G. Gabrielle Starr, professor of English and author of Feeling Beauty, on a panel from the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
GS One of the things that Gilded Birds wants to do is expand our sense of what’s beautiful and I think that Jacob Lawrence really does that in an extraordinary way. Lawrence is also a blender of genres and I love things that aren’t just one thing. He’s a painter but he’s also a historian. He’s a believer in narrative and he makes words as important as the pictures.
GB He said that the most important thing to him is the philosophy behind his work and he believes that the technique will just come if there’s a strong enough thought there to express. Do you think beauty is part of what he’s trying to achieve?
GS Yes. It’s odd because beauty is not the first thing you would associate with a lot of his subject matter. He deals with very difficult things, with race riots and lynchings and rebellion. He feels that sometimes there is a story of tragedy to be told and sometimes a story of heroism and there certainly is a moral centre to everything that Lawrence is trying to do and I think he makes that centre beautiful. He is also, somehow, a deeply optimistic artist for I think he sees history in a long view and believes change and movement are possible. His sense of vibrancy may not be classically beautiful but it’s something that’s powerful and moving.
GB So do you think that even before you’ve thought about the meaning of the picture there’s an immediate sensory response that recognises beauty in it?
GS Absolutely. In the panel I chose there’s a sense that everyone is moving forward to something that you can’t see and there’s a compositional balance to the image. All the angles align in interesting ways, the colours are so vibrant and the people are so purposeful. They are motivated by human need and desire. It’s hard to imagine it not being deeply historical and deeply political but also sensually appealing.
GB So do you think the text is important? He tells the story of the African-American migration from the South of America to the North in very simple terms.
GS I think it creates a dialogue in the sense that it moves the painting off the wall and into your imagination in a different way. It says that whatever the painting is there’s always something else – that there’s another one before it or another one after it and that there’s something that you don’t know, that’s not fully revealed by the visual image, which requires that you try to figure out what that other thing is.
GB Lawrence was greatly concerned with the humanity of his paintings. In a way, we look at them as a historical document. Would you say that our interest in the history and the politics of a picture is part of our aesthetic reaction or something completely separate?
GS One of the real challenges of a lot of African-American art and literature in the 20th century and even as far back as the 18th century, is the relationship between the more sensually and artistically isolatable elements of the work and the political and social work that the artists are doing. So for the first 250 years of African-American artistic production it’s very clear that the political was absolutely inseparable from any other claim that could be made. It’s not until you get reactions to the Black Art Movement in the 1960s and 70s, (with some earlier notable exceptions like Zora Neale Hurston), that there is not a primary political claim being made by the artwork. The same is true of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in the 18th century. She’s saying, “Look, I can read and write.” It’s a claim to citizenship, to humanity, but there’s something special about making that claim in artistic form. You can do it by an act of physical rebellion but doing it by an act of art makes certain claims on the viewer and claims about the artist. They can be claims about one’s belonging to a canon, claims to taste. They can be clams about one’s ability to revise tradition or to be part of an institution. They can be claims that “I” the artist can make something of beauty and move you even against your will. So yes, I think it’s part of our aesthetic response but part of the challenge of looking at these artworks, is that many people want to engage them as being essentially political in a way that is not artistic and I think it’s entirely wrong to do so.
GS Do you think Lawrence had an intention about whether this was supposed to arouse our empathy for these particular people at this particular time – or if he wanted to represent a more universal human suffering?
GS I think one of the interesting things about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration paintings is that you don’t see faces quite as clearly as you might. There’s a stylistic choice that he makes that takes away personally identifiable features. But there’s still a powerful sense of their humanity. So while Lawrence says, “Yes, this is my story, this is my family’s story,” – it’s much more than that – especially when you realise that for most African Americans at this time, family history was not easily obtainable. Pre ancestry.com and huge numbers of genealogical records – there were lots of family stories but little family history. So I think that at this time, for the artist, it had to be in a way a universal story.
GB So in spite of the simplicity of the painting and the figures having no faces, would you say that it still evokes a strong emotional response in you?
GS Yes. There is a huge story that’s told just by those simple lines, by the appearance of motion. What I think is genius about his lines is that the figures are so impossible. They’re aggressively two-dimensional, so the mystery of the painting is, how is it that something that’s so flat can seem so alive? How does the almost collage of shapes magically transform into human beings?
GB I’m interested in something Lawrence said about abstract art – that it feels fragmentary and devoid of feeling to him. Do you think there’s less going on in our brains when we look at a totally abstract work?
GS I don’t think that less goes on in our brains. Different things go on. When you have readily available semantic associations with an artwork, (and probably the most pertinent semantic associations for a human being come from the human form in some way), there is so much potential for connection. There’s potential for stories, for wondering who is there, what they are thinking, where they are going. What’s the little boy in the middle of the picture doing looking back? Why is there grass under some people’s feet? Different things go on when something is abstract rather than representational. Human beings tend to find faces where there aren’t any, which I think is something Lawrence exploits. You, the viewer, have put the humanity there in a very real way. I think he is asking us to own and recognise our active engagement with the art.
GB So do you think that in spite of the best efforts of the Abstract Expressionists, we’re still looking for something figurative in a painting?
GS Yes. I think we are – but we can be educated out of it. You can learn not to look for it and that has its own aesthetic effect.
GB Do you believe in universal beauty?
GS No. I think that there are things that people tend to like. Certainly, natural beauty is a close as we might get. There are places and natural objects that most people would say are arresting, but I think when it comes to what human beings create, it’s very hard to define what it is we find beautiful because personal history takes over at such an early age and shapes our taste and desires.
GB So your life experiences might lead to you no longer finding this painting beautiful?
GS I think your life experiences, even how you feel that day, have an effect. Although this painting has stayed with me so far.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
GS It has to evoke a visceral response. I can’t just think it, I have to feel it. It has to be a powerful response. It has to be something that hangs around in my imagination even long after I’ve seen it.