Friday, January 9, 2009

G. Lock & D. Murray, eds, "The Hearing Eye"

Graham Lock and David Murray are the editors of The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art and Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film.

Lock applied applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Hearing Eye and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Hearing Eye falls in a chapter by Sara Wood on abstract expressionist painter Norman Lewis. In one quote on that page, he airs his concerns about “the limitations which every American Negro who is desirous of a broad kind of development must face, namely, the limitations which come under the names ‘African Idiom,’ ‘Negro Idiom’ or ‘Social Painting.’” Lewis wrote this in 1946, yet as several of the contemporary artists interviewed in The Hearing Eye tell it, a change has yet to come. In chapter 12, for instance, painter Ellen Banks relates how one dealer praised her rigorously abstract work as “beautiful and incredible” before telling her, “but I can’t put your work with you”—a gibe revealing of the racial and gender stereotyping that still hinders a wider appreciation of abstract art.

The book’s focus on jazz and blues influences in African American visual art perhaps risks becoming a kind of stereotyping too; certainly, many of the artists we spoke to emphasised that their work had been inspired by all kinds of music. Yet black music and black art have been engaged in a fruitful dialogue since the early decades of the 20th century, a relationship that has been completely overlooked by most books on music and art. Aiming to illuminate some key aspects of that dialogue, The Hearing Eye features chapters on several remarkable painters, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden and Joe Overstreet, as well as the photographer Roy DeCarava, the quilter Michael Cummings, and the graphic art unique to early advertisements for blues records—a breadth of reference made possible by the cross-genre expertise of contributors such as Paul Oliver, Robert O’Meally and Robert Farris Thompson.

On page 99, Sara Wood also quotes Norman Lewis’s credo that excelling at his art would prove to be “the most effective blow against stereotype”. To date, that excellence has not prevented his exclusion from most formulations of the abstract expressionist canon. But we continue to believe that, over time, artistic excellence will out and racial prejudice will perish, and our hope is that The Hearing Eye will help to accelerate both of these processes.

(Incidentally, two things that page 99 doesn’t reveal is that the book includes over 50 colour reproductions and has a companion web site with nearly 50 more colour reproductions plus a selection of audio recordings by musicians who range from Ma Rainey to Jane Ira Bloom.)
Read more about The Hearing Eye on the Oxford University Press web site.

An excerpt from the book, in which Joe Overstreet discusses his painting Strange Fruit, is available in the December 2008 issue of the online magazine Point of Departure.

The Page 99 Test: Thriving on a Riff.

--Marshal Zeringue