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A Master Looks Back

[[images - black & white photographs of a painting of a family, a painting of a hanging, and a wooden sculpture]]
[[caption]]Top Left: Painting by portrait artist Joshua Johnston, (1765-1830).
Bottom Left: Artist Horace Pippin's (1888-1946) portrayal of John Brown's hanging.
Right: Wood Sculpture by contemporary sculptress, Elizabeth Catlett, who now resides in Mexico.[[/caption]]

work and study through federal art projects. Through this aid was a godsend to all artists-to black artists it was of profound importance. They were able to work at their craft, be provided with materials, and be paid for doing so. In their youth, artists such as Charles Alston, Ernest Crichlow, Eldzier Cortor, Jacob Lawrance, Norman Lewis and Charles White, Profited greatly by this experience and today can work convincingly in quite a few different methods.

In the midst of the depression, a real concern of artists on the WPA art projects, was better working conditions and job security. For many black artists this was the first time that they struggled in a common cause with their white compatriots. Out of this activity and such alarming events as the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler, some artists understandably used their art as an instrument in the fight against war fascism, and poverty, This however, left most of the engaged in a kind of ordained art always subject to change with prevailing political requirements. On the other hand, Jacob Lawrence's profound commitment to human concerns never interfered with his artistic values. Norman Lewis, who was no less engaged, is an artist whose approach is primarily lyrical and abstract. 

Through the Harmon Foundation had begun to exhibit the work of black artists in a series of exhibitions during the 1920s, man American first learned of their efforts only through two 1941 exhibitions in New York City. One was at the McMillan Gallery and the second-and larger show-was at the Downtown Gallery. Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor coincided with the Downtown opening and the show did not get the attention is should have. 

The war dislocated the prewar organization of black artists. The Harlem Artists Guild, which at one time had more than one hundred members, was disbanded. Indeed, Harlem itself, as well as other black communities, was changing. Many black ex-servicemen and women took advantage of he G.I. Bill to study art on all levels. Some of them went away as Europe to study and work. 

With the Civil Rights struggle, black artists seriously questioned their position in American society. During the past decade black artists have made many attempts to bring art directly to their people. Black community galleries have been established in a number of cities, and there has been a proliferation of store front galleries. The large Walls of Pride in minority areas, are, however, a rather new phenomena. And just as artists in the Depression days were often absorbed with political and social themes, contemporary black artists feel that, "art is another spark to help build the conflagration to destroy an oppressive social structure." There are artists who (as did Earl Sweeting in the 1930s) attempted to dramatize black history in their work. There are those artists whose challenges are primarily aesthetic and for the most part work within the mainstream of contemporary art. What they are doing however, is what any artist must do-that is take whatever happens to him, make it a part of his experience and keep going on from their. I believe that what young black artists are doing today will be as good as what has been done before. I just hope that they don't allow themselves to get bogged down in irrelevant issues such as, "Is there a black aesthetic?" Whenever anyone asks me that, I tell them not to ask me, ask the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all the others who are making millions off the culture of black people. We are a strange people. We organize conferences and panels to discuss what everyone else already knows. Do you ask a tiger if he's a tiger?

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