Abstractionist AestheticsArtistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture

Abstractionist AestheticsArtistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture

Phillip Brian Harper

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9781479865437

Publisher: NYU Press


This book advocates for what it calls African American aesthetic abstractionism—a representational mode whereby an artwork, rather than striving for realist verisimilitude, vigorously asserts its essentially artificial character. It argues that while realist representation potentially reaffirms the very social facts that it might have been understood to challenge (such as politically problematic racial regimes), abstractionism shows up the actual constructedness of those facts, thereby subjecting them to critical scrutiny and making them amenable to transformation. The book thus reconceives abstractive principles as a potential boon to African Americanist social critique, rather than as the antithesis to black cultural engagement that they are routinely taken to be. It further finds that literature is better able to serve an abstractionist function than either visual art or music, and that experimental prose is the literary genre within which abstractionism can be most critically effective. Ultimately then, the book argues for the displacement of realism as the primary mode of African American representational aesthetics, for the recentering of literature as a principal site of African American cultural politics, and for the elevation of experimental prose within the domain of African American literature. It makes its case by reviewing a variety of visual, musical, and literary works by artists such as Fred Wilson, Kara Walker, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Cecil Taylor, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and John Keene.