Home / When Is An Artist A Great Artist And Not Just A Great African-American Artist?

When Is An Artist A Great Artist And Not Just A Great African-American Artist?

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I do not like artistic segregation.

A few days ago I came across a Washington Post article that once again, perhaps as a result of journalistic formation, or perhaps as a result of America's love of racial/ethnic labeling, or perhaps (and most probably) unintentionally, really hit an artistic pet peeve of mine by segregating a great American artist as as "great African-American artist," and the more I read it, the more it exasperated me.

I tend to criticize the Washington Post mercilessly for their crappy fine arts coverage, and they generally deserve it – they're easily America's second most powerful newspaper and yet their coverage of the arts is pathetic.

But one constant source of light and enlightenment in their vapid fine arts coverage is the cultural writing of Jacqueline Trescott. Trescott usually writes savvy, intelligent words for the Post's precious few fine arts illuminati.

But, in my pedantic view, she really messed up in this article over a week ago. Why?

If you've read my ramblings long enough, then you know that I am not a big fan of artistic segregation.

I don't think that there should be an art museum just for women, or African-Americans, or Latino/Hispanic Americans, or any "hyphen-Americans."

I think that all art museums should be driven, guided, and encouraged to include worthy art by deserving artists, regardless of race or ethnicity, who deserve inclusion in a museum collection — and that collection should be open to all artists, not just artists of a certain geographic or ethnic presence. Not guided by percentages or demographics or numbers, but merit, and regardless and in spite of skin color, skin hues, last names, or religion.

And this is where Trescott blows it.

In the article she refers to Jacob Lawrence, one of my art school professors and influences as "one of the greatest African American artists of the 20th century."


Jacob Lawrence by F. Lennox Campello
Jacob Lawrence, pen and ink, circa 1980 by F. Lennox Campello
In a Private Collection

In my own personal experience, Jacob Lawrence was very difficult as an art teacher (which sometimes means that he was also a brilliant teacher to students other than me, as I was quite an asshole as an art student), a pretty good drinking buddy, and an opinionated bastard, which is a good thing to be. But Lawrence's artwork was also without a doubt (in my opinion) one of the greatest American contributions, and he one of the greatest artists, of the 20th century.

Period.

Not "one of the greatest African American artists of the 20th century."

And Mrs. Bush shows some remarkable and simple insight in selecting this work, which was purchased for $2.5 million at a Christie's auction in May by the White House Acquisition Trust, a privately funded branch of the mansion's historical association.

According to the article, Mrs. Bush had wanted a piece by Jacob Lawrence since she had become acquainted with his work through a personal friend, who lent her a Lawrence painting that hangs in the Bushes' private dining room.

"And because it's on the wall that I look at from my chair in the dining room, I just grew to like Jacob Lawrence more and more," Mrs. Bush said.

Bravo to Mrs. Bush – she went with her guts and feelings; boo to Trescott – she went with her hard-wired "formation" in always trying to label Americans.

And I'll keep my own original Jacob Lawrence on my walls, as I have for years since I acquired it in art school, and refer to him as a great American artist when people ask me about it.

Period.

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About Lenny Campello