Citation

Visual Humor and the New Negro in the Painting of Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden

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Abstract:

As principal artists of the Negro Renaissance, Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden sought to combat racial prejudice by constructing sensitive images of African Americans and highlighting the significance of black contributions to American culture and history. Motley described the subversion of harmful stereotypes of African Americans as the central objective of his artistic career. Hayden likewise sought a more multi-dimensional expression of black life and folklore. Despite these admirable goals, many of their compositions contain characters with exaggerated smiles, bright red lips, and bulging eyes, features that readily evoke the visual distortions of racial caricature. Considering their avowed desire to transform the way black Americans were viewed, why did these artists adopt formal techniques that resembled degrading popular stereotypes? Did Motley and Hayden use this imagery to provoke humor, and, if so, in what ways does their work challenge, undermine, or complicate existing conceptualizations of the “New Negro?”

In this paper, I analyze key compositions by Motley and Hayden in order to better grasp the implications and possible meanings behind their aesthetic decisions and the use of humor in their narratives. Drawing on discussions of racial caricature by prominent African-American scholars and cultural critics and placing these artists’ work within the larger cultural and artistic concerns of the period, I suggest that Motley and Hayden constructed this challenging and often vulgar figuration to disrupt the high-minded seriousness of their black peers and thereby question common articulations of the New Negro as a singularly heroic entity.

Motley and Hayden demonstrate that visual articulations of black identity were still very much under negotiation and dispute during the 1930s and throughout their careers; indeed, their work draws attention to the conflicts and debates over defining the “New Negro” and the place of visual humor within this discourse. Their challenges to existing techniques of representation reveal the thorniness and perhaps impossibility of creating a wholly newborn “New Negro” removed from the trappings of popular and established forms of representation. I argue that their figuration demonstrates not only their desire to lampoon class distinctions in black communities and question acceptable modes of black representation in artistic, popular, and non-western forms of art, but also that humor is acceptable and necessary in creating a more human and believable vision of the New Negro.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244355_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Wolfskill, Phoebe. "Visual Humor and the New Negro in the Painting of Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244355_index.html>

APA Citation:

Wolfskill, P. "Visual Humor and the New Negro in the Painting of Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244355_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: As principal artists of the Negro Renaissance, Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden sought to combat racial prejudice by constructing sensitive images of African Americans and highlighting the significance of black contributions to American culture and history. Motley described the subversion of harmful stereotypes of African Americans as the central objective of his artistic career. Hayden likewise sought a more multi-dimensional expression of black life and folklore. Despite these admirable goals, many of their compositions contain characters with exaggerated smiles, bright red lips, and bulging eyes, features that readily evoke the visual distortions of racial caricature. Considering their avowed desire to transform the way black Americans were viewed, why did these artists adopt formal techniques that resembled degrading popular stereotypes? Did Motley and Hayden use this imagery to provoke humor, and, if so, in what ways does their work challenge, undermine, or complicate existing conceptualizations of the “New Negro?”

In this paper, I analyze key compositions by Motley and Hayden in order to better grasp the implications and possible meanings behind their aesthetic decisions and the use of humor in their narratives. Drawing on discussions of racial caricature by prominent African-American scholars and cultural critics and placing these artists’ work within the larger cultural and artistic concerns of the period, I suggest that Motley and Hayden constructed this challenging and often vulgar figuration to disrupt the high-minded seriousness of their black peers and thereby question common articulations of the New Negro as a singularly heroic entity.

Motley and Hayden demonstrate that visual articulations of black identity were still very much under negotiation and dispute during the 1930s and throughout their careers; indeed, their work draws attention to the conflicts and debates over defining the “New Negro” and the place of visual humor within this discourse. Their challenges to existing techniques of representation reveal the thorniness and perhaps impossibility of creating a wholly newborn “New Negro” removed from the trappings of popular and established forms of representation. I argue that their figuration demonstrates not only their desire to lampoon class distinctions in black communities and question acceptable modes of black representation in artistic, popular, and non-western forms of art, but also that humor is acceptable and necessary in creating a more human and believable vision of the New Negro.


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