Instructor: Cora Gilroy-Ware
In Western Art, so the story goes, the emergence of the Modern depends on the death of “the antique”. A dry, lifeless, academic notion of beauty had to be destroyed to make space for more exciting, democratic, and relevant modes of representation. The relics of Greece and Rome, not to mention the many tedious neoclassical objects they inspired, were stripped, once and for all, of their claim to universal aesthetic supremacy. Not only does this grand narrative risk replacing one hierarchy with another; it also works to eclipse the work of visual artists who, positioned outside or marginal to the centre of artistic discourse, take up Greco-Roman forms and figures well after the ousting of the classical. In short, it is a narrative that does injustice to the artists of colour who engaged with the classical on their own terms and in their own time.
Seeing beyond the binary of classical and modern, this course looks at the work of Black artists working in the Anglo-American world between the 18th century and the present. Rather than structured chronologically, we will look at so-called “historic” (pre-1900) material together with later work, exploring, for example, the continuity between the art of queer Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce Nugent and the designs of the British sculptor and illustrator John Flaxman. The course will also touch on non-traditional media, including vinyl-cover album art, and we will deploy works of fiction and poetry as a means of illuminating both art objects and their history.
Other case studies will include the verse of Phillis Wheatley and its connection to the art of the Royal Academy, the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis and Selma Burke, Romare Bearden’s 1977 cycle of Homeric collages A Black Odyssey, the 2006 series Roaming by Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker’s recent installations for the Tate Modern: Fons Americanus and Shell Grotto. In addition to exploring cases of Black Classicism in visual art, our goal will be to gauge how associations between classical form and whiteness offered a creative challenge to artists of African descent. We will also determine whether the humanist integration of classical form and liberty made the art of Greece and Rome especially appealing for artists whose humanity, and claim to freedom, had been undermined for centuries by the powers that be.