Education, Art, and The Black Public Sphere.

AuthorJohnson, Stephanie Anne


this present was once the future fought for sacrificed for planned prayed over and envisioned strong arms and struggle For those of us who are pursuing strategies that result in more socially just outcomes in all areas of human life, inequities in access to goods and means are evident In addition to its appearance in the public commons and neighborhoods, the division between those who are privileged and those who are targeted and purposefully disadvantaged runs through every aspect of daily life. This disparity can be seen in employment, housing, education, food security, the arts, and most pervasively in visual culture through the mediums of television, the Internet, and films. Public art is a genre that provides the same kind of 24-hour access that defines the Internet. A theoretical examination of the radical potential of Black public art as a tool for social justice in the Black public sphere is a subject that has captured my attention. "...public art from those in the 'margins' has a unique ability to build bridges and galvanize neighborhoods and communities" (Johnson, p. 91). One of the challenges in doing this research is the limited information about Black artists who work in the public realm and Black scholars who write about them / us. Education, Art, and The Black Public Sphere represents a contribution in this area and it provides an invitation for additional research and scholarship in the area of the Black public art in the Black public sphere.

Public Sphere Theory

Jurgen Habermas is a German philosopher who developed the Public Sphere Theory. In this theory governmental, religious, and law-making bodies are accountable and subordinate to the beliefs and needs of the citizens in the decision-making activities of participatory democracy--"By 'the public sphere' we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body." (Habermas, p. 49).

Habermas's Public Sphere Theory is a reaction to the European feudal system in which the lords as self-appointed higher powers provided no active role for the people who constituted the proportionately larger base of this "feudal pyramid" (Habermas, p. 50). His theory is directed toward the bourgeoisie, or property owning class of that period. Although somewhat useful as a counterbalance to autocracy, Habermas's theory centers around public discourse conducted by literate, privileged, and cafe-attending French men. In fact, this type of profile as defined by gender, economic assets, nationality, race, linguistic and educational experience provides limited resistance against the politicians, nobility and church authorities which form the elitist social structures that endanger participatory and representative systems of democracy.

The Black Public Sphere Collective refined and expanded Habermas's Public Sphere Theory to serve the needs of African Americans. The term "Black Public Sphere" describes places where people of African ancestry can gather and discuss important matters related to their/our political status. The Black public sphere is different from the Black public commons. Black public commons are places where Black people meet for leisure and pleasure. Although I argue that Black people gathering together in public places is an inherently political act, The Black Public Sphere Theory is differentiated from the Black public commons by the type of discourse that focuses on organizing and educating for political agency.

The postmodern Black public sphere's rhizome-like structure includes in-person as well as online communications. It allows for the community to participate on a larger scale and a more geographically diverse way regardless of physical proximity. Multiple ways to effectively conduct intra-racial communications is necessitated by the displacement of Africans in North America and the gentrification of Black neighborhoods. Legislatively mandated urban renewal policies began in the 1930s in the United States. These destructive housing practices have accelerated since the 1970s with disastrous collective consequences for Black people including family displacement, community fragmentation, economic hardship, and unprecedented levels of homelessness. Barbershops, beauty shops, and far too many Black owned businesses have disappeared, being replaced by corporate stores, national chains, and businesses that are owned by people outside of the Black community. On an individual level, manifestations of this loss include emotional, physical, and economic distress. The consequences of lost resources are amplified cross-generationally. Without consistent intra-racial discussions about wealth and plans for business succession, the seduction of seemingly "fast cash" outweighs a sense of racial allegiance, neighborhood consistency and cultural continuity. This disappearance is deeply registered by our psychic and physical senses. We live in a culture that prioritizes the sense of sight. If something is not seen, it does not exist. Where are visual signifiers that mark African American presence in the United States? This is a role that can be played by African American art in the public commons. "In my world art is not only part of history--even a living history--it is part of and makes community, it is part of and makes family." (Jones, p. 1).

Black artists pass on aesthetic traditions as well as creating new forms of expression that educate viewers. Following the African tradition of griots and storytellers, these visual artists use their work to highlight the indigenous wisdom that is embodied within Diasporic communities. Art in public view is a tool for education, cultural cohesion, and political organizing. Walter Hood and Melissa Erikson remind us that this is a very challenging endeavor. " The shifting urban landscape, by its very nature, makes difficult the accretion of collective memories. Sites are scattered and lost, leaving the concentration of shared memories diluted." (Hood & Erikson, p. 182).

Public Art

Public art can be seen without cost. It can be viewed independent of time constraints, class status, entry fees, or formal education. Conversely, many art galleries are tied to commerce and most museums require an entry fee. This is the difference between art that is publicly accessible and art institutions that serve a very narrow segment of the population. The site for public art is architecturally, thematically, culturally and/or socially taken into account when locations are chosen. Public art can be commissioned, self-funded, and/or spontaneous. Historically, the most common form of public art in the United States is in the form of monuments and statues that are seen in parks, on streets, and in government buildings. Art in public places and its representation as a signifier of power should not be underestimated. Recently in the United States there have been on-going discussions, examinations, and interventions in regard to the presence of historical public art that celebrates white supremacy, Native American genocide, and/or patriarchal oppression. A number of these monuments have been removed from public sites; some are being replaced by art that better represents a diverse population. New York is leading the way in this area. "Currently, 90 percent of such statues in the city pay tribute to men, according to Alicia Glen, the city's deputy mayor for housing and economic development." (Weinberg, June 20, 2018) In a public proactive move, The City of New York, under the guidance of Chirlane McCray, First Lady of New York, has announced She Built NYC, an initiative for public art that celebrates women.

For Africans, public art is a valuable part of history, cultural expression, and education. The creation of art that is accessible to all community members dates far back in our history. Cave drawings, hieroglyphs, wall carvings, mural paintings, pyramids, public altars, totemic structures, and monuments honoring the Pharaohs all constitute intermediaries between the living and the dead. African art continues a legacy of communication across generations, time, and states of existence. Modern African American public art includes murals, sculptures, yard art, graffiti, site-specific installations, memorials, pop-up exhibitions, performances, projections, and other forms of creative expression that occur in public places. The work of artists Elizabeth Catlett and Theaster Gates represents the resonance among public art, the Black Public Sphere Theory, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and education.

Elizabeth Catlett

"Elizabeth Catlett is certainly the most prolific, well-known, politically radical and socially engaged African American woman artist of our time." (Guy-Sheftall, p. 77) "One of the most important American artists of the past century, Elizabeth Catlett is honored as a foremother by subsequent generations." (Herzog, 2012, p. 105)

Elizabeth Catlett's life and work represent the intersection among Black public art, Black self-definition, and African American education. The Black Lives Matter collective states that: "Our continued commitment to liberation for all Black people means we are continuing the work of our ancestors and fighting for our collective freedom because it is our duty." Many, many decades before the foundation of Black Lives Matter, artist/educator Elizabeth Catlett dedicated her...

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