Measuring the Pervasiveness of Popular Black Art

By Shantay Robinson 


Blue monday by Annie Lee

According to Noel Carroll in his article “The Ontology of Mass Art,” “Mass art is meant to command a mass audience. Thus, it is designed to be user friendly. Ideally, it is structured in such a way that large numbers of people will be able to understand and to appreciate it virtually effortlessly. It is made in order to capture and to hold the attention of large audiences, while avant-garde art is made to be effortful and to rebuff easy assimilation by large audiences.” Popular black art is mass art. Popular black art can be found in a variety of commercial and easily accessible spaces. They are those familiar reproductions of paintings that can be bought at street festivals, in collectibles stores, and from poster distributors on line. Many of the artworks depict black people in idealistic states whether it’s a jazz scene, black people in love, women at church, or loving families. Popular black art builds on narratives that have already been established, and much of the artwork operates in familiar themes. They are not successful for their originality in subject matter, but the familiar sentiments they evoke. These aren’t, for the most part, actual portraits of black people. They are images imagined in the mind of the artist, and the body images are often times unreal and manipulated for effect. While they are very accessible, and do induce compassion on the viewer’s part, the Western art establishment doesn’t particularly deem them valuable works of art.

Still I rise by (WAK) Kevin Williams

Art connoisseur, Robert Bain explains, “My thought is that Popular Black Art appeals to its clientele when it first recognizes that clientele and then addresses the emotional elements of that clientele visually.  Also, given the broad base at that level of consumption, the works need to approximate their wallet.  Not to be overlooked, if we were to step back into the period of the 60’s and 70’s, we would find that much of Popular Black Art was decidedly political in that it depicted the mood of the urban Black community; examples would be depictions of afro- dashiki-wearing clenched fist modeling to AfriCobra’s Murray DePillars Aunt Jemina print hanging in many hundred tenement apartments in Chicago.  Later, works began to incorporate kente designs and other African patterns.  In other words, Popular Black Art either leads or follows the current mindset of the Black community.”


Funeral procession by Ellis Wilson

Popular black art is mass produced and marketed to ensure its reach, while fine art, on the other hand, is valuable for its scarcity and uniqueness. Similar to prints, popular black art is produced and distributed by mass technologies. Prints, although they are also reproductions of paintings, are produced with a particular number of copies created in editions of a finite number and you can be certain that only a fixed number of reproductions exist. Prints are typically worth less than paintings, but they do hold a certain amount of value for their scarcity. According to James Tarmy in a Bloomberg article, “Is the Fastest Growing Segment of the Art Market the Cheapest?” he writes, “Prints have been around since the Renaissance, and have always occupied a slightly uneasy place in the art market. They’re designed by an artist and often signed by the artist, but they are, by definition, reproductions.” Many artists create prints that can be purchased in editions, and once they are sold out, the only way to gain access to a print is on the resale market. But posters can be purchased in perpetuity or until the creator ceases to offer them. They don’t hold resale value. According to the Tarmy article, some art dealers look at prints as the gateway drug to buying actual paintings. Many people buy prints because they are less expensive, and they can actually afford to have an artwork by an established artist or one of their favorite artists. But popular black art posters that you can find at the mall or at art fairs are not prints.


Just because you can find art at the mall or at street fairs doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. Many times, artists and art dealers set up shops at summer festivals or have relationships with lower end distributors at malls to sell their paintings or prints. The thing that distinguishes popular black art from fine art is the availability of the item. If you can buy a reproduction that has been and can continue to be reproduced, it is not a print. It is mass art. Jack Hobbs in his essay “Popular Art versus Fine Art,” writes, “Unlike folk art, created on a small scale for a limited market, popular art is based on a concept of mass – in terms of audience and methods of production.” In this article Hobbs distinguishes between fine art and popular art by determining the characteristics that make them different. In addition to the mass availability of popular black art, the functions of fine art and popular art are very different. Fine art yields to the appreciation of high art critics and theorists. As times change, so too does the needs of the high art market. Whereas conceptual art is the matter of today, not so many years ago, the high art establishment was interested in modern art for its formal qualities. While Hobbs identifies an important function of historical art was telling a story, he notes that today this storytelling effect is only found in popular art, and it is actually frowned upon in today’s fine art. He notes that Giotto, who created paintings in the 13th and 14th century, is praised by modern critics as a master storyteller and compares his paintings to modern day docu-dramas. According to Hobbs, “Other parallels between art of the past and popular art have to do with functions of propaganda, status, fantasy, escape, and erotica, all things that have been mostly purged from contemporary fine art.”  Many of the popular art today, might not depict actual stories or events from real life, but they allude implicitly to stories of women going to church on Sunday, jazz musicians playing at a club, or lovers engaged in the act of love making.

He Ain’t Heavy by Gilbert Young

Popular black art serves a purpose altogether different from the work of fine art. Bain explains, “My sense of art is that it is an expression of culture and as such should evoke of sense of who, what and where we are.  ‘Popular’ Black art, I offer, has the added responsibility to raise consciousness of that Black experience/world view at a level that is meaningfully illustrative without being overly instructive as the art’s placement speaks both to and about the person displaying it.” While fine art is designed in modern times to use symbols to create meaning and is meant to be created for its esoteric ability, popular black art is meant to be looked at for its ability to evoke significance to a large group of people. Its reproduction, thus, doesn’t diminish its value, but increases it. When popular black artist, Gilbert Young created the popular work, He Ain’t Heavy, a painting of a black man reaching down from a wall to lend a helping hand to another black man, he intended for the message to be understood by a large number of people. It is the comprehension of its message that allows popular black art to be successful. Popular black art is exoteric, intended to be understood by the general public. Although popular black art is not accepted in the high artworld, Heather M. Fitz in her article “From Prints to Posters: The Production of Artistic Value in a Popular Art World” notes that “rather than one system of art valuation existing, there are instead many subworlds that maintain separate definitional processes.” These subworlds cater to a clientele distinct from an artworld that has millions of dollars to spend on an individual artwork. Black popular art operates oppositional from the fine art world in that it is successful on the basis of its pervasiveness. Fitz also recognizes that “there are, however, popular art worlds whose work have not passed through the high art gatekeepers, but are nevertheless successful in maintaining both an aesthetic and a clientele.” The amount of popular black art sold is its measure of success. They are typically priced at a point where most people can afford them. So, as opposed to fine art where the prices rise based on appeal, popular black art is priced to appeal to the buyer.


Generations by Varnette Honeywood

Carroll writes, “Mass artworks proper are ones whose design choices are made with an eye to guaranteeing their accessibility to viewers who, with no specialized background, can understand and appreciate them virtually on contact, while expending little effort.” High art often requires specialized knowledge of art history, history, or contemporary culture.  An important aspect of high art then becomes the saliency of the information presented within the artwork. On the other hand, in popular black art, the saliency of the message is the starting point. These artists want their artwork to evoke feelings of familiarity with the images presented, empowered by the message, and educated by ideas disseminated. The work of popular black artists function in identity empowerment, as well as beautifying the environment where the artwork is placed. Most esoteric art is meant to challenge the status quo in a different way. Fine art is meant to challenge dominant culture, and although popular black art counters the narratives disseminated about black people by inserting positive images in their place, it is mostly art meant for the inspiration of black people despite derogatory representations. While the high artworld might not find value in unlimited reproductions of an artwork, a community of people who need to believe in themselves, do find value in the artwork of popular black artists.


Bain summarizes the conversation surrounding the function of popular black art well, as he states, “Popular Black Art, to the extent that it gets a bad rap, is, I believe is due to the tendency of occasional visual exploitation of the culture – a sense of will sell versus what should sell.  That said, the important word here is popular in that it suggests a broad appeal and thereby audience for it.  As such, it is little different than The New York Times Best Seller List for books or the program that is typically positioned at 8:00pm on network television.  In other words, neither the books or the programs are the stuff of ‘high’ writing or programming; instead they are designed for mass appeal and mass consumption.  By comparison, so-called ‘serious’ books and film documentaries typically call for a smaller audience (think in terms of your library where books deemed Classics are separated out and you wonder why you won’t find films for rent on Africa or Basquiat at RedBox — there’s just not the audience demand). The bad rap for popular Black art or anything else deemed ‘popular’ is just that they are thought to lack high-sophistication in concept or execution.  Remember: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

(Featured cover image: Brenda Joysmith, Madonna)


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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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