Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-19, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 23 January, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2019.


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Black art

core definition

Black art refers to works of art based on the concept of a black aesthetic and often linked to anti-racist political and cultural values.

explanatory context

Black art is a term with several connotations. On a general level it refers to the artistic or cultural work of black people, be they professional artists or schoolchildren. The term is used in this way, in Britain, by both the black and non-black communities. Such a usage, if simply a descriptor of the race of the originator is virtually useless.


More insidious, however, is the implication that the culture black people produce is necessarily different from the mainstream culture. The general term is not innocent, it does not deal with differences based on the social structure of the society but legitimises cultural differences outside the dominant culture.


In one respect, this lack of innocence has been used by radical black commentators as a basis for arguing for a separate black culture unattainable to non-blacks. This has often been tied in with a notion of an exclusive black aesthetic.


The radical separatist approach to the notion of black art is at variance with the radical critical challenge to dominant culture to be found in racist-critique black art.


Black art is a more specific analytic concept when it applies to work done by black people that directly critiques racism. In this sense it is a specific historical development within contemporary art practices. Black art, in this sense, emerged in Britain in the 1970s, with the development of anti-racist black consciousness and, somewhat transformed, developed into the radical black art movement of the 1980s.


The term ‘Black art” was probably first explicitly used in this racist-critique sense in Britain in 1981 by Eddie Chambers for an exhibition organised at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which expressly emphasised the radical critical functions of black art in the context of black struggle against racism and imperialism.


Racist-critique black art is not just a critique of white/mainstream culture but also of black separatist culture. It does not simply imply solidarity with a community or with a political struggle, it also demands that art has cognitive value.


Black art, as racist-critique art, is arguably not entirely divorced from mainstream culture but is a radical development of modernism. The problem for black art is, it is argued, its marginality to the inherently racist, but universally dominant, modernist tradition. The racist-critique of black art is directed at the modernist art world as well as the wider social milieu.

analytical review

Neal (1971), at the time when the notion of Black art was emerging as a concept, wrote:

The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics.

Recently, these two movements have begun to merge: the political values inherent in the Black Power concept are now finding concrete expression in the aesthetics of Afro-American dramatists, poets, choreographers, musicians, and novelists. A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. The Black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics. The two movements postulate that there are in fact and in spirit two Americas—one black, one white. The Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people. Therefore, the main thrust of this new breed of contemporary writers is to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man's experience in the racist West. Currently, these writers are re-evaluating western aesthetics, the traditional role of the writer, and the social function of art. Implicit in this re-evaluation is the need to develop a "black aesthetic." It is the opinion of many Black writers, I among them, that the Western aesthetic has run its course; it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure. We advocate a cultural revolution in art and ideas. The cultural values inherent in western history must either be radicalized or destroyed, and we will probably find that even radicalization is impossible. In fact, what is needed is a whole new system of ideas....

associated issues

Note: Black art has nothing to do with the notion of 'Black arts' as harmful magic, or 'Dark arts' as popularised in fictional Harry Potter films.

related areas

See also


Black perspectives


Neal, L, 1971, 'The Black Arts Movement' in Gayle, A., (Ed.), The Black Aesthetic. New York, Doubleday, available at, accessed 5 January 2013, still available unchanged 14 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2019


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