the shacks poor black folks in the south usually lived in where she grew up. These could be shaped to the needs and desires of their inhabitants, extended when required, and surrounded by outdoor space such as porches and yards: "often exploited or oppressed groups of people who are compelled by economic circumstances to share small living quarters with many others view the world right outside their housing structure as liminal space where they can stretch the limits of their imagination." she notes "I am often disturbed when folks equate a concern with beauty, the design and arrangement of space, with class privilege." and contrasts the freedom offered by the shack even to those who lack material privilege with the confining space of the 'projects' which leave no rooms for the expression of uniqueness. "Standardized housing brought with it a sense that to be poor meant one was powerless, unable to intervene in any way with one's relationship to space"

Following the essay is a discussion with African American architect LaVerne Wells-Bowie, who discussed how long it took her to be able to see herself, a black woman, as an architect, in an environment where nobody and nothing ever suggested the idea to her, although her talents and inclinations might have pointed others in that direction. Her long journey through textile design perhaps gave her time and space to develop a deeper philosophy though: "I wanted my relationship to space to evoke architecture as it is informed by the humanities, not simply as a technical art". The two women consider African architecture and its connection with African American vernacular buildings. Hooks concludes "We need to document the existence of living traditions both past and present that can heal our wounds and offer us a space of opportunity where our lives can be transformed"

Writing about Emma Amos in Aesthetic Interventions hooks really embarrassed me with my lack of insight. I had never thought about the power of black and other PoC artists using images of white people. Amos' work also "urges recognition of the cultural mixing that calls into question an emphasis on racial purity", echoing hooks' oft-articulated deconstruction of essentialism around race as well as gender. Noting that Amos' images including whites have been less well-received than her other work, hooks points out that the white-dominated art world does not want to see itself through black eyes.

Printmaker Margo Humphreys talks about the high level of expertise and skill her work requires, and suggests that the form is seen as less intellectual than painting or sculpture simply because it involves messy manual labour, associated with marginalised people in the US. Hooks describes her work as mythopoetic and metaphysical. Humphreys agrees, explaining that her work is often autobiographical and sometimes examines 'the deeper philosophical meaning of emotions'. She uses colour as a tool of power: "you can enter [my] work the way you dive into a pool". This conversation really made me want to get acquainted with Margo's work. I hadn't heard of her or any of these artists before = (

To those who have read hooks' book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity , the essay on Representing the Black Male Body will serve as a reminder of some key points. She criticises photographers like Mapplethorpe for their racist objectification of black male bodies, and discusses some black men's embrace of hypermasculinity as a response to their 'femininsation' in this kind of imagery.

The final essay The Radiance of Red: Blood Works was for me the most surprising. I love how she opens by reminding me that 'dead bodies do not bleed'. Blood may be a sign of violence, but it is a sign of life, that can carry numerous meanings, as in the work of Andres Serrano. Hooks makes various points, for instance, contrasting the 'uncleanliness' of menstrual blood with the 'purifying' blood of Christ, but the essay moves in an open-ended way through a garden of ideas.
"In Circle of Blood the abstract image of wholeness converges with recognition that the circulating blood is central to continuity of being[…] [these images] challenge us to decentre those epistemologies in the West that deny a continuum of relationships among all living organisms, inviting us to replace this mode of thought with a vision of synthesis that extols a whole that is never static but always dynamic, evolutionary, creative. Though often overlooked, this is the counter-hegemonic aesthetic vision that is the force undergirding Andres Serrano's work"
I don't consider this a review as such but I hope I've succeeded here in conveying a little of the flavour of these essays, which are the most exciting works of art criticism I've ever read, despite four years of formal semi academic study in the arts.
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Reading Progress

February 22, 2014 – Shelved
February 22, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
August 11, 2015 – Started Reading
August 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
August 18, 2015 – Shelved as: feminism
August 18, 2015 – Shelved as: favourites
March 10, 2016 – Shelved as: working-class

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Rowena Great review, Zanna! It was great reliving the book through your words:)


Zanna Aww thanks so much Rowena! I'm really flattered. Thank you for taking the time to read <333


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