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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution II
(1968)

Kamarck, Edward L.
Editorial comment: art or social protest? PDF (6.5 MB)



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THE ARTS AND THE
BLACK REVOLUTION - 11
ART OR SOCIAL PROTEST?
About eight months have elapsed since
the day we started the planning of the
first of our two issues on The Arts and the
Black Revolution. In that brief period,
during which occurred the brutal
assassination of Martin Luther King and its
aftermath of ghetto riots, the mood and
temper of the Black Revolution has
changed markedly. It must be admitted
that in today's context many of the
overtones and resonances of our first
issue already seem a bit dated.
We, of course, face the same hazard with
this present issue, for it is evident that
the tempo of change is if anything
quickening. Note, for example, the rapidly-
shifting rhetoric of this Revolution. What
precisely does "Black Power" mean
today? It is difficult to pin down, but it
certainly has a much different meaning
than it had eight months ago. There is,
however, no mistaking the direction of
change. It is toward greater militancy,
greater assertiveness of pride in blackness,
greater polarization toward black leadership
and institutions. Because the nature of
the role of whites in this Revolution,
howsoever sympathetic and anxious they
may be to help, is now being thrown into
question - most young militants would
grant whites no role except that of impotent
observer - we find ourselves as editors
in the anomalous position of feeling
almost self-conscious and apologetic in
offering at this juncture in history an issue
forcussed on the Arts and the Black
Revolution. But, surely it is better to
continue exploration, analysis, and exposure,
so long as there is no pretense of playing
the authoritative and prescriptive roles.
And we do herewith disavow both roles:
our intention in these issues has not been to
dominate or guide the discussion but
rather to try to stimulate more of it.
Howsoever stringent the demands which
this Revolution is making on the energies
and commitments of black painters,
musicians, and writers, their problems as
artists remain within the area of concern of
all of contemporary American culture.
Black polarization as an essentially political
tactic in no way mitigates the continuing
responsibility of our culture to identify,
analyze, and do battle against the totality
of destructive forces menacing its well-
being, growth, and vitality, of which racism
and discrimination are among the more
noxious.
Times of rising political upheaval have
always pressed agonizing choices on artists,
and it is perhaps too easy to reduce the
choices to the old controversial dichotomy:
art or social protest. A social dimension is
perforce present in all good art, and
upheaval - of any kind - should be a
central concern of artists. Since most black
artists have become artists out of the
need for aesthetic confrontation of their
social condition, it would be folly of the
grossest kind for them to purposely turn
away from the passionate issues of the
Black Revolution. The great artistic success
of Ellison's The Invisible Man and
Wright's Native Son, both of which are
based on the profoundest of social
analysis, suggest that the pertinent
dichotomy is not between art and social
protest but rather between creativity and
mere craftsmanship, between the construct
of an imaginatively valid world and a
pasteboard, bloodless one. The significant
stumbling blocks are the dogma and
organizational tactics of political movements,
and while an artist has at all times the
option and in certain circumstances even
the moral obligation to embrace these as a
political being, it is unwise for him to do
so as an artist, if he is to continue to
grow creatively. Of course, one cannot
pretend that it is easy for any man to keep
these roles separate during a time of
intensifying violence, when one's deepest
human commitments are pressing for
climactic resolution. It is difficult to know,
for example, whether John Oliver Killens'
essay in this issue, The Black Writer and
Revolution, should be taken primarily
as a political or aesthetic testament.
Given the mood and temper of the times this
question is perhaps an academic one.
His is an existential stance now being
adopted by many black artists, and in this
hour it ill behooves us to dwell long on its
appropriateness. Our judgements and
energies should more properly be directed
toward the racist nature of our middle
class society, which has too long closed
its doors to blackness.
Artists and politicians eventually do have a
parting of the ways, as history has proved
many times, for, to recast Seneca's
hoary aphorism, politics is fleeting and art
is long. Disenchantment usually sits in
at revolution's end, with success. In this
present instance may that day be hastened.
Edward L. Kamarck
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