Abstract: In two essays in the ART/Artifact(1988) exhibition catalog, white American museum curator Susan Vogel and white American philosopher Arthur Danto pronounce that Africans do not distinguish between art and nonart. Although seemingly objective empirical statements, their assertions about Africa and its art are racially based ruminations of a white supremacist worldview. I argue that in theorizing within the category of race they produced racialized aesthetics that commit the Eurocentric fallacy of upholding systemic racist objectives. I argue that (1) their assertions fail to be about African art, but about hegemony and power; (2) as the longest enduring artistic activity of humanity, African art is an important check to racialized aesthetics; (3) art is produced outside the category of race and from a critically conscious awareness of the world; and (4) art bespeaks creativity and presupposes the artistic and moral values of a culture in the manipulation and transformation of physical reality.
Comment: Written in an engaging way, this paper invites the reader to re-evaluate some common assumptions about art from different cultures. Exposing the prevalent Western approach to African art as racialised, it can be a great tool in making students understand both the structural-societal, as well as own biases in approaching other cultures. Ngzewu defends a powerful thesis: that ‘the West’s conception of art and creativity presupposes white racial hegemony.’ She exposes the way in which Western art is tacitly assumed to be a yardstick against which all is measured, and the Westerners have become the ‘purveyors of knowledge’ who apply this yardstick to decide whether works of other cultures are art, all without any need to consult the creators of those works, or to revise own concept of art. As such, the paper can be very empowering to some students, while also being very uncomfortable to others – teaching it might require some skill in leading the discussion in a constructive way. The import of Ngzewu’s argumentis that while racism and white domination rest on the assumption of cognitive and moral superiority of white people, the approach to African art she criticises serves to reinforce this assumption. This can inspire further class discussion on the importance and value of aesthetics. Best used before assigning other texts on non-Western art, which should all be read in light of Ngzewu’s criticism.