issue 34 > nonfiction > kuspit
Romare Bearden, Humanist Artistby Donald Kuspit
The words ‘humanist’ and ‘humanism’ are hard to define.Whatever may be meant, I am convinced that a desideratum for the humanist is an environment stimulating awareness of otherness in harmony with hopes of an integrated object, outer as well as inner.If the depressive position itself implies humanist attitudes for the adult who has embraced it well, the paranoid-schizoid position, to which the enveloping mechanisms and disconnecting noises of limitless cities pay court, certainly does not.In the old days, art was a means of organizing the incantatory element that had been felt in the length of the land or in the restless sea.Today art is entirely outmoded in the choice of such phenomena by the scintillating lack of limitation of urban things in general, though it strains all the time to keep up.But, of course, in art there exists contemplative purpose, organization, adegree of wholeness.That is why art is no less a solace now, and perhaps little less an achievement, than in great ages.Adrian Stokes, “The Invitation in Art”(1)
To grasp the import and importance of Romare Bearden’s art, I suggest that one compare Picasso’s Three Musicians, 1921 and Bearden’s Baptism, 1964, also a picture of three musicians. Both works are modernist, in the sense that they are abstract. But in the Picasso geometry seems to stifle the humanness of the figures. They are anonymous shells, their identity conveyed only by their costumes. They are unmoved by the music they are playing. They seem isolated, however nominally together. They are abstract cartoons, static and impersonal. More crucially, they disintegrate into geometrical fragments, nominally held together by the “idea” of the figure. In short, they have been dehumanized; they are machine-like; indeed, each of their geometrical parts is a cog in an expressionless robot. Flattened into planes—they’re in effect cardboard figures forming a sort of Potemkin’s village façade--they lack physical presence, the haptic resonance of the body. They are lifeless simulations of human beings—sham people.
In sharp contrast, Bearden’s figures are all-too-human. Their painterly color brings them to visceral life. The expressionistic stripes—brisk, assertive gestures, generally blue or black, sometimes on atmospheric gray, and systematically arranged in patches with no loss of spontaneity—marking their clothing conveys their inner life and excitement, while giving their figures a three-dimensional presence. They are organic beings, not simply abstract constructions, however abstractly they may be constructed—but it is an abstraction that has not been desiccated into matter-of-fact geometry. They are moved by the music they are playing, unlike Picasso’s musicians, who seem like rote performers. Their eyes are similar blank spots—shallow holes—in expressionless mask-like faces. The eyes and faces of Bearden’s figures are intensely expressive. The musician to the left looks in that direction, the central musician looks to the right, and the musician on the right looks straight ahead. Their different eyes convey their different emotions, contrasting even as they complement one another. The change in the direction of their eyes adds to the dynamics of their appearance, while the eyes of Picasso’s figures are statically fixed in one direction, as though blind to their audience. They stare at us but they do not see us; they are mechanically playing, which is why their music doesn’t move us.
Bearden’s musicians play together—form a community, with no loss of individuality--while the individuality of Picasso’s figures is superficial, having more to do with their different instruments and outfits. The fact that Bearden’s musicians are all playing string instruments (two guitars, one banjo) suggests that they are making beautiful, harmonious music together—and that their personalities “harmonize”--while the difference between the clarinet player and the guitar player in Picasso’s picture suggests that they’re not exactly making beautiful, harmonious music together. There is an air of dissonance and disparateness—perhaps indicative of an inner desperation, a lurking anxiety--to Picasso’s picture in contrast to the inner, and human, harmony of Bearden’s picture. Bearden’s musicians are likely to improvise or “experiment”—they’re probably jazz musicians, playing without a score (they may be unable to read music) yet knowing the basics of the music they’re playing—while the musicians in Picasso’s picture seem to be playing a set piece, as the score held by one of them suggests. They are clearly urbane and educated compared to Bearden’s country musicians. They’re entertainers, playing at a carnival, as their masks and costumes suggest, while Bearden’s musicians are playing at a baptism, a less frivolous event.
The black figure on the right is a monk, the white figure on the left is a saint, and the multicolored central figure is a clown. Art historians suggest that they represent, respectively, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and Picasso, implying that the picture is a homage to the trio they once formed, and to Cubism, outdated and assimilated as one modern style among many--and thus no longer “experimental”--at the time the picture was painted. Jacob was a French Jew who converted to Catholicism, and once shared a studio with Picasso and wrote Cubist poetry. Apollinaire was a Romanian who became a French critic and Cubist poet. He was dead at the time Picasso painted his picture, and Jacob was dead to the world in a monastery, suggesting that the picture is a homage to them, a kind of memento mori to two of Picasso’s major supporters and friends. There is something sterile about the picture, which is painted in a sort of stylized Synthetic Cubism; Cubism, Analytic or Synthetic, was no longer in its heyday, even peculiarly passé and clichéd, however still “influential” and “strange,” that is, there was something “alien” about it. I think this has to do with its anti-humanistic character; Bearden’s picture may be Synthetic Cubist—the background behind the right-hand and central figures is “Analytic,” geometrical, and brightly colored, with a smaller, darker, not to say gloomier Expressionist section to the side of the left-hand figure—but he gives it humanistic purpose.
Picasso once famously said that he preferred “Cézanne’s anxiety” to the paintings of “Jacques Émile Blanche, even if the apple he had painted had been ten times as beautiful.”(2) I suggest that the anxiety Picasso preferred is what Kleinians call disintegration anxiety—the death instinct in action—and that the beauty of Blanche’s paintings, however outmoded by modernist standards, conveys the life instinct (I am using Freud’s distinction), as his paintings of flowers in full bloom make clear. Life flourishes in Blanche’s beautiful paintings, while it is peculiarly aborted and distorted by Cézanne’s anxiety. Picasso’s Three Musicians are disintegrating before our eyes, Blanche’s flowers are integrated wholes, and Bearden’s musicians are in the process of re-integrating and with that revitalizing. They are playing at a baptism, a celebration of life. Bearden has revitalized Cubist formalism by infusing it with Expressionist energy, in effect integrating them, and with that re-humanizing the figures that Picasso dehumanized. Bearden’s figures have a natural vigor that Picasso’s stagey figures lack. For Bearden art baptizes life rather than buries it an abstract grave.
I am arguing that Picasso’s figures exemplify the paranoid-schizoid position that comes with feeling like a machine—inevitable, as Stokes argues, as we “admit” machines into our lives more and more,(3) until they seem to take us over, so that we unconsciously feel persecuted by them, and as oddly abstract as them, and thus divided against ourselves (the sense of an unbridgeable divide between the organic inside and the increasingly mechanized outside world, between intimate feeling and indifferent technology, is perhaps the core experience of modernity)—while Bearden’s figures exemplify the depressive position, which involves reparative concern for the human other, however much one experiences it as machine-like, suggesting that it is only going through the motions of being human, and thus weirdly inhuman (like Picasso’s musicians). Picasso’s figures and Bearden’s figures are both collage constructions, but the paint applied to the collage elements in the Picasso suggests their flat affect, while the paint applied to the collage elements in the Bearden figures suggests their passion. Picasso’s figures, after all, are artistic inventions—aesthetic novelties--while Bearden’s figures are taken from life, and have moral as well as aesthetic meaning.
In the depressive position one no longer feels like a machine, and no longer feels that the other is a machine. The Other in Bearden’s work is clearly African-American, as he is. The black African-American Other was once a cog in the White Man’s money-making machine. He had no self of his own, only the slave identity conferred on him by the color of his skin. The figures in Baptism are black African-Americans—but they are also partially white. The banjo-playing man seems white but has two black hands. The central figure has two white hands, one flesh-colored. The left-hand figure has one black and one white hand, both flesh-colored. Black and white skin appear on the same body, confirming Bearden’s humanistic belief in equality and fraternity—and wholeness. Yet for all their integrity the figures have an air of melancholy, suggesting that they have all been emotionally damaged by prejudice.
But not irreparably: Bearden’s figures are white and black, but their difference is mediated by color—especially the golden sunny yellow of the banjo and guitars, suggestive of hope and a new day. (That curved yellow string instrument re-appears in In E-Sharp, 1981. A yellow rectangle marks the gray-white banjo player, suggesting there’s hope for the white man: he can join the band—play jazz.) The over-all result is a sort of patchwork music, each jazzy gestural stripe functioning as a beat. The opposites are not exactly united, but contradiction has become ambivalence, conveyed by the gray, a mixture of black and white. The differences blend, suggesting they are no longer disintegrative, however much they linger. One can think of Bearden’s figures as handmade dolls made of the cloth of life. Imbued with the fluidity of cloth and the hand, they seem alive. The aliveness of the black odalisque in Patchwork Quilt, 1970 seems self-evident, all the more so because of the luminous erotic pink on which she rests. In contrast, Picasso’s metallic dolls seem like mass-produced cut-outs made on a Cubist assembly line, suggesting that they are stillborn.
Black experience is the theme of Bearden’s art, but there is no sentimentalizing of blacks. Even his renderings of religious scenes, such as The Evening Meal for Prophet Petersen, 1964, Reverend John’s Sermon #2, 1973, and Ritual Dancer, Purple Lady, 1987—presumably a voodoo priestess, as the staff she holds suggests--are socially and psychologically realistic, however also “fantastic.” Cotton, 1964 and The Block II, 1972, however equally jazzy, makes the grim point decisively. A black guitarist plays for a Mexican man in Serenade, 1964, but the Mexican crosses his arms, as though refusing to embrace “brotherhood,” that is, to acknowledge their shared humanity by way of sharing the music. Musicians appear again and again in Bearden’s pictures, but it is not clear that anyone takes their music seriously. They may play for passers-by, wearing street clothes as they do, as in The Street, or wearing suits and ties, suggesting that jazz has become sophisticated and cosmopolitan, as in Rhythm Ensemble, 1967, but they usually do so with an air of grim solemnity. The raucous days of Jazz 1930s, 1964 are over, but then the jazzmen of those days were also entertaining outcasts. Picasso’s three musicians are also entertainers, but they were not social outsiders—indeed, they were artworld insiders.
Making jazzy art—art which showed his mastery of color and form, art which was consummately modernist (for Bearden Cubist and Expressionist abstraction were inherently jazzy, as their improvised, disjointed look, their uncannily harmonious disharmony suggested)—brought Bearden success in the white artworld, but it was not completely humanizing. His work shows that he effortlessly assimilated Picasso and Matisse, collage and abstraction, among other influences and affinities, but he only felt completely human and whole when he entered the Magic Garden, 1978 of the black world. Jazz was spiritual music, played at baptisms and funerals, in acknowledgement of birth and death, and it gave him, and blacks in general, entry into white society, perhaps because it was modern and lively, however also “blue” and mournful. But it was only when Bearden entered a black home--the rooms he depicts in Piano Lesson, 1983, Morning Charlotte and Morning Worktrain, both 1985, Mecklenburg Morning: Sunrise for China Lamp, 1986 and The Evening Guitar, 1987, among other works—did he feel comfortably and completely human. He felt even more completely human when he entered a tropical dreamworld with a young black woman, as he symbolically does in Khayan and the Black Girl, 1971. Eroticism and jazz sustained him—jazz can be incantatory and humanistic, impulsive and restrained, exhibitionistic and introspective, orgasmic and contemplative, brusque and soothing, often at the same time, with each instrument an imaginative body making beautiful music—but his insistence on his blackness, and his solidarity with black people, gave him a rare humanity. Leaving the white machine world for the black lifeworld, Bearden brought the great gift of human integrity to modern art, suggesting that modernity need not have a dehumanizing, disintegrative, isolating effect on us.
(1)Adrian Stokes, “The Invitation in Art,” Critical Writings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), III, 279
(2)Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking, 1972), 11
(3)Stokes, “Greek Culture and the Ego,” III, 1