There has been a recent revival of
black aesthetics unprecedented since the 1960s. Some is happening inside academic
philosophy, including in this journal (Volume 7, 2009). But there are more
examples of black aesthetics across other disciplines. A key, controversial
concept in transdisciplinary black aesthetics is autonomy.
Modern Western aesthetics was racist when it was established in the eighteenth
century because blacks were not considered to be capable of autonomy, necessary
to have taste. Now that this anti-black racism has been exposed, but until
critics are convinced that aesthetics today is free of such racism, autonomy
will be viewed as an ideological disguise for racism and even black aesthetics
will be under suspicion. Simon Gikandi details the anti-black racism of early
aesthetics yet argues at the same time that there was a black counter-aesthetic
enacting its relative autonomy. I show that relative autonomy is enacted
throughout modern and contemporary black art and aesthetics.
autonomy; black aesthetics; Black Arts
Movement; essentialism; race; resistance; taste
"Some view our sable race with scornful
'Their colour is a diabolic die.'
Remember, Christians, Negroes,
black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic
aesthetics today resides well outside what might be assumed to be its home discipline
of philosophy and is soundly transdisciplinary, drawing on the conceptual
resources of many other disciplines, including Africana studies, art history,
comparative literature, history, musicology, performance studies, and more. For
example, recognizing that black aesthetics has migrated, if it ever had a home
in philosophy, Paul Taylor's explicit aim in his recent Black is
Beautiful: The Philosophy of Black Aesthetics is "to build a bridge
from a particular network of discursive communities [philosophy]…to the
mainland of inquiry into black aesthetics."
Transdisciplinary black aesthetics convenes many disciplines in the efforts to
explore and express the aesthetic dimension of the history of black experiences
in the U.S. (and elsewhere), including slavery, mass incarceration, police
violence, and the ongoing fight for black civil rights.
However, the involvement of
aesthetics in these efforts is philosophically and politically
complicated because some of the leading figures in early modern Western
aesthetics, such as Hume and Kant, promulgated racist beliefs. For example,
they proclaimed the universality of taste or aesthetic judgment while
contradictorily denying that blacks had the capability for autonomy requisite
for taste or judgment. Cornel West makes this contradiction explicit and argues
that it is constitutive of aesthetics: "the very structure of modern
discourse at its inception produced forms of…aesthetic and
cultural ideals which require the constitution of the idea of
Autonomy is one of these ideals, so if blacks are denied autonomy, they are
excluded from aesthetics.
While contemporary aestheticians would presumably accept at least a measured
version of West's critique and distance themselves from Kant's and Hume's
racist beliefs, the lingering concern, recently voiced by Lewis Gordon, is that
aesthetics may still be racist today or at least haunted by such suspicions:
"A problem with constructing black aesthetics is whether aesthetics
has been so colonized that its production would be a form of colonizing instead
of decolonizing practice."
Black aesthetics today needs to be
assured of its relative autonomy from racist aesthetics in order to flourish
as, among other things, a critical transdisciplinary practice against
anti-black racism. If aesthetic autonomy, relative or otherwise, still
embodies any traces of racism, if it is denied to blacks, or if the enactment
of their capability for relative autonomy is constrained in principle, we can
only conclude that aesthetics remains racist. Given this specter of racism,
black aesthetics has struggled with the concept of autonomy. At the same time,
black artists and theorists have re-appropriated the concept, starting when
they arrived in the new world on slave ships, making the concept their own,
Thus, as I will argue, relative autonomy is a central concept enacted
throughout modern and contemporary transdisciplinary black aesthetics. Speaking
of poetry in particular, the poet and theorist Evie Shockley succinctly
captures the meaning of relative autonomy here, which I think is apposite in
all the arts and in black aesthetics: "a mode of writing adopted by
African American poets in their efforts to work within, around, or against the
constraint of being read and heard as ‘black.'"
Following the lead of art, black aesthetics is relatively autonomous from
anti-black racism and, as such, is a mode of resistance to it that, in the
spirit of autonomy, takes many different forms.
Gikandi and the racism of early modern Western aesthetics
Gikandi's Slavery and the Culture of Taste is both a damning and a
constructive critique of aesthetics in the eighteenth century. He argues that
aesthetics was racist in its origins but does so without rejecting aesthetics
all together, for he believes we would then lose sight of the long-standing as
well as current forms of black aesthetics that have been largely
buried—invisibilized—in the history of aesthetics. Gikandi analyzes, in a
detailed way, how the acceptance of slavery, even among the seemingly most
enlightened thinkers of the eighteenth century, was inscribed into the
discursive origins of modern Western aesthetics. His argument is not merely that
slavery and taste were in tension as "nonidentical
twins," as he characterizes their
relationship, "intimately connected even when they were structurally
construed to be radical opposites." He also argues that modern aesthetics
became an ideological cover for slavery, expressing seemingly enlightened ideas
about universal taste while countenancing chattel slavery. Gikandi's argument
is damning for aesthetics. Speaking of racism within the
foundations of American democracy, in 1861 Frederick Douglass, once a slave
himself, offered no less of a damning perspective on the legacy of the
similarly "nonidentical twins" of American democracy and racism: "Banish from
your minds the last lingering shadow of a hope that your government can ever
rest secure on a mixed basis of freedom and slavery."
there is another, equally important part of Gikandi's Slavery and the
Culture of Taste that helps to counter the view of modern Western
aesthetics as mere ideology without whitewashing it. Gikandi also argues that
slaves had their own taste, evidenced by the literature, music, poetry, and the
like they created: "the site in which the black body was imprisoned"
was also "the conduit for its liberation," creating a counterculture
of taste. As Alain Locke argues, in the early
twentieth century, "even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric
intensity" for people under social pressure and "this, their material
handicap, is their spiritual advantage." In the same vein, Achille Mbembe emphasizes
the importance of art for slaves: "For communities whose history has long
been one of debasement and humiliation, religious and artistic creation has
often represented the final defense against the forces of dehumanization." In a more dialectical and historically
detailed manner, Saidiya Hartman argues that slaves developed their own forms of
song and dance even while they were being forced to perform for their masters,
compounding the "pleasure of terror" with the "terror of
pleasure." Moreover, slaves simultaneously enacted forms of resistance to
slavery, "puttin' on ole massa" while carrying out their demands.
overlook, deny, or under appreciate the slave counterculture of taste is,
according to Gikandi, to be complicitous with racism, for it is to assume that
slaves were incapable of taste, confirming the racist belief that they were
subhuman that was used to justify slavery. That is, it was believed that slaves
did not manifest European taste, therefore they were subhuman, as Europeans,
and Americans mimicking their old-world counterparts, fancied themselves the
standard bearers of humanity and of taste. Allegedly being subhuman, black
slaves could not have any other mode of taste, for only humans have taste. One
insistent, if often subtle, way for slaves to assert their humanity was to
express their own taste, even if it was not recognized as such by slaveholders
or others. In W. E. B. Du Bois's words: "until the art of the black folk
compels recognition they will not be rated as human." Once again, Douglass presages the
spirit of Gikandi's argument here, for there is another side of his argument,
too, at least regarding taste: "The process by which man is able to invent
his own subjective consciousness into the objective form, considered in all its
range, is in truth the highest attribute of man's nature. All that is really peculiar
to humanity…proceeds from this one faculty or power." Despite the odds, slaves enacted their
relative autonomy to invent their own "subjective consciousness into the
objective form." In such circumstances, one task of black aesthetics is to
articulate and analyze the presuppositions of the counterculture of taste, such
as relative autonomy. In short, Gikandi's book is important
because it covers all of this controversial philosophical, moral, and political
terrain and still makes a powerful case for the critical relevance of
aesthetics today, helping to secure the relative autonomy of black aesthetics.
Black arts movement and black aesthetics
modern Western aesthetics was racist in its origins, how is it possible to
enlist aesthetics to recognize the counterculture of taste that began at the
same time, if not earlier? How can we best understand the counterculture of
taste and aesthetics practiced among slaves who were entrapped in the Middle
Passage slave routes that deterritorized their indigenous taste and aesthetics?
I invite you to read more of Gikandi to see how he answers these questions by
arguing that slaves initiated their own aesthetics by relying on a ruin or
fragment, for example, a drum, that embodied both their connection and disconnection
to Africa, as "only the fragmentary and incomplete had the capacity to
denote the doubleness that was the mark of African identities in the new
world," another iteration of Du Bois's concept of "double
Instead, I want to jump from the eighteenth century to the 1960s, when the
Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) and a contemporary conception of "black
aesthetics" emerged in the U.S., as it is a way to see how black theorists
have addressed these questions in contemporary terms. Are they satisfied that
aesthetics today is relatively autonomous from its racist past? If their own
theories presuppose the relative autonomy of aesthetics, as I will argue, the
answer is affirmative.
The black aesthetics of the 1960s,
honored recently with its own display in the new National Museum of African
American History and Culture in Washington, D. C., received its iconic
expression in Amiri Baraka's 1965 poem, "Black Art," which ends as
"…We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
Seen in the context of the struggle
for civil rights, the Black Arts Movement has often been understood as
the aesthetic and spiritual sister of black power and thus has been seen
largely as an aesthetic resistance movement. For example, Larry Neal, author of
the 1968 manifesto of the Black Arts Movement, argues that black art is
concerned with the relationship between art and politics, and black power with
the art of politics. At the same time, Neal is radical in his assessment of the
relationship of the black aesthetics to modern Western aesthetics: "the
Western aesthetic has run its course; it is impossible to construct anything
meaningful within its decaying structures. We advocate a cultural revolution in
art and ideas."
To achieve the goal of creating art that speaks directly to the needs and
aspirations of black America, he advocates that black artists develop "a
separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology."
Similarly, and more recently, Amy Ongiri argues that the Black Arts Movement
"linked the articulation of the radical political ethos of Black Power to
a radically transformative culture of oppositional creativity," linking
black experiences with black aesthetics, overthrowing existing cultural norms
and creating new ones.
Black aesthetics would thus seem to imply aesthetic as well as political
separatism. Moreover, each form of separatism implies relative autonomy, as
each asserts that anti-black racism will not define black identity.
Blacks arts movement and essentialism
a number of theorists more recently argue that the Black Arts Movement has been
too narrowly, if not wrongly, interpreted in at least two ways. First, the
Black Arts Movement was not essentialist. The essentialist claim arose from
interpretations of the separatism advocated by Neal and others, and it would
seem to restrict, if not undermine, the relative autonomy of black aesthetics,
limiting it to a fixed notion of blackness. That is, the separatist nationalist
politics implied a separatist aesthetics that, in turn, was often thought to
presuppose an essentialist notion of "the" black aesthetic to resist
the conception of modern Western aesthetics that fashioned itself to be
universal when, in fact, it was racist. But, to be clear, Neal already
challenged this kind of interpretation, arguing that even though black
aesthetics is tied to black power, it does not have a static essence, for black
power itself "has no one specific meaning. It is rather…a kind of
emotional response to one's history. …it can ultimately be defined only…through
actions, be they artistic or political."
So, "separatism" does not necessarily entail
Yet the specter of essentialism seems
to linger around, if not within, black aesthetics, as it concerns the meaning
of "blackness" at the heart of black aesthetics, which, in turn,
impacts the scope, if not the possibility, of its relative autonomy. To address
this concern, several contemporary theorists have explicitly disavowed
essentialism in black aesthetics. For example, Michelle Wright rejects
essentialism in The Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage
Epistemology, where she asks what it means to be black, given that
"blackness" is not biological in origin but socially and discursively
If blackness is constructed, its meaning changes over time and space: "in
any moment in which we are reading/analyzing Blackness, we should assume that
its valences will likely vary from those of a previous moment."
Somewhat echoing and supplementing Nelson Goodman's definition of art as being
about "when is art" rather than "what is art," Wright
argues that although blackness is commonly defined as a "what," it
instead operates more as a "when" and, even better, as a
Bringing discourses about space-time
in physics into conversation with artworks embodying the African diaspora,
Wright then engages in an intersectionalist analysis (race, class, gender,
sexuality) of bodies too frequently excluded from contemporary mainstream
aesthetics: black feminists, black queers, recent black African immigrants to
the West, and blacks whose histories may weave in and out of the Middle Passage
epistemology but do not cohere to it. Wright explores how Middle Passage
epistemology subverts racist assumptions about blackness, yet its linear
structure inhibits the kind of inclusive epistemology of blackness needed in
the twenty-first century. The critique of essentialism thus opens up a new
methodology for black aesthetics along with new content, establishing a basis
for enacting the relative autonomy of black aesthetics on two levels.
Similarly, Shockley eschews
"racial essentialism” in Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal
Innovation in African American Poetry, demonstrating again how the critique
of essentialism leads to clarification of the methodology and content of black
aesthetics. She argues that the term 'black aesthetics' "need not be
inevitably linked to static understandings of how blackness is inscribed in
literary texts," such as the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, a key poet of the
Black Arts Movement. Accordingly, Shockley argues for a descriptive rather than
prescriptive conception of black aesthetics, and she is precise about the
object of description: 'black' is meant neither to describe the characteristics
or qualities of texts nor to refer specifically to the socially constructed
race of the writer.
Rather, black aesthetics describes the kinds of "subjectivity produced by
the experience of identifying or being interpolated as 'black' in the
U.S.—actively working out a poetics in the context of a racist society."
Blacks regularly experience being contingently interpolated as black but,
Shockley adds, they are not essentially black as a result of any manner in
which they are interpolated, as that would make the racist interpolation a
permanent racist reality. The difference here is between the space of
freedom—relative autonomy—and the art, culture, and aesthetics it makes
possible. It is not that blacks are relatively autonomous and then engage in
art, culture, and aesthetics to express their autonomy. Rather, they materially
realize their capability for relative autonomy by engaging in artistic,
cultural, and aesthetic practices, partly in response to the ways they are
interpolated as black. In Shockley's words, quoted earlier, black aesthetics
refers "to a mode of writing adopted by African American poets in their
efforts to work within, around, or against the constraint of being read and
heard as 'black'."
In effect, she is asserting the relative autonomy of blacks to engage in art
and aesthetics without being perceived, interpreted, or interpolated as black.
At the same time, the methodological implication of Shockley's appeal to
experience is that black aesthetics is "contingent, and must be
historicized and contextualized with regard to period and place, and with regard
to the various other factors that shape the writer's identity, particularly
including gender, sexuality, and class."
Thus, black aesthetics is methodologically both intersectional and transdisciplinary
in an effort to understand how blackness is objectively produced, subjectively
experienced, and objectively expressed.
3.2 Black Arts Movement and resistance
second way that the Black Arts Movement has often been narrowly interpreted is
that, even if black art is a form of resistance to the racist claim that blacks
lack the capability to create art, its forms of resistance comprise more varied
and indirect aesthetic strategies than some interpreters in the past have
acknowledged. For example, literary and Africana theorist Kevin Quashie argues,
in The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, that
the tendency to see direct resistance as the only framework for blackness is
itself racist, because it sees blackness only through a public social lens as
if there were no inner black life. That is, any reduction of the
aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement, or any form or period of black art, to
"resistance aesthetics" would make it inseparable from racist
aesthetics, which in effect would be tantamount to denying there is any black
art or aesthetics, as Gikandi also argues. For example, although slaves were
oppressed by the ideology of aesthetics covering for the racism at the heart of
American and French revolutions and democracies, among others, slaves did not
accept racist taste but nor did they merely resist racist taste. Rather, they
chose instead to develop new forms of taste and corresponding forms of
aesthetics, aiming to assert their own identity rather than accept or directly
resist the identity imposed on them by the slave owners. Jeremy Glick makes a
similar argument while analyzing the art and aesthetics that emerged during the
Haitian revolution, happening at roughly the same time as the American and
French revolutions. Encompassing the historical period
covered earlier by Gikandi, Haiti provides a geographical site for the
formation of a new aesthetics along with a new, if short-lived, democracy. In
effect, Haiti embodied the first large-scale, aesthetic-political enactment of
black aesthetics of the type Wright, Shockley, and others have proposed, and it
thus potentially provides a better way of understanding the black aesthetics of
the Black Arts Movement and, by extension, black aesthetics today.
we then ask what other purposes or capabilities besides direct resistance
inform black art and aesthetics, Quashie's answer is to "rethink
expressiveness," much as Taylor proposes, as we will see below. Quashie sees "quiet" as
"a metaphor for the full range of one's inner life—one's desires,
ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears. The inner life is not apolitical
nor without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness." For example, remember the iconic
image of U.S. track athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their
black-gloved fists while receiving gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the
1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Quashie portrays the prayer-like quietude of
their stance: their eyes were closed, heads bowed, and they wore no shoes in
solidarity with poor black Americans. Here, and more generally, an aesthetic of
quietude entails "a black expressiveness. …a black subject in the undisputed
dignity of its humanity." "In humanity, quiet is our dignity,"
which is imaginary and material. At the same time, quiet
expressiveness is a form of relatively autonomous agency "shaped by the
spirituality of being human" that, as Douglass argues, is "the wellspring
for art and culture."
In a related vein, the philosopher and
activist Angela Y. Davis defends "softness" as a key aesthetic
distinct from but complementary to direct resistance. She developed several
examples during her keynote address at Open Engagement, an annual art and
activism conference held in 2016 in Oakland. One example was the unofficial but
widely recognized anti-Apartheid anthem, Mannenberg, composed by
Adbullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand), a South African jazz musician.
Nelson Mandela reportedly said that he could feel the imminence of liberation
when he secretly listened to it while still in prison, a liberation whose
anthem was soft even as it was heard around the world. Davis's second example
for clarifying "soft aesthetics" was the poster created for the 1998
inaugural conference of Critical Resistance, a prison abolition movement based
in Oakland. She said there was a tempestuous internal debate at the time about
the aesthetics of the poster. While the initially favored aesthetic view was
that the poster should depict images of chains or prison cells, Davis argued
that, if people saw such images, they might conclude they already knew what the
conference was about—oppressive prisons—and think they did not need to attend.
Instead, the artist Rupert Garcia created an alternative to the aesthetics of
resistance, depicting an eye on the horizon that appears both as menacing as
ubiquitous surveillance and as hopeful as a Californian sunrise. Instead of the
expected audience of 350 people for whom the organizers prepared, over 3,500
people attended, mostly as a result of the poster, Davis claimed, because they
were as interested in imagination as resistance, recognizing that critical
thinking and imagination—aesthetics—are allies in the fight for social justice,
as they enact visions of possible ways of living more justly. In elaborating on
these claims, Davis argues that despite Kant's racist shortcomings, he offers
key conceptual tools for defending the importance of the imagination in criminal
justice struggles. For example, beauty is the symbol of morality, which Davis
finds compelling, as she defends the necessity of black imagination within
Another alternative to a narrowly
conceived aesthetics of resistance within black art is articulated by Fred
Moten and Stefano Harney through their concept of the "undercommons."
This concept invokes a largely parallel autonomous culture, though one that, at
times, intersects with mainstream white culture in the U.S. "We owe it to
each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the
lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate."
The idea of the undercommons is critically, culturally, and politically rich
because it locates black imagination in the here and now and does not worry
about recognition by the powers that be, so long as they are white and racist.
At the same time, the undercommons seems to imply an aesthetic withdrawal from
politics and even from society. In Moten and Harney's words: "An
abdication of political responsibility? OK. Whatever. We're just
anti-politically romantic about actually existing social life. We aren't
responsible for politics. We are the general antagonism to politics looming
outside every attempt to politicise,…. We are disruption and consent to
Mbembe's critique of black reason indirectly clarifies such a withdrawal and
what it entails, as it implies a shift from an "identity judgment" of
blacks by whites ("Who is he"?) to a "declaration of
identity" by blacks ("Who am I?").
That is, much as Gikandi and others have proposed a shift from directly
resisting the denial of black taste to enacting black taste, the withdrawal is
the enactment of relative autonomy.
The concept of the "undercommons"
is new, but the withdrawal and relative autonomy it enacts are part of a
long-standing tradition in black aesthetics. Besides being reminiscent of the
separatism proposed by Neal and others in the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s,
the undercommons is not unlike Langston Hughes's view expressed back in 1926,
during the Harlem Renaissance: "We younger Negro artists who create now
intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If
white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it does not matter. We
know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs.
If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure
doesn't matter either."
Again, an aesthetic is advanced that neither accepts nor directly resists the
dominant culture, setting up what could be called a parallel aesthetic state.
At issue here is again the enactment of relative autonomy from the very world
that denies autonomy to blacks, albeit without regard to whether that world
recognizes the enactment (even without regard to whether other blacks recognize
Hughes continues: "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know
how, and we stand top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
Arguably, the enactment is not often recognized precisely because it
presupposes relative autonomy, for to recognize the enactment is to recognize
blacks' relative autonomy.
The very idea of a black aesthetic
withdrawal presupposes the relative autonomy of art, one of the cornerstones of
modern aesthetics, for any such withdrawal implies that blacks qua artists are
relatively free from the conditions from which they have withdrawn. Free in
withdrawing, free once having withdrawn. Autonomy is thus tied to, if not
equivalent to, freedom.
4. Relative autonomy of black
The presupposition of relative
autonomy on the part of blacks engaging in art while experiencing racism has a
history in black aesthetics, as we have seen already, confirming and sustaining
the possibility of what Gikandi calls the counterculture of taste. For example,
Locke offers, in the 1920s, a similar account of the relatively autonomous
aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance as it was emerging: "race expression
does not need to be deliberate to be vital. Indeed at its best it never
is." Such work is "racially expressive" without being
"racially rhetorical." In fact, in taking "their material
objectively with detached artistic vision," the "newer motive…in
being racial is to be so purely for the sake of art,” which could not be a
stronger avowal of art's relative autonomy, though I would prefer
"relatively" to "purely."
The motivating idea here is "to evolve from the racial substance something
technically distinctive, something that as an idiom of style may become a
contribution to the general resources of art," resulting in a "new
Similarly, Richard Wright, author of Native
Son, later invoked the concept of autonomy when he explained his concept of
"perspective," which, in turn, is related to the contemporary concept
of perspective (or standpoint). 
However, whereas the concept of perspective today seems to entail a lack of
autonomy from social reality, as perspective is thought to be what embeds
individuals "in" reality and gives them authenticity, Wright
understands perspective as the functional, professional "autonomy"
of an artist's craft that makes it possible for the perspective to be
communicated and possibly be recognized. That is, perspective is "that
part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon
paper" but "where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and
sufferings of his people."
At the same time, autonomous artists "should seek through the medium of
their craft to play as meaningful a role in the affairs of men as do other
Through the exercise of their autonomous writing, artists are "being
called upon to do no less than create values by which [their] race is to
struggle, live and die." As was the case with Davis among others, this
position is different from but complementary to direct resistance. For Wright
offers what he sees as a necessary alternative to Negro writers', as he called
them back in the 1930s, being "a sort of conspicuous consumption" for
white society as though they were "French poodles who do clever
tricks" or who plead "with White America for justice."
However, while a number of writers and
theorists instrumental in the development of black aesthetics over the last
century have relied on some conception of the relative autonomy of art,
autonomy may still be considered suspect by some people working in black
aesthetics today. How, for example, can blacks possibly be even relatively
autonomous from the lived experiences of racism in the U.S. today that, in
part, constitute blackness and that, in turn, partly constitutes art as black?
Even relative autonomy could seem to some to be an ideological expectation that
is cruel if it can never be met, because it seems tied to disinterestedness and
disinterest seems to imply disrespecting the very interests constituting the
"black" in black aesthetics and thereby whitewashing racism, the
object of black aesthetics resistance. Yet autonomy is the very thing racism
denies blacks. In turn, that denial is the reason why many black writers and
theorists defend autonomy—not for the sake of art, as Wright puts it, but
rather for the sake of blacks. To enact relative autonomy through art is one
mode of resistance to anti-black racism.
A recent example of the avowal of
relative autonomy as a mode of resistance is the "aesthetic
radicalism" strategy proposed by GerShun Avilez in Radical Aesthetics
and Modern Black Nationalism.
The strategy is to practice black aesthetics by engaging in "disruptive
inhabiting" of racist aesthetics in connection with black nationalism and
artistic experimentalism, combined with intersectional theory, queer theory
(queer of color critique), and critical race theory—transdisciplinary and
intersectional black aesthetics.
The goal of Avilez's strategy of disruptive inhibiting of aesthetics is to
liberate the potential inactive within historically racist aesthetics, as
Gikandi constructively proposed earlier, and as Mbembe also argues: "the
anthropological and political foundation of classic Black art" is the "hope
for the liberation of hidden or forgotten energies, the hope for an ultimate
reversal of visible and invisible powers."
Avilez's disruptive strategy clearly presupposes relative autonomy, for the
potential hidden within racist aesthetics needs to be relatively autonomous
from racist aesthetics in order to survive before it can be liberated, and once
it is liberated, it must remain relatively autonomous or risk returning to its
prior state of near oblivion or be complicitous with racism. So long as black
aesthetics requires some distance or withdrawal from social and empirical
reality in order to function, then relative autonomy is presupposed, even when
the primary goal is disruption.
Ralph Ellison captures the idea of
relative autonomy as a condition for resistance to anti-black racism when, in
the 1950s, he introduces the "as if" modality of art: "while
fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of 'as if', therein lies
its true function and its potential for effecting change. For at its most
serious, just as is true of politics at its best, it is a thrust toward a human
ideal. And it approaches that ideal by a subtle process of negating the world
of things as given in favor of a complex of man-made positives."
That is, art's "as if" status—an assertion of its relative autonomy
from the status quo—is at the same time the basis for art's criticality and
resistance, albeit from the standpoint of a poetic withdrawal.
To return to Taylor's Black is
Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, he, too, indirectly assumes
the relative autonomy of aesthetics in his characterization of black
aesthetics. He argues that to practice black aesthetics is "to use art,
criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices
play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds."
He clarifies his philosophical terms as follows: "blackness" is a
racial condition; constructed, a human artifact, but socially and
phenomenologically real, as Michelle Wright argues. Accordingly, the 'black' in
"black aesthetics" refers, as Shockley similarly claims, to
"people who have been racially positioned as black, and to the life-worlds
that these people have constructed."
Here, "black expressive culture" is defined by "the aesthetic
objects, performances, and traditions that defined blackness for many people as
surely and as imperfectly as skin color or hair texture do."
This account of expressiveness presupposes relative autonomy because artists or
everyday folks creating forms of expression have to be autonomous enough to
create, especially if what they are expressing is in response, if not
resistance, to the way they have been racially positioned. They are not merely
expressing that they have been racially positioned, for they are also expressing
themselves in ways that such positioning precludes. In Avilez's terms, they are
disrupting the prevailing racist aesthetics and creating black aesthetics.
There is a negative turn here, which
Taylor does not advocate but which his analysis invites, that what artists and
everyday folks express is also the seeming impossibility of their creating
black aesthetics that is not shaped by the ways they have been racially
positioned. In Fumi Okiji's words, in Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black
Expression Revisited, "black expressive work cannot help but shed
light on black life's (im)possibilities."
That is, the disruption may entail creating new forms of expression or new
identities but, to some extent, so long as racism prevails, they are also
expressing the seeming impossibility of fully expressing new forms.
Expressiveness entails disruption and, while both presuppose the relative
autonomy of art and aesthetics, they also represent the seeming impossibility
of even relative autonomy at present. This negative moment accounts, in part,
for the rejection of aesthetics within black cultural studies, as it accounts
for the seeming impossibility of a nonracist aesthetics even while black
aesthetics disrupts racism and imagines a new aesthetics. This negative moment
helps to clarify the relativity of relative autonomy without undermining it.
But it is also what drives black aesthetics forward. Black aesthetics is a demand
for relative autonomy that has been deferred and thus denied and, at the same
time, it is an enactment of relative autonomy through a withdrawal from the
societal conditions denying autonomy. Put in stronger terms, relatively
autonomous art and aesthetics are themselves forms of resistance to racism, for
they imagine possible alternatives to racism, as Davis argued earlier.
Relative autonomy is only one concept
in black aesthetics but it is a pivotal one because it is hard to imagine how
black aesthetics could ever have got off the ground without it. Instead of
being construed as a barrier between philosophical aesthetics and black
aesthetics, because the former has a history of denying autonomy to blacks
knowing full well that it is a condition for the possibility of taste, relative
autonomy can actually be part of the structure of the bridge that Taylor and
others are trying to build between philosophy and other disciplines engaged in
black aesthetics. Perhaps if the concept of relative autonomy is now recognized
across all disciplines, Taylor will no longer need to worry that black
aesthetics as a whole "remains at a somewhat greater distance" than
he would like "from the philosophical resources" that he values.
My goal here has been to show that many black artists and theorists have
defended the relative autonomy of art and aesthetics, thereby drawing on a key
philosophical, conceptual resource and expanding the prospects of
transdisciplinary black aesthetics.
Kelly’s current research concerns the recent development of new forms of
transdisciplinary aesthetics, including aesthetic computing, black aesthetics,
and social-practice art aesthetics; and he is co-editing an anthology on black
aesthetics. He also directs the Transdisciplinary Aesthetics Foundation, which
sponsors international symposia on transdisciplinary aesthetics: https://transaestheticsfoundation.org/.
Published December 10, 2019.
I would like to acknowledge the helpful
comments I received from the anonymous CA reviewers.
 Taylor, Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black
Aesthetics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2016), p. ix. While reaching outside
philosophy to engage black aesthetics elsewhere, Taylor simultaneously makes a
case for black aesthetics within philosophy by arguing that black aesthetics is
a "philosophic phenomenon" (p. 27).
 Cornel West, "A Genealogy of Modern Racism," in Race
Critical Theories: Text and Context, Philomenna Essed and David Theo
Goldberg, eds. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 90-112; ref. on p. 90.
 The modern ideal of art, starting in the eighteenth
century, is that art is autonomous from ritualistic, religious, ethical, and
political institutions. Such autonomy is considered to be either (i) an
achievement, on the model of Kant's conception of enlightenment as maturity and
independence, or (ii) a consequence of the spread of instrumental rationality
under capitalism from the economic sphere to the artistic, thereby effectively
excluding art from society because of it is presumed to be useless. On the
significance of autonomy in modern Western aesthetics, see, for example,
Christoph Menke, The Sovereignty of Taste: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno
and Derrida, Neil Solomon, trans. (Cambridge: MIT Press 1999).
 Lewis Gordon, "Black Aesthetics, Black Value,"
in Public Culture, 30, 1 (2017): 19-34, ref. on pp. 19 and 24.
 Simon Gikandi argues that there was
a degree of relative autonomy even during slavery. For example, speaking of the
provision grounds for slaves in Jamaica or the task system in the South, he
argues that “A ‘fugitive’ system of labor enabled a measure of autonomy for the
enslaved”—Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2011), p. 244. To take a similar example from elsewhere, the
main character, Cara, in The Underground Railroad speaks about her brief
experiences of freedom, if only "for a tiny moment across the
eternity" of servitude—Colin Whiteread, The Underground Railroad
(New York: Anchor Books, 2016), p. 29. Finally, Taylor opens Black is
Beautiful with a narrative of slaves engaging in aesthetic self-fashioning
on a slave ship.
 Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal
Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press,
2011), p. 13.
 Many of the artists and theorists represented here
admittedly have different, even conflicting aesthetic and political views but,
I argue, they have relative autonomy in common.
 Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste, p. xii.
 Gikandi's critique is even more devastating when combined
with the historian and painter Nell Painter's argument that aesthetic reasoning
emerged as a complement to scientific reasoning and played a key role in the
development of race theory in the eighteenth century by introducing
"aesthetic judgments into [race] classification." For example, J. F.
Blumenbach, who developed the term ‘Caucasian,’ still in use today to
categorize white people, introduced "aesthetic judgments into [race]
classification" by arguing that whites are superior because of their
beauty. Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York:
Norton, 2010), chapter 6; ref. on p. 79.
 Frederick Douglass, "Lecture on Pictures," in Picturing
Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most
Photographed American (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2015), pp. 126-41,
ref. on p. 138.
 Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste, p. 13.
 Alain Locke, "Negro Youth Speaks," reprinted in
Addison Gayle, Jr., The Black Aesthetic (New York: Doubleday, 1971), pp.
16-22; ref. on p. 16.
 Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, Laurent DuBois,
trans. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 173.
 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror,
Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997), ref. on pp. 5-6, 8, 32, 47.
W. E. B. Du Bois's, "criteria of Negro Art, in Du
Bois Writings, Nathan Huggins, ed. (New York: Library of America, 1986),
pp. 993-1002, ref. on p, 1002.
 Douglass, "Lecture on Pictures," p. 133.
 With the counterculture of taste comes counter reason,
black reason, whose primary activity, according to Mbembe, is
"fantasizing," that is, "gathering real or attributed traits,
weaving them into histories, and creating images." Mbembe, Critique of
Black Reason, p. 27.
 Gikandi, Slavery and the Counterculture of Taste,
pp. 235-36. "Ironically, it was through the incommensurability with the
world it inhabited," the plantation, "that the slaves' aesthetic
could be connected to a channel of life that existed outside enslavement."
In chapter five, Gikandi focuses on sound and performance as ways for slaves to
resist their enslavement; in chapter six, he focuses on spatial configurations
in slave communities. On "double consciousness," see W.E.B. Du Bois, The
Souls of Black Folk, in Du Bois Writings, pp. 357-547, ref. on
 Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), "Black Art," in Black
Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal,
eds. (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1968/2007), pp. 302-03.
 Larry Neal, "The Black Arts Movement," Drama
Review, 1968; reprinted in The Black Aesthetic, pp. 257-274; ref. on
 Amy Ongiri, Spectacular Blackness: The Cultural
Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black
Aesthetic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), pp. 18,
52, 89, 115.
 Neal, "An Afterword: And Shine Swam On," in Black
Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (Baltimore: Black Classic
Press, 1968), pp. 638-656; ref. on p. 646.
 Michelle W. Wright, The Physics of Blackness: Beyond
the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
 Wright, The Physics of Blackness, p. 20.
 Shockley, Renegade Poetics, pp. 7, 198.
 In a recent lecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art
(July 2018), the contemporary artist Lorna Simpson said that she wants people
to see her work in aesthetic terms rather than mainly in terms of race; and she
specifically expressed interest in the concept of "interiority."
 Shockley, Renegade Poetics, p. 9.
 Daphne Lamothe offers a third critique of essentialism in Inventing
the New Negro:
Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
 Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond
Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
2012), p. 4.
 As the abstract artist Raymond Saunders remarked in 1967,
"an artist who is always harping on resistance…is held there, unwittingly
(and witlessly) reviving slavery in another form. For the artist this is
aesthetic atrophy." Saunders, "Black is a Color," distributed as
an independent pamphlet and published in Arts Magazine (June 1967).
 Jeremy Glick, The Black Radical Tragic: Performance,
Aesthetics, and the Haitian Revolution (New York: New York University
 Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, p. 140.
 Ibid., 9, 26, 74, 133.
 Ibid., 9, 21, 26, 32, 8, 125.
 Davis also discusses Herbert Marcuse in the 2016 lecture.
For her critical appropriation of Marcuse, see Blues Legacies and Black
Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 163-65,
 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons:
Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Brooklyn: Autonomia, 2013), p. 20.
 Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, p. 28. The shift
here is from the "Western consciousness of blackness" to the
"Black consciousness of blackness" (pp. 28-30).
 Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial
Mountain," reprinted in Addison Gayle, Jr., The Black Aesthetic,
pp. 167-172; ref. on p. 172.
 As Alain Locke says, speaking of black poets, "if
America were deaf, they would still sing." "Negro Youth Speaks,"
 Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial
Mountain," p. 172. Another, more recent example of poetic withdrawal is
evident in Brian Phillip Harper's conception of "abstractionist
aesthetics." Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social
Critique in African American Culture (New York: New York University Press,
 Locke, "Negro Youth Speaks," p. 20 (italics
 Richard Wright, "Introduction: Blueprint for Negro
Writers," reprinted in The Black Aesthetic, pp. 315-326.
 GerShun Avilez, Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black
Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
 Avilez, Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black Nationalism,
pp. 11-13, 30-31.
 Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, p. 174.
 Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage
Books,1952), p. xx.
 Taylor, Black is Beautiful, pp. 6, 12, 26.
 Fumi Okiji, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black
Expression Revisited (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), p. 4.
 Taylor, Black is Beautiful, p. xi.