In Black is Beautiful, Taylor uses the resources in Anglophone philosophy to examine black aesthetic practices. The philosophical analysis of the black aesthetic tradition advanced by Taylor examines the role of expressive practices in creating and maintaining black life-worlds in the context of white supremacy. The black aesthetic tradition which Taylor examines refers to ‘the practice of using art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds’ (12). For this reason, Black is Beautiful is not an exercise in criticism; it does not aim at providing a set of norms to evaluate artworks emerging from the black aesthetic tradition. The philosophical analysis is aimed at fleshing out the main aesthetic threads that can help us in understanding the black aesthetic tradition in the light of racial formation under white supremacy. But while he is explicit that the book should not be regarded as a work of criticism, the examples he uses, and the way he engages with the topics, necessarily lead one to re-examine individual works and the role they have played in maintaining black life-worlds and keeping white supremacy alive. Taylor offers a rich philosophical analysis of how these black aesthetic practices emphasise ‘agency, beauty, and meaning in the face of oppression, despair, and death’ (2). Black is Beautiful begins by addressing questions concerning ‘blackness’ and ‘race’ as central for an analysis on black aesthetics. As he has done previously, Taylor argues that race is a socially constructed reality, a human artefact that takes its meaning from social dynamics: ‘race-thinking is a way of assigning social meanings to human differences, and of assigning significance to the characteristics that enable us to mark people as different from each other’ (9). It is this social assigning of meaning to human differences that yields social and political differences. And it is in the face of the asymmetrical distribution of social goods that result from processes of racialization that we find the significance of black expressive practices: these practices and objects contribute to creating and maintaining black life-worlds in the face of inequalities in the distribution of social goods. Black aesthetics refers, therefore, to the collection of practices created by and identified primarily with people racialized as black. This emphasis on black life-worlds is crucial: black aesthetics does not refer to a cultural monolith, but rather to a broad and diverse collection of expressive practices, and a broad and diverse collection of arguments concerning expressive practices created by people racialized as black. Taylor distinguishes between two levels of black aesthetics. On a first level a black aesthetic enterprise that refers to the ways in which black people ‘seek and create beauty and meaning from within the cauldron of racial formation’ (12). On a second level a black aesthetic enterprise that refers to the way in which ‘artists, critics, and other thinkers started to approach their expressive practices specifically from the standpoint of modern race thinking’ (12). So while black aesthetic practices have been around as long as black people have, the black aesthetic tradition has been built as the reflection on black aesthetic practices and their significance has developed. Black is Beautiful aims at identifying the key themes and problems addressed in this tradition. Two key themes emerge as the book’s greatest contribution to advancing the debate in philosophical aesthetics: the race-aesthetics nexus, and the aesthetics-politics nexus. These themes are threaded throughout the discussion of the problems addressed by the black aesthetic tradition. The race-aesthetics nexus refers to the relation between processes of racial formation on the one hand, and aesthetic practices, aesthetic perception, and aesthetic judgement on the other. The aesthetics-politics nexus concerns questions about the extent to which the aesthetic value of works interacts with their political value. In what follows, I will examine how these two threads are found in the philosophical analysis of some key issues addressed by the black aesthetic tradition. In particular, I will focus on how the race-aesthetic nexus is in the background of Taylor’s analysis of black invisibility, sarkaesthetics, that is, issues concerning black bodies as objects of aesthetic value, and authenticity; and how the aesthetic-politics nexus is in the background of Taylor’s analysis of black expressive practices as propaganda. Following Monique Roelofs, Taylor examines the race-aesthetics nexus as the relation between processes of racial formation on the one hand, and aesthetic practices, aesthetic perception, and aesthetic judgement on the other.1 Two different dimensions can be identified in the race-aesthetics nexus. First, a race-aesthetics interaction that refers to the role of race-thinking in delineating the boundaries of aesthetic practices and their trajectories. Second, the aesthetics-race interaction points to the fact that processes of racialization are aesthetic phenomena; that is, the aesthetics-race interaction refers to the fact that racial cognition is underwritten by aesthetic perceptions: ‘Black people look dangerous, or unreliable, or like bad credit risks’ (22). I begin with the race-aesthetics nexus and the problem of black invisibility. Invisibility concerns a race-related disregard: ‘the key issue has to do with the frequency with which particular bodies, along with the bearers of those bodies and the histories that make the bodies meaningful, become invisible in western-led expressive culture’ (36). Taylor examines four varieties of black invisibility: presence, personhood, perspectives, and plurality. The problem of black invisibility makes the race-aesthetics interaction evident in the following ways. When it comes to presence, Taylor notes that black expressive practices have been effectively excluded from the institutions of the artworld (49). And when they have managed to overcome exclusion, ‘profound and historic works of black expressive culture are more likely to be destroyed or lost than other works, and black artists, or black people who might have been artists, are unable to do the kind of work they might otherwise have done’ (49–50). When it comes to invisibility as related to perspectives, aesthetic practices appear as racialized structures in that whitely ways of seeing, as the social defaults, originate in a white hegemonic spectator. Taylor notes that ‘films, paintings, photographs, and other elements of visual expressive culture are effectively addressed to this implied spectator, whose assumptions and biases the actual, empirical viewer of the work in question must share in order to appreciate the work in the ways that the dominant culture prescribes’ (59). When it comes to the aesthetics-race interaction, black invisibility shows the aesthetic dimension of racial formations in the following ways. When it comes to black invisibility as related to presence, Taylor refers to Ralph Ellison’s inner eye as the result of the resources of white supremacism and anti-black racism as it affects intersubjective recognition and identity (37–38); further, the struggle for recognition leads to the adoption of white standards of beauty that further reinforce the assumptions of racial formation: ‘this longing [for recognition] easily translated into a desire to escape blackness, and to see black bodies, including one’s own, as objectionable and shameful’ (42). When it comes to black invisibility as related to personhood, the denial of personhood to black persons has led to a variety of objectifying aesthetic strategies. Taylor refers to these practices as aesthetic depersonalization. For example, the stereotypes that affect processes of racialization and that are prevalent in artistic representations concern the ‘archetypical personification of anti-black prejudices’ (52). Taylor also refers to anonymity and interchangeability, found in artistic representations in the form of stock figures, as contributors to the reduction of blackness to an anonymous mass (53). The relevance of the race-aesthetics nexus also comes through in Taylor’s analysis of issues related to body beauty judgements and racial formation. In particular, Chapter 4, ‘Dark Lovely Yet And; Or, How to Love Black Bodies While Hating Black People’, delves into the aesthetics-race interaction, further bringing forward how processes of racial formation are partly aesthetic phenomena. Taylor defines sarkaesthetics as the practices of representational somatic aesthetics; that is, sarkaesthetics concerns the evaluation of the body from the outside. Judgements of bodily beauty have been historically used to support processes of racialization under white supremacy. Taylor emphasizes how aesthetic evaluations of the black body have been used to reinforce claims of racial hierarchy and an unjust distribution of social goods: ‘Body beauty judgements are not just about what we say when presented with representations of certain bodies; they are also related to the conditions of entry into all manners of social institutions and practices, including the ones that distribute the means for satisfying basic material needs’ (115). In particular, Taylor examines how sarkaesthetic practices have prevented the recognition of moral personhood to black people because they have at their core ‘monstrous intimacies’. The notion of monstrous intimacies, taken from Christina Sharpe,2 refers to ‘racialized social transactions that involve “violence and forced submission” in interpersonal spheres usually or ideally marked by affection, romance, or warmth’ (116). Taylor argues that white supremacy affects judgements of beauty because of a phenomenological inhibition that ‘short-circuits the social and phenomenological transactions that might otherwise develop around phenomena like desire and attraction, and skews them in the direction of violence and domination’ (117). This phenomenological inhibition that yields sarkaesthetic judgements marked by violence and dominance contributes to dehumanization. Sarkaesthetic practices reinforce racial formation processes under white supremacy precisely due to the dehumanizing nature of monstrous intimacies. The race-aesthetics nexus is also necessary to understand Taylor’s analysis of the notion of authenticity and the role it has played in the evaluation of black aesthetic practices as it features in Chapter 5, ‘Roots and Routes: Disarming Authenticity’. In particular, it is the race-aesthetics interaction that can explain how the notion of authenticity has been used when determining the role of black expressive practices in the aesthetic tradition. Taylor notes that black expressive practices have always been tied to concerns about authenticity: black expressive objects have often been evaluated in terms of how close they capture the ‘black experience’. Taylor problematizes the notion of authenticity by noting how ‘appeals to authenticity often seem to downplay the fluidity of human experience and the dynamism of social practice, especially as the exigencies of living set our experiences and practices in motion across time and space’ (134). Taylor then examines various versions of authenticity and suggests that to be authentic is ‘to engage responsibly with, and to take responsibility for, the burden of choosing one’s cultural path in a world of contingent options’ (147). In particular, when it comes to black aesthetics, appeals to authenticity must ‘[keep] track of specific social dynamics, like the racial ideologies that swirl around particular practices or the racialized resource asymmetries that condition the production of particular objects’ (148). Finally, I will focus on the aesthetics-politics nexus and Taylor’s understanding of black expressive practices as propaganda. The aesthetics-politics nexus concerns what Taylor labels the problem of aesthetic autonomy, that is, questions about the extent to which the aesthetic value of works interacts with their political value. In contemporary analytic aesthetics, discussions concerning aesthetic autonomy have mostly centred on the interaction of aesthetic and ethical values. But Taylor instead notes the relevance of questions concerning the aesthetic-political interaction when examining black expressive practices: ‘black aesthetics is an unavoidably political subject. It exists as a cultural phenomenon and as a subject of philosophical study because of political conditions’ (79). Chapter 3, ‘Beauty to Set the World Right: The Politics of Black Aesthetics’ examines the problem of aesthetic autonomy by focusing on the question of how expressive culture and politics ought to relate. Taylor goes back to W. E. B. Du Bois to argue that all art is propaganda; that propaganda is only problematic under certain conditions that are not met by black expressive culture; and that art as propaganda does not entail narrowly conceived political imperatives (89). Du Bois understands propaganda as ‘the class of expressive objects whose members derive their content … from the domain of ethico-political value’ (98). Taylor advances an argument from the unity of value for the controversial claim that all expressive objects belong to this class. Taylor argues that artists and audiences ‘share a network of normative commitments, and establishing a recognizable and not-off-putting relationship to this network is a precondition of aesthetic uptake’ (96). This means that artistic freedom is bound by these shared networks of meaning, so that we cannot think of artistic freedom as ‘an abstract possession, as absolute wilfulness and complete detachment from ethical or political imperatives. We must think of it as self-legislation in the face of, and in recognition of, the wider resources for seeking the truth and pursuing the good’ (97). Taylor reminds us that understanding artistic freedom in isolation from political concerns is a privilege granted only to white Western aesthetic practices. Insofar as processes of racial formation under white supremacy yield the very presence of non-white peoples as a political matter, the very existence of non-white expressive practices will always be political. Taylor’s focus throughout Black is Beautiful on the race-aesthetics nexus and the aesthetics-politics nexus reminds us what is at stake when engaging philosophically with the black aesthetic tradition: racial formation processes under white supremacy are necessarily bound to aesthetic practices and aesthetic ideologies, so that expressive practices are ‘“part of the great fight” against white supremacy’ (90). But beyond inviting the Anglophone aesthetic tradition to reflect on black aesthetic practices, Black is Beautiful invites the reader to reflect on how processes of racial formation have had an impact on what has been traditionally regarded as the aesthetic canon. The greatest contribution of the book to analytic aesthetics is that by examining the black aesthetic tradition, Taylor invites us to rethink how aestheticians and philosophers of art have approached the aesthetic tradition in general. The introduction of the race-aesthetics nexus and the aesthetics-politics nexus to the discussion offers a way to reframe traditional problems by emphasizing the socio-historical location of aesthetic phenomena. As such, this book is valuable to anyone interested in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and it provides a valuable resource for anyone teaching aesthetics. Footnotes 1 Monique Roelofs, ‘Racialization as an Aesthetic Production’, in George Yancy (ed.), White on White/Black on Black (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). 2 Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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