Social Media and Marketing Intern
Supported by The Milton & Sally Avery Arts Foundation
This essay encompasses the research and findings of Sydney Pennington, the University Art Museum’s Social Media and Marketing Intern, supported by the Milton & Sally Avery Arts Foundation. What began as a small project designed to highlight a letter from Ralph Ellison, grew into a greater project devoted to breaking down Ellison’s insight into connections between art of the past and activism of today. The letter was found by the University Art Museum staff in early March of 2020 and was greeted with much excitement. Ellison wrote the letter on December 17, 1968 after a series of exchanges between Ellison and the museum director at the time, Donald Mochon. Ellison expressed his gratitude to Mochon for asking him to write the introduction for the catalogue that accompanied the 1968 exhibition Romare Bearden Paintings and Projections. After reading his correspondence, Sydney was prompted to read Ellison’s introduction, and the writing process for this essay began.
It was only a few months ago that we found, here at the University Art Museum, a letter written by American novelist, literary critic, and scholar Ralph Ellison (1914-1994). In our pre-quarantine world, we all crowded around in excitement at this amazing discovery. For those who are not familiar with his work, Ralph Ellison was best known for his 1952 debut novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award, and was one of the most widely read books in the years following World War II. Ellison had been asked to write an introduction for American artist, author, and songwriter Romare Bearden (1911-1988), whose collages were being shown in our Romare Bearden Paintings and Projections exhibit in 1968.
Similar to Ellison, when I was first asked to write this piece, I was hesitant. I didn’t admit it at first, but I didn’t understand the excitement and the emotion the letter brought out from those around me. In his letter to the museum, Ellison shared his feelings, and said he almost refused. He wrote, “I’d never written on painting before and for all my long interest in Bearden’s work I feared that I’d be intruding into an area where, as a commentator, I had no legitimate business.” This, however, didn’t stop Ellison from writing an incredible introduction on Bearden’s behalf.
After reading Ellison’s letter, I knew I had to do more research and dig deeper to find the true greatness that this discovery offered a gateway toward. Therefore, it only made sense to read Ellison’s introduction myself. What I had found was not just a simple introduction, but a subtle piece with many layers to tear through. As I uncovered history through Ellison’s introduction and Bearden’s artwork, it became clear that their issues of the past connected so greatly to our issues in the present. Ellison had touched deeply upon experiences I myself, as well as many other African Americans and people of color continue to experience.
One of the first topics that Ellison touched upon in the introduction is embracing diversity within art communities and society in general. Bearden and Ellison had experienced and seen the evolution of race as an issue in the United States and the various ways it was manifested throughout the twentieth century. Both were born several years before the Harlem Renaissance, grew up during the explosion of jazz, were affected by the mistreatment of African Americans during and after WWII, and experienced adulthood during the civil rights movement in the sixties. Throughout these various phases, African Americans were fighting to just be seen, and to tear off the invisibility cloak they had been forced to wear. Bearden’s artwork pushed past these ideas, showing his vision of a world where all voices were not only heard, but celebrated.
These ideas are very similar to what many young voices today call on those who stand in opposition of diversity to do. We ask those to abandon the phrase “I don’t see color,” and to instead see color and diversity within our world and embrace it. Bearden, acting as a creator merely a century ago, put this into his art and expressed it brilliantly.
Ellison used the term, “anachronism” heavily throughout his introduction. In reference to this term he states, “I refer to that imbalance in American society which leads to a distorted perception of social reality, to a stubborn blindness to the creative possibilities of cultural diversity, to the prevalence of negative myths, racial stereotypes and dangerous illusions about art,humanity and society.” For those who are curious, as I was, about the dictionary definition of this term, Oxford University Press defines it as “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.” Ellison explains that the term covered much of what he and Bearden experienced.
The fact that Ellison and Bearden were working to challenge stereotypes, and create an atmosphere where African Americans were to be seen and heard in a society that for so long made it its mission to silence people of color, seemed almost inappropriate. What they were working for was out of fashion and felt out of place to those who weren’t in support of it. In actuality, the real anachronism was the fact that people held onto the outdated ideas that color determined the way an individual should be treated and what rights they should have, ideas that shouldn’t have been broadcasted to begin with. Bearden broke the preconceived ideas many had of his race and identity and showed the great benefits to having different voices showcase their art and share their vision. Bearden captured both the past and what he hoped for in the future, as Ellison explained. Through his art, he created a world that he saw could be attained, which included being loving of all members of society. We still see that this imbalance Ellison discusses is present today.
That being said, the duality and many issues that one has to face as an African American artist in society doesn’t make it easy to always push boundaries and break down stereotypes, especially during the time Ellison, Bearden, and other contemporary artists were trying to achieve this—a postwar era. The sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois, perfectly described this as the “double consciousness” of African Americans, who have, he said, more than one social identity, being both parts of this hyphenated label and having to find ourselves within the realms and worlds of both, but also showing the world how we deserve to be recognized. African Americans should be fully accepted for their ideas, and society should be open to the new ways in which it can be pushed to its highest ideals, where all are actually seen as created equal, because those truths are self-evident. As Ellison claims, Bearden had to come to terms with this, as did many artists. He wrote, “Fortunately for them and for us, Romare Bearden has faced these questions for himself, and since he is an artist whose social conscious-ness is no less intense than his dedication to art, his example is of utmost importance for all who are concerned with grasping something of the complex interrelations between race, culture and the individual artist as they exist in the United States.”
The truth is that the beautiful possibility of a world that could be, greatly outweighs the struggles at hand. This is the job of an artist, a visionary, and all positive creative minds. Granted, reconstructing your own mind and beliefs in order to envision your own beautiful world through art is a draining, but rewarding experience. Many of the artists during that time felt limited by the label society had assigned them, because being African American had been so heavily condemned, it didn’t seem like giving a voice to ideas of an equal world and fighting this bigger anachronism was worthwhile. Ellison states that many failed to tell it like it is because they had no point of reference. Artists had to break from those mental chains after breaking from the physical ones. Bearden was one of many who were representing a new world through their work and imagery without having earlier examples of those in the same position as him to look to.
Both Bearden and Ellison were influenced by jazz, a genre filled with bursts of creativity, anxiety, uneasiness, but also beauty, which mirrored the emotions and experiences of African Americans. All of this emotion was funneled into their imagery, as captured by Ellison, “For as Bearden demonstrated here so powerfully, it is of the true artist’s nature and mode of action to dominate all the world and time through technique and vision. His vision is to bring a new visual order into the world, and through his art he seeks to reset society’s clock by imposing his own method of defining the times”. Ellison makes it clear: We must define the times and reset society’s clock.
Although it is unfortunate that the accounts and experiences of these thinkers and artists from history still provoke emotion and bring individuals to recount the experiences they may have had just a few years, months, days, or seconds ago, we now have a point of reference. We have Bearden and Ellison. We as individuals, still working to reset society’s clock and point those living, and those to follow, in the right direction are not working alone, we are working together with past generations, marching, discussing, and dreaming along with those before us. With careful technique, we move in strides to create the world in our own vision, to use each of our metaphorical paintbrushes, our tools, our words, and our actions to create the greatest world we can imagine. On that note, it is important that we continue to find the positivity in the accounts of those before us and gain insight into ways we can drive society forward.
With that I think it is perfect to end with another point so beautifully articulated by Ellison. “Bearden is aware that for Negro Americans these are the times of eloquent protests and intense struggle, times of rejection and redefinition - but he also knows that all of this does little to make the question of the relation of the Negro artist to painting any less difficult. And if the cries in the street are to find effective statement on canvas they must undergo a metamorphosis. For in painting, Bearden has recently observed that there is little room for lachrymose, for self-pity or raw complaint; and if they are to find a place in painting this can only be accomplished by infusing them with the freshest sensibility of the times as it finds existence in the elements of painting.”
What we must do with our voices is ever-changing and constantly evolving. As we move through a new phase in history, we must take all that is happening right now and funnel it into our work and all our efforts. Each conversation, each expression of art and shared vision is a step toward a greater world and way of life. By and large, we must reset society’s clock as we see fit because society is merely something waiting to be reshaped. Keep talking, keep creating and keep sharing. The greatest world imaginable is waiting for us.
Biography.com Editors. “Romare Bearden.” April 1, 2014; updated June 5, 2020. https://www.biography.com/artist/romare-bearden
Biography.com Editors. “Ralph Ellison.” April 2, 2014; updated July 22, 2019. https://www.biography.com/writer/ralph-ellison
Ellison, Ralph. Introduction, “Romare Bearden Paintings and Projections” (The Art Gallery State University of New York at Albany, November 25 through December 22,1968), exhibition catalogue.
History.com Editors. “Civil Rights Movement Timeline.” Modified June 2, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/civil-rights-movement-timeline
Kilian, Michael. “A deeper look at an artist who refused to be white.” Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2014. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2004-11-25-0411250278-story.html
O'Meally, Robert G. The Romare Bearden Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.
PBS Learning Media. “Invisible Man: Crash Course Literature 308.” August 24, 2016.
PBS Learning Media. “Dubois & Race Conflict: Crash Course Sociology #7.” April 24, 2017.
USA: The Novel, #5. “Ralph Ellison on Work in Progress 1966,” National Education Television, 1966, 28:56.
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