Encountering Abstraction (by Andrew Schlager)

Phillip Brian Harper

A community of students, friends, and scholars gathered together this February at the NYU Center for the Humanities to celebrate, as the title of the series announced, a “Great New Book.” The particular work featured and discussed that evening was (Professor of English and Social and Cultural Analysis) Phillip Brian Harper’s recently published Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture (NYU Press, 2015). Professor Sonya Posmentier of the English Department moderated a conversation between Harper, Professor Michael Ralph of SCA, and Professor Anne Anlin Chang (Princeton). Each of the participants spent time thinking through Harper’s engagement with visual, filmic and literary works that that represent African Americans life while also featuring gestures of abstractionism. A photograph of a 2010 sculpture by Fred Wilson was the first object of Harper’s analysis that evening. The piece in question featured a figure of an emancipated black slave, appropriated from the late 19th century “Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument” in Indianapolis, to which Wilson had added a large flag signifying black diaspora. Local residents were quick to denounce the publically displayed figure as a “negative image” of black life. Reading out from this and other examples, Harper noted the way in which certain works of African American aesthetics—in particular, visual works—are met with a perpetual failure to register their abstraction, and it is this kind of response that provided Harper with his argument for the specific power of abstraction in literary narrative.

            Months before the event, and before his book was officially published, I was lucky enough to sit down with Prof. Harper and ask him some questions about the origins of the project and its completion. This new book developed out of and drew its concerns from what he called a “very long period of worry.” He said there was no identifiable and single moment in which the book’s arguments and analyses originated, but he did remember how seeing the 1998 sci-fi film Dark City, a film he was quick to flag as overrated, produced a very specific set of problems and questions that eventually formed his contentions surrounding abstractionism’s place within African American aesthetic culture (I really suggest everyone watch the film’s trailer. The remixed Gregorian chant and the nausea-green lighting are well worth it. And who doesn’t want to see a young(ish) Kiefer Sutherland with his hair parted down the middle). Harper summarized the film: “Aliens have inevitably invaded earth, and for reasons that remain pretty much inexplicable through out the film, [these aliens] are using human beings for various experiments they are running, which they conduct periodically, when the human inhabitant are sleeping, which is a state the aliens themselves put the human beings into.” During these artificially induced sleeps, the aliens rearrange the physical environment, and transfer various people’s beings or selves from one body into another.

A scene from "Dark City"
A scene from “Dark City”

            As Harper noted, with old irritation, “there were no persons of color in this movie at all, except there is one scene, very early on, in which a black man figures, and the only reasons he’s there, the only reason a black actor was cast, is to make it clear to the audience that the guy sitting in this place where he’s sitting—he’s a hotel clerk, so he’s sitting in the front desk of a hotel—is the same person we saw sitting at the desk, before the [alien’s] rearrangement, except his race has changed, and that’s our clue what the aliens are doing.” This use of blackness as a “visual sign of the fact that a [narrative] shift has taken place,” Harper reads as racial blackness and black people “being used instrumentally, as a kind of visual cue.” This manipulation of blackness is integral to the communication of a story, and yet the story fails to include its black characters in its narrative. Harper identified this trend as symptomatic of the “mistreatment of black people in the realm of visual culture,” and further pinpointed how they are treated when treated at all: “What made blackness utilitarian in visual culture? Are there comparable ways that [racial blackness] gets used in other aesthetic forms? In literature? And I didn’t think so.”

            This instrumental use of racial blackness depends upon what Harper called a “principle of abstraction”; meanwhile, he also notes that a “longstanding antipathy towards abstraction… is characteristic of African American culture.” But is abstraction always deployed in a deleterious function towards black people? Aren’t there works of art which engage and mobilize abstraction in a socially progressive way, and furthermore, activate a kind of social critique foreclosed on by a resistance to abstraction tout court? What do abstract works of African American artistic production look like, and how do popular discourses assimilate and receive its aesthetic? Harper holds a joint appointment in the English and SCA departments, and in conversation he was quick to account for the potentially disparate pulls of each discipline, and how each informed his work. He maintained that this project had a pronounced “interest in aesthetics,” but that he did use certain “social events in the world, mostly public controversies about African American art” to contextualize the various mediums he wrote about. For instance, his reflections on the artist Kara Walker’s silhouettes, which debuted in the 1990’s and faced charges of hyper-sexualization and negatively depicting black people, account for the public controversy surrounding her work, as well as the internal aesthetics of her work as such.

            Though Harper was trained as a literary scholar, a “professional reader,” as he likes to say, this project took him across mediums into the genres of jazz music and, as glossed above, contemporary art. This is not the first time Harper has moved outside of the discipline of literature. He recognized examples of abstract African American fiction in the experimental prose of John Keene, and, through a lucky encounter (Harper claims to work with the “principle of serendipity”) began to explore the abstract qualities of Louis Armstrong’s music: “Once I knew that I was writing about problems surrounding abstraction, abstraction became a key term for me, and I was attuned to instances in popular discourse when the concept was made salient. During the time that I was writing this, I was watching, completely serendipitously, the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, and there are actually a couple of moments through out the series where commentators describe instances of jazz performance as highly abstract, and when they used the term explicitly, my ears picked up and I hyperventilated.” Harper swiftly crosses mediums, and yet he ultimately settles on narrative literature as the form that can most saliently mobilize abstraction in service of progressive social critique. The larger implication of Harper’s conclusion would then necessitate a major re-centering of the literary within African American aesthetic discourse.

            When, a week after my conversation with Harper, a friend invited me to see an exhibition of Mark Bradford’s, “Be Strong Boquan,” at Hauser & Wirth, I was reminded of some of the problematics Harper had discussed with me, about blackness and abstraction, the grid and negative imagery. I was quite taken with Bradford’s massive palimpsestic paintings, where layers of material shatter into, cut through and break apart the others, and read some interviews with the artist. When he described his work as “social abstraction,” I realized Harper had given me the kind of serendipitous moment he spoke about, where a chance encounter with a work leaves one’s brain ringing, where immediacy and intellectualization synch up, and life, for just a flicker of an instant, seems to directly encourage, be conspiring towards a kind of scholarly disposition.