This article explores the Harlem Renaissance’s ideological and artistic contributions to the American social consciousness for imagining possibilities for political struggle, and as a timely alternative to the dominant postmodern aesthetic and cultural tendencies of nihilism of our times — including 1950’s Pop Art, the 1980’s neo expressionist art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and contemporary hip-hop culture.
Between World War I and the Great Depression, in New York’s Harlem, a dazzling art, literature, and political movement emerged. It strove for the liberation and manifestation of a people’s search for yearning for beauty and meaning. It was creative, courageous, and truthful as it sought new ways to make art an instrument of struggle. Each of the artists, poets, musicians, and intellectuals were activists and freedom fighters in their own right. Their artwork was rooted in and exuded a sense of dignity, innovation, and striving for higher artistic and social ideals. They were selfless and disciplined, in a time when shadow of slavery loomed large and the majority of Black people remained trapped in poverty in Northern ghettos and Southern plantations, with racial terror consuming their lives.
The world of the Harlem Renaissance was rich with talent and energy. The movement sought inspiration in the artists’ Afro-American heritage of struggle, but also in the broader American historical and cultural canon. It was influenced by the 1919 October Revolution of the Soviet Union and the Mexican muralist movement. It reached into the past and captured the best of the present to make sense of the historical moment and where Black folk must go from there. It also laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and ‘60s.
But during its time, despite its recognition across the nation and the world, Harlem Renaissance artists remained segregated by the color line and from white society. Segregation limited the venues where Black artists were able to perform and exhibit, but also culturally and philosophically relegated the innovations of the Harlem Renaissance to a so-called “primitivist” instinct and thus to an inferior status to the white world.
The Harlem Renaissance was powerful for its ideological clarity and commitment. It was led by artists and intellectuals such as WEB Du Bois (1868-1963), who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited its magazine The Crisis. Du Bois’s essay “Criteria for Negro Art” proclaimed that “all art is propaganda” and therefore all Black artists can and should choose to make art in service of their people’s liberation. As such he employed artists and poets like Aaron Douglas and Langston Hughes to fill The Crisis’s pages with art that broadened its readers’ horizons for building a better world. The artists and intellectuals’ close relationships, intense dialogue, and shared commitment to the liberation of the Black masses consolidated the movement around the importance of struggle and clarity, which translated into the exceptional art, music, and scholarly contributions of their time.
Aaron Douglas’s Aspirations (left) and Charleston (right)
One artist deeply shaped by the Harlem Renaissance and who carried its legacy forward was the painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to Southern Black migrant parents, his family moved to Harlem in 1930 when he was 13 years old. His talents and ideological development were nurtured during the movement’s most dynamic years, counting Harlem Renaissance painter Charles Alston (1907-77) as one of his key mentors.
Lawrence proclaimed he was first and foremost a historian, a keen observer of Black life, and a painter rooted in the people, truth, and history. This is especially evident in his iconic Migration series, one of the first great works of African American art recognized by the white mainstream art world and completed when Lawrence was just 23 years old. Dynamically employing color, abstraction, and composition, the painting series depicts the organic exodus of the Black masses from the South to the booming northern industrial centers in the early 20th century. Each of the sixty panels captures a different facet of how this movement reconstituted the American social fabric and infused its cities with the spiritual, social, economic, and political strivings of the Black worker.
In his statement “My Opinion on Painting,” Lawrence says, “For me a painting should have three things: universality, clarity, and strength. Universality so that it may be understood by all men. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good.” In the 35th panel of the Migration series, titled They left the South in great numbers. They arrived in the North in great numbers, ten Black figures march across the scene against a pale blue sky, carrying their cargo and dressed in their heavy coats and hats. Limiting the palette to earthy tones and simplifying the varying figures’ profiles, Lawrence keeps the focus on the collective nature of the migration. The painting powerfully evokes the search for fuller dignity, economic livelihood, and citizenship that drove nearly a million Black folk towards cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York — a journey which Lawrence’s own family underwent and Lawrence was closely acquainted with as he came of age in Black Harlem.
“It is more important that an artist study life than study the technique of painting exclusively… It is more important that a student of art develop a philosophy and clarity of thought than paint nude after nude, still life after still life and cube after cube… One’s pictures should be about things most familiar to him. My pictures express my life and experiences. So I paint about the American Negro working class.”
Hence the basis of the Harlem Renaissance and Jacob Lawrence’s spirit of painting was grounded in clarity through the realities, history, and aspirations of the Black worker. His emphasis on clarity was a far cry from the obscurantism of postmodernism that would come in a few generations and dominate today’s art scene.
Fast forward a few decades, a new wave of art and culture emerged from New York City, specifically the white elite world. It was an art movement opposite to the Harlem Renaissance in form and content, intent on obfuscation rather than clarity. Looking away from the Black freedom struggle, and siding with imperialism during a period of great world liberation movements, it proclaimed a new set of values on behalf of the American ruling class in a time when capitalism had to be rebranded to suit the new post-WWII paradigm of US global hegemony.
The ‘50s was the pivotal moment in US history: allied business, government, and other elite interests locked course on fashioning the country into a global superpower. Their vision was an American assertion of dominance over the world through establishing a military clawhold, capitalist market control, and ideological influence over the American people and abroad. It also sought to counter and repress the developments of the Soviet Union and anti-colonial movements for liberation after centuries of imperial exploitation.
The broader philosophical movement of postmodernism emerged shortly thereafter. Postmodernism is centered on unmooring knowledge from the objective rational truth, and recentering the discussion on the fluid and subjective. It rejects the notion that truth is knowable and worth knowing. It may have started off in academic discussions in Western universities, but it has since saturated art, culture, politics, activism, and mainstream thought. One of postmodernism’s earliest artistic tendencies that helped popularize it was Pop Art. Pop Art emerged during the mid-1950s as artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns pioneered a new art movement that sought to elevate the aesthetic and philosophy of capitalism and popular culture to fine art.
The very life of Andy Warhol, Pop Art’s most notable champion, serves as an illustrative example of postmodernism’s tenets themselves. Warhol was born in 1928 to working-class Slovakian parents in the Rust Belt’s Pittsburgh. As he came of age in the ‘50’s, he moved to New York City to reinvent himself completely and “make it” as an artist. Yet it was when he began producing what he termed Pop Art that he experienced a meteoric rise to fame. Through his large scale screenprints of Campbell soup cans and popular celebrities of the day, he became one of the richest artists to have ever lived: his art and presence was coveted by the ruling elite during his lifetime and beyond his death.
His art reflected these materialistic values: Andy Warhol produced artwork in a studio dubbed “the Factory” and garnered a fortune from manufacturing and selling copy after copy of his works like mere commodities—mirroring capitalism’s mass production of commodities for maximizing profit, rather than the uplift of the masses. He was infamous for punchy interview quotes as part of his absurd, aloof personal brand: he claimed he wanted to be a machine, that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes in the future, and that “you can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking… Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
Although Warhol’s absurdist posturing has been construed as a critique of capitalist values, the Pop Art movement ultimately embraces the opposite, proclaiming that “life is best under capitalism.” Andy Warhol’s public persona best embodied this, which redefined fame and celebrity culture forever: partying, carefully curating appearances as to surround himself with other celebrities and models, and failing to take on any human issue (moral, political, economic) substantively. Thus, Pop Art presents the very economic exploitation that enables such a decadent lifestyle possible for few celebrities, as the only future for humanity.
In short, while Pop artists often claimed to “parody” the tenets of capitalism in their artistic and philosophical endeavors, they were in fact cementing their cultural capital and benefitting from their position in a decadently capitalist system. This kind of shallow “irony” allowed Warhol and his compatriots to uphold the ideology of capitalism and shielded them from serious criticism. It excuses Pop Art’s ultimately nihilistic view of human nature as primarily a product of materialistic, profit-driven, and consumerist tendencies—a comfort-seeking, non-struggle position that obscures the sheer will and necessity for the masses of humanity to fight for a better future and against oppression of all forms, unlike the art of the Harlem Renaissance.
Yet many academics and curators regard Pop Art as utterly radical, either because it protested social boundaries and art traditions with such disruptive artwork—or that it embodied the best of American values of artistic and consumeristic freedom. But if juxtaposed with the Harlem Renaissance, it’s clear that what Pop Art proclaims to be “radical,” is not the same as what its contemporary movements—the Civil Rights Movement, the 1960s global anticolonial struggles—meant when they evoked terms like “vanguard” or “revolutionary.”
Through the example of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the ideal of freedom meant joining the broader struggle for all people’s right to manifest their human potential and strivings, and all children grow up in a world free of exploitation and poverty. Therefore, genuine freedom, in substance, does not signify that we struggle to drink the same bottle of Coke. Rather, it is to speak on behalf of the voiceless, an incisive tool of critique against the very monopolistic forces that seek to disenfranchise the masses—to instill a lack of belief in the masses through their shallow assumptions about the worst of humanity, rather than the best. In their eyes, revolutionary art, as well as the use of irony, would not reflect ruling class ideologies. However, Pop Art, in line with postmodernism, abstracts any notion of true freedom and objective responsibility to the masses, and fails to present any paths for collective, principled struggle against dominant systems of oppression and exploitation.
For a few decades, Pop Art and postmodernism primarily operated in mainstream, white American culture, leaving the spirit and legacy of the Black American freedom struggle untouched. This all changed with the arrival of Jean-Michel Basquiat onto the art scene, and after his premature death, in all arenas of culture.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was born to a middle class Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. Growing up in a Brooklyn brownstone, he received a decent education, reading American literature and Beatnik poetry, and frequenting the city’s abundant museums and galleries. As a child, he witnessed the great Civil Rights and Black Power movements play out: watching Muhammad Ali box courageously and speak out against the Vietnam War, as well as the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Hampton.
After running away from home as a teenager, Basquiat co-founded the art collective SAMO (short for “Same Old Shit”), spraying paint wordplay on walls across New York City. He hung around the nascent hip hop scene of the time, influenced by early MC’s, DJ’s, and graffiti artists. Not long after, he began to catch the attention of the establishment art market and gallery world. It took several key downtown gallery exhibitions to catapult this adolescent artist into fame, and his artworks’ sale value into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One night, 22-year-old Basquiat met 54-year-old Andy Warhol at a restaurant, as the young artist was at the cusp of catching his break in the art world. The two immediately clicked, setting off an intense artistic, personal relationship. Andy Warhol became Basquiat’s mentor, promoter, and collaborator, and Basquiat began spending time at Warhol’s Factory, where they produced art together. Yet their relationship never recovered after an irreconcilable falling out, just preceding Warhol’s 1987 death from gallbladder surgery complications and Basquiat’s passing from a heroin overdose the same year.
Although the grittier aspects of Basquiat’s life are emphasized as part of his struggles to “make it” as a household name artist, he was ultimately quickly accepted into the mainstream art world because he adopted the principles of postmodernism as a young Black artist, and earned immense fame and wealth because of it. Basquiat’s legacy has both made postmodernism digestible for the masses, and contributed to the elevation and commodification of disaffected youth culture into high art.
Yet not only is Basquiat praised as an artistic genius of the likes of Picasso and Warhol, he is also lauded as a postmodernist inheritor of the broader Black American artistic legacy. In his works, Basquiat nods to the rich spirit of jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis. Jazz, after all, has been a vanguard force within several key stages of the Black freedom struggle, including the Harlem Renaissance, which nurtured Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Basquiat’s Horn Players (1983), for example depicts several lumpy, skeletal figures playing a trumpet and a saxophone, with words like “Dizzy”, “Teeth”, “Ornithology” strewn throughout the triptych—in characteristic Basquiat-style of wordplay, rough sketches, and swaths of color. Throughout his works, he experimented with repeating words scrawled in capital letters, combining disparate phrases between his drawings in a graffiti-inspired style.
One must ask, how exactly is this postmodern approach honoring or elevating these Black jazz artists? Rather, how is this anything but deconstructing and muddying their great legacies, under the false guise of paying them tribute? It’s often said Basquiat’s irreverent style of scribbling words and doodles is a tribute to the improvisational nature of jazz, but in a visual format. However, compared to the disciplined practice of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, or the Coltranes, Sun Ra, and Miles Davis, it is apparent that Basquiat represents a sharp departure from such a tradition. Unlike Basquiat, the Coltranes, Sun Ra, and Davis did not make much money in their lifetimes, but did spend day and night honing their craft; they deeply studied the spiritual and artistic traditions of European classical music, as well as Eastern, African, and other civilizations, in order to produce new musical innovations for the world. In addition, their improvisational practice was rooted in a sincere engagement with their audience, furthering and following the footsteps of a participatory tradition of dialogue between artist and community, emerging from the legacy of Black struggle in this country.
Basquiat certainly was improvisational across his short but prolific art career, his works pulsating with frenetic, unbounded creative energy. But in contrast to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Basquiat led an indulgent, egoistical, and carefree life—likely exacerbated by the fact that he was but a teenager when the white elite showered upon him staggering amounts of fame and wealth, not yet mature enough to develop a strong inner world that bound him closer to a principled struggle for his people’s liberation.
Yet strangely enough, the academic tendency is to paint the artistic legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and the postmodern contributions of Basquiat as part of one single lineage of Black culture—the same way hip hop is also considered as “paying homage” to jazz, gospel, and funk. But few critics have explored how Basquiat is an aberration from the longer Black cultural tradition rooted in struggle, for the reasons above.
This leaves the unanswered question: what do we stand to lose when we conflate or confuse Basquiat or Warhol’s postmodernist contributions, with the kind of substantive tradition of the Harlem Renaissance which gave a full-throated voice to the Afro-American strivings for liberation? And what do we gain when we choose to inherit the unadulterated spirit of artists like Jacob Lawrence or Aaron Douglas—who painted the Black worker, his dignity, history, and aspirations in their entirety—instead of taking Basquiat as a North Star for “radical” Black art? If we look up to Basquiat and Warhol, do we not lose the ability to see figures like Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, WEB Du Bois as role models for our times: Black leaders who stood tall with dignity and intellect, never compromising their courage and people’s struggle?
Instead, the hip hop culture that Basquiat partook in during his lifetime endures today, where those same defining values of his life live on: hip hop is rife with celebrity worship, commodification of art and artists’ persona as a brand, decadence, and nihilism. With its brash and violent lyrics, instrumentation, imagery, and overarching culture, hip hop actively contributes to a broad feeling among young people to wallow in their dissatisfaction, anger, and feelings of impotence to take responsibility for themselves and the world—in short, it encourages them to instead turn towards pessimism and destructive impulses.
Culture, whether art or music, plays a significant role in the consciousness of young people, who are most susceptible as they develop their outlook and capacity to imagine and struggle for a future. With such a mainstreaming of postmodernism, what is its impact on the younger generation? What kind of future is postmodernism and its various tendencies striving for? Is it anything like that of the Harlem Renaissance, whose leaders dreamed of a world free of economic exploitation, where one’s sense of self and the human relationships of society are not determined by these values of commodification and decadence?
It is clear that hip hop, as a cultural movement emerging from the legacy of Basquiat (and by extension Warhol’s Pop Art and postmodernism), fails to even come close. Ultimately, the nihilistic and materialistic qualities of hip hop and the art of Basquiat more closely embody the ideals of postmodernism and Pop Art, a stifling, deadening culture rooted in the values of the ruling class—rather than descending from an artistic tradition of the oppressed masses, like that of the Harlem Renaissance. Thus, postmodernism and its various tendencies debase the American people and drive them further away from the rich legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and its potential for inspiring a truly dynamic and liberatory art for our times.
Once we stop conceiving certain radical-sounding postmodern movements as “organic” to the people and understand their true ideological basis, it becomes apparent why the ruling class needs these movements, and will stop at nothing to entrench them into mainstream culture. Du Bois said it best: All art is propaganda, and both the ruling class and revolutionary artists know it best—art is an ideological weapon to be used either for or against the people’s ability to struggle. Therefore, if we choose the side of the people, it is evident what we must do to move forward: to critique postmodernism in all forms, and draw from the true, organic cultural traditions to give birth a new cultural renaissance that speaks clearly to our times
As we enter a new age of the crisis of the West and its values, American capitalism once again tries to rebrand itself, the way the rise of postmodernism marked the start of a new American hegemonic era in the 50s, necessitating Andy Warhol and Pop Art to rebrand capitalism. In a similar fashion, counterrevolutionary currents today cloak themselves in the veneer of wokeness and identity politics, deploying figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat to win over the Black, brown, and working class youth. Yet identifying the origins of these dominant cultural tendencies in postmodernism frees us from their spell, and allows us to look to the true traditions of the people—like that of the Harlem Renaissance.
Our task today is to demand a new kind of art and culture for our times, rooted in truth and struggle, just as the Harlem Renaissance artists and intellectuals did. Humanity deserves art worthy of the people, not these decadent art movements, which are unable to liberate humanity from its current chains and bring about a brighter future.
What can we draw from the legacies of Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and WEB Du Bois to respond to this moment and build a path forward? It’s up to us to inherit all that the generations before have left us: their ideas, culture, and spirit of dignified resistance needed more than ever in these times. The memory of these progressive traditions can and must be revived through deep intensive study, as well as creatively applied to our period of crisis. By doing so, we plant seeds of a new revolutionary cultural movement to guide us onward.
This article was produced by Avant Garde Journal.