Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 2021
Rebecca Zorach Art for People's Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965–1975 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 416 pp.; 124 color ills.; 1 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781478001409)

With Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965–1975, Rebecca Zorach makes a valuable intervention in art historical discourse. Zorach emphasizes the importance of the Black Arts Movement for better understanding artistic engagement with site-specificity, social practice, and performance art. A central theme of the book—efforts to produce modes and spaces for Black culture to thrive—is introduced through the groundbreaking career of artist-organizer Margaret Burroughs, a formidable artist, author, poet, and educator who cofounded the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) and the DuSable Museum of African American History. The book then details later Black art collectives, ranging from AFRICOBRA to the unlikely partnership between Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the street gang the Conservative Vice Lords, who created a studio gallery called Art & Soul. Zorach bases the book’s title on a poem by Haki Madhubuti about The Wall of Respect (7). “Art for people’s sake” marks a refusal of the modernist notion of “art for art’s sake” and the socioeconomic stratification that accompanies modernism (Don L. Lee, “The Wall,” in Black Pride, Broadside Press, 1968, 26). Like the Black radical politics that fueled it, art for (the) people was to be received, utilized, and sanctioned by poor and working-class Black people. It simultaneously existed on behalf of its audience. Black Chicago artist-organizers sought to advocate for a group that was neglected by mainstream society—just as the artists would be overlooked by critics and art historians. The Black Arts Movement’s relationship to twentieth-century avant-gardism was strained at best, yet as Zorach is keen to point out, “it is one of only a few art movements tightly tied to an actual political vanguard” (14). This art was for, with, and often by “the community,” a term that Zorach takes care to problematize for its tendency to homogenize Black folks to the detriment of political aspirations and analytical complexity (7).

By exploring the relationship between Black political organizing, Black artistic production, and “the streets,” Zorach leads the reader to imagine a “streetscape” (28). Rarely would an art historian discuss the streets in the Black vernacular sense—understood as “a place, a group of people and practices, and a point of view” (24)—let alone incorporate them as a necessary element for theorizing site-specificity, the production of space, or Black performance as Zorach does. Normally these streets are the thoroughfares one travels on to the gallery, museum, or archive, where inquiry begins. The import of the streets in Black political efficacy or in the making of art is virtually recherché in the field. This rarity can be, however ironically, attributed to the streets’ very commonness—their affinity with Black vernacular culture. Zorach follows two recent texts in focusing on the relationship between everyday Black people and the arts in the decade surrounding 1970: Kellie Jones’s South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Duke University Press, 2018), which covers the Black Arts Movement in the area of Black Los Angeles below the street Pico, and Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Zorach briefly nods to these works, avoiding a diatribe on either side of their antithetical positions, opting instead to draw almost exclusively on contemporaneous sources. According to Zorach this is done “in order to allow the rich artworks and sophisticated thinkers of the time to speak for themselves” (29). Indeed, the extent to which this densely researched volume tests the patience of the reader may well be contingent upon how they regard the author’s focus and reliance on the streets as opposed to more vogue objects of inquiry. Still, “within a discipline shot through with white supremacism” (xvii), as Zorach phrases it, a stance against what I would call colorblind modernism is strongly implied by the decision to uplift contemporaneous (Black radical) voices. By colorblind modernism, I refer to how art historians tend to entrench race/sex/class/ability discrimination via the denial or ignorance of oppressive stratification, and more broadly the deemphasis of cultural positionality in understandings of art (a cultural practice). Perhaps on this score, the Black Arts Movement should be counted among those modernists who militated against modernity itself.

In the first chapter, “Claiming Space, Being in Public,” Zorach considers the tactics and theories of artists working against ghettoization by seeking to take up discursive and geographic space. The Wall of Respect (1967) is the central object of analysis, but at least as much attention is paid to the cultural geography of the South Side of Chicago where the mural was located. Zorach combs the maps and policies that formed Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods to effectively set a backdrop for the challenges these artists faced. The Wall of Respect was produced with the help and protection of people who lived in the community, notably without consent from the absentee landlord (74). Zorach offers a comparative analysis between the wall and a monumentally sized, untitled Picasso located in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, which is bolstered by two Gwendolyn Brooks poems: “The Wall” and “The Picasso” (65). Both works were associated with efforts to garner discursive and political notoriety in Chicago, and both drew protest. The Picasso was sanctioned by government officials who spoke at its unveiling; the wall came to fruition upon the approval of local gangs, only to be destroyed when its building was torn down in 1972 (82). The comparisons present a damaging critique to scholars who set an essentialist and atavistic Black Arts Movement (obsessed with figuration and liberation) against a more progressive panoply of artists who bravely pursued artistic freedom above identity politics (represented by abstraction). In addition to the above, Zorach points out several political aspects of the Picasso, which was donated to “the people of Chicago” and yet was lambasted by the public for its abstraction. Meanwhile, Ebony contemporaneously referred to the wall as a “happening,” linking it to a tradition that had become so free in its abstraction, it shed its own physical form by leaping off the canvas, out the gallery, and into the streets. The Wall of Respect constantly changed because it was activated by artists who altered it, engaged it, and performed in front of it. Thus Zorach contends The Wall of Respect “was, itself, a performance” (61).

The second chapter, “Cultural Nationalism and Community Culture,” describes how Black cultural nationalism gave rise to collaborative initiatives between trained professional artists and the broader Black community. The chapter continues to forward the notion of creative potential among street gangs. One such iteration was a locally televised musical revue called Opportunity Please Knock, directed by jazz musician Oscar Brown Jr. and performed by members of the Blackstone Rangers, a South Side street gang. The entire book remains closely attuned to the political avant-gardism of Black Chicago artists, but falls short of showing how the art was influenced by revolutionaries like Chicago Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton. However, we see Amiri Baraka turn vanguardism on its head with the statement “It is the people that must make revolution, not the vanguard,” which reverberates with Jeff Donaldson, who emphasized an allegiance to the Black community over the ivory tower (97). The third chapter continues to explore artist-organizers with its case study of the Conservative Vice Lords’ collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art. We witness the Vice Lords evolve from a violent band of Black youths to a “legitimate” corporation: CVL, Inc. 

The fourth chapter, “The Black Family,” surveys how AFRICOBRA artists, most prominently Barbara Jones-Hogu, set out to combat a racially hostile visual culture using “positive images” inspired by the aesthetic aspirations of artists like Romare Bearden (186). Formal analysis emerges most cogently here and is skillfully interwoven with rigorous archival research and author interviews. Chapter 4 examines artists’ reactions to the Moynihan Report, although Hortense Spillers’s 1987 evisceration of the report in her article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” appears only in a footnote. Similarly, chapter 6 examines how films such as Spook Who Sat by the Door helped envision “superreal” manifestations of Black life (269) without mention of the 2010 analysis of the same film by Frank B. Wilderson III in Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke University Press). Zorach’s arguments would certainly have benefited from subsequent analysis by numerous Black scholars. Nevertheless, she successfully turns to a host of lesser-known thinkers to stack a mountain of evidence for the powerfully subtle arguments advanced in Art for People’s Sake.

Moving through such arguments, the reader is repeatedly compelled to think anew about the implications of displacing “art” with “people” to arrive at statements like “art for people’s sake.” The book is useful to readers interested in recuperative work against historical racism and erasure, the everyday person learning about (Black) art in Chicago, and the activist/organizer mining narratives of predecessors who eked out ways of being revolutionary.

Benjamin Jones
Graduate Student, Department of Art History, Northwestern University