Although the terms "Aesthetics," "Art," and "Religion" are Western social constructs that most often reflect the tastes and interests of the dominant socio-cultural group, the phenomena these terms seek to describe are trans-historical and trans-cultural. (1) In the Western manifestations of this phenomena, visual images occupy an important role within a cultural matrix that has inscribed negative symbolism upon blackness throughout Western culture. This is highly significant important because "visual images are a part of a culture's structure and not simply expressions of its religious beliefs, historical myths, moral codes, aesthetic preferences, internal social system, and relationship with outsiders..." (2) When not explicitly expounding and illustrating political or religious messages; art has also played an insidious role in the perpetuation of socio-cultural systems.
Nowhere is this more easily illustrated than in the depiction or exclusion of persons of African descent within the Western Art tradition. Persons of African lineage have been subject to negative and stereotypical portrayals since their first encounters with Euroethnic culture. The association of blackness with evil, danger, repugnancy, the demonic... has been permanently inscribed with negative symbolism in Western culture since the early Greco-Roman period. Robert Hood sums all this up by aptly stating,
... we see the emergence of an aesthetic and color code in Western thought in which many of the carnal forces associated with Blackness in modern times and evident in such events as the lynching of black teenagers... were alive and well in the imagination and the consciousness of both the Greeks and the Romans: curiosity, carnality, and negativity or at least social and intellectual disdain... Hence the roots of cultural beliefs about blacks were implanted early on in Western thought based on ethnocentric interpretations... Blackness was given a moral category by Christians as they tried to make sense of biblical notions of sin and evil... furthermore, sex and evil began to figure prominently as ontological attributes of blackness, in turn shaping Christian beliefs about blacks. (3) Greek art in the 6th century was already depicting satyrs as beasts with dark skin and Negroid features whose origins were purportedly somewhere in Africa. (4) In the 1st century Christian tradition, the Epistle of Barnabas refers to the devil as the "Black One" and associates a long laundry-list of negative characteristics which are to be associated with evil and blackness. (5) By the Middle Ages, the European mind had already made blackness a symbol of baseness and evil, and rendered the features of black-skinned people ugly thereby establishing a negative, counter aesthetic to whiteness. In the 14th and 15th centuries, one of the three Magi was usually depicted as an African. (6) During the 16th century, the African slave trade vastly increased. As it did so, the depiction of African slaves as page boys in upper-class portraiture became a popular device for emphasizing the sitter's much paler complexion--while simultaneously supporting the notion of Euroethnic beauty and superiority. (7) As greater numbers of abolitionists arose in Britain and the Americas, the British Abolitionist Association enlisted illustrators to help its cause. Unfortunately, most of these depictions did more to perpetuate images of African docility, subservience, inferiority, and helpless dependence upon Euroethnic persons for their liberation.
In the colonies, America's leading artists and publications re-enforced these negative ideals by producing images of their African slaves as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers and threatening sub-humans. The masses of American society could not help but be informed and shaped by the power of these negative depictions which were presented to them on a daily basis. These depictions reinforced negative stereotypes while working in conjunction with Christian beliefs regarding blackness to strengthen and perpetuate colonial myths regarding their African slaves-thus justifying and naturalizing the inhumanity of the slavocracy.
Later, these negative images were transformed into depictions of minstrels who performed in black face. In addition, books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Sambo stories, and negative depictions of Black-Americans as coons with highly exaggerated features... all helped re-enforce racist stereotypes and aided the slavocracy's efforts at dehumanization. This process of signification by the dominant culture is responsible for the color prejudice which has become "indecipherably coded" into American language, art, and literature. (8) The negative association of Blackness with that which is ugly, or morally and intellectually inferior speaks volumes about the value of Blackness literally as color symbolism, and figuratively as it has been applied to persons of African ancestry within Western art and culture. The dominant culture's negative signification of blackness creates a dilemma that strikes at the very core of Black-American personhood. Black-Americans have been attempting to challenge these dehumanizing racial representations from the very moment they stepped foot onto America's shores.
Once the African slaves stepped onto the shores of the Americas the realities of their enslavement effectively rendered any possibility of maintaining their African artistic creations, religious beliefs, and aesthetic sensibilities incomprehensible within the context slavery. Their abrupt relocation to a hostile environment forced the enslaved Africans to find a different set of values and sensibilities to draw from as they responded to the experiences of sheer horror and psychic trauma they were forced to confront on a daily basis within the slavocracy. The abrupt rupture from their homeland combined with the horrors of the middle passage and chattel slavery, forced them to undergo a kind of psychic deconstruction that could utilize their former beliefs and practices as a basis for the development individual or cultural identity. This violent deconstruction of the African worldview forced those enslaved,
... to either generate or identify a new set of symbols, images, and rituals that could give sense and meaning to the incomprehensibility of the slave experience in North America. African slaves took what was available from their past and reinterpreted it... (9) The Art Historian and critic Guy McElroy reminds us that, "... African-Americans commenced their cultural lives in this hemisphere as veritable deconstructions, so to speak, of all that Western culture so ardently wished to be." (10) McElroy recognizes that the experience of slavery forced the African slaves to rapidly deconstruct their previous worldview and construct a new psycho-spiritual matrix which integrated pieces of their previous symbol systems with others garnered from their new experiences. This self-integration process is akin to what theologian Dwight Hopkins refers to as "co-constitution of the self." (11) This process of self coconstitution is an embodied struggle to obtain some semblance of psycho-spiritual liberation and bolster a sense physical and spiritual humanity. (12) The act of self co-constitution is an inherently creative endeavor that involves the development of a new web of relationships between one's self, the past, and the realities of one's present context.
Self co-constitution is an aesthetic act because human "creativity is always 'contextual' in that it is conditioned or limited by multiple influences from history and the environment" (13) The implications of this statement help us to identify self co-constitution and the relationships which it seeks to recreate as aesthetic.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the primary modalities utilized by Black-Americans to achieve self co-constitution: art and religion are both aesthetic. For our purposes, these aesthetic modalities refer to vehicles of expression that rely upon what has been traditionally labeled as acts of artistic or creative expression--such as art, music, literature... etc. For Black-Americans these modalities have acted as the wellspring from which we interpret, and then express our values. This process of interpretation and expression has resulted in the creation of art, political structures, and religious beliefs which in turn served as the seeds of development for Black-American culture. While culture serves as the repository for a society's moral, ethical, and philosophical judgments regarding the nature of physical and spiritual reality. (14) All cultures recognize art and religion as aesthetic modalities but the primary mode of cultural expression for any culture has always been its art. The reason art has occupied this place of primacy is due to its ability to exist without religion. However, religion cannot exist without art. Every religion expresses its truths through some form of artistic expression. Within the Black-American context even public prayer is prized as an act of creative artistry. Black-American preachers are well-known and praised for their ability to give expression to the deepest tenets of their faith tradition through the use of rhythm, poetic language, metaphor, sonorous, melodic intonations... in a manner which would rival any other traditional form of artistic expression.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the very states of consciousness and feeling which religion and art seek to achieve are aesthetic in nature. The most cherished aspects of religious experience like bliss, communion with the divine, peace, ecstasy, catharsis, transcendence, enlightenment, and illumination are all states that invoke the kinds of feeling and relation that are most easily conveyed through art. (15) This is one of the reasons why the use of aesthetic modalities is an integral part of religious expression. The arts
... help us to encounter the holy...