Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, by Paul C. Taylor (Wiley-Blackwell), £18.99/$29.95
Marvel’s cinematic blockbuster Black Panther is a culturally significant moment. Its impact has been undeniable, inspiring and invigorating audiences the world over. Though Black Panther has received widespread praise, it has not been universal. Some critics have accused the film of presenting an anti-revolutionary politics and that this is a serious defect in the film’s artistic value. What remains unclear about these critiques is what, if anything, they have to do with the aesthetic assessment of the film. Why are we even discussing its politics, as opposed to its aesthetic qualities? Are these two separate and unrelated considerations, or do ethicopolitical considerations bear on aesthetic assessment?
Another recent event has stoked questions about the aesthetics and ethics of black cultural productions. R&B singer Bruno Mars has been the subject of intense debate since a video has surfaced accusing him of cultural appropriation. Is Mars a genuine artist who merely reflects his musical influences, or is he an appropriator of cultural products that are somehow not his own?
Paul C. Taylor has written a timely book that helps us grapple with these and other questions in fruitful ways. In Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, Taylor defines black aesthetics as “the practice of using art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds.” The book examines six themes:
1. The relationship between visibility, invisibility, and recognition.
2. The burdens and limits of ethicopolitical criticism.
3. The seductions of authenticity and complications of mobility.
4. The complexities of somatic aesthetics in anti-black contexts.
5. The meaning of black music for the body and the soul.
6. The dialectic of aversion and attraction in contexts of interracial exchange.
Taylor’s deft interrogation of these themes leads to rich and illuminating analyses that provide us with useful tools for engaging in intelligent discussion about salient contemporary issues. Consider the second theme concerning the burdens and limits of ethicopolitical criticism. In chapter 3, “Beauty to Set the World Right: The Politics of Black Aesthetics”, Taylor examines the connection between aesthetics and politics, characterising this as the problem of aesthetic autonomy. He associates the problem with three questions: (1) Should political actors enjoy freedom from interference by culture workers? (2) Should culture workers enjoy freedom from interference by politicians and moralists? (3) Can expressive culture escape and contest the influence of its originating social context?
Let us focus on question two. Recall the criticism of Black Panther as failing in some respect due to its purportedly anti-revolutionary political vision. To the extent that such criticisms are an indictment of the film’s aesthetic quality, we might ask how we should think of the relationship between a cultural product and its ethicopolitical aspects. For instance, why think the film’s aesthetic quality – its artistic value as a cinematic work – depends in any way on the political philosophy it appears to espouse? Taylor’s presentation of the relationship between art and propaganda in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois provides a solid staging ground for investigating this question.
Also recall the charge against Bruno Mars as a cultural appropriator. Though a person of colour, Mars is not Black, leaving some to wonder whether he is getting a pass for doing what would be called out if the performer were white. Getting a handle on this question requires forming ideas about a number of more foundational issues. One such issue concerns what it is that constitutes black music. In order to charge Mars with doing something improper, we must first be able to make sense of the idea that musical forms can be racialized.
Once again, Taylor offers a helpful analysis that can aid us in getting clear on these issues. In chapter 6, “Make it Funky; Or, Music’s Cognitive Travels and the Despotism of Rhythm”, he draws on thinkers like Brenda Dixon-Gottschild and Robert Farris Thompson to establish an empirical rather than essentialist account of black music. That is, Taylor’s account appeals more to historical than innate factors in circumscribing the boundaries of black music. He then offers commentary on the notion of racial exclusivism that tracks some Black people’s unease with non-Black performers. Other chapters introduce concepts like authenticity, invisibility, and blackness that we also need if we are to engage the question about Mars in particular, and appropriation in general, intelligently.
Taylor has offered us a true gift. Black is Beautiful is philosophically rigorous and analytically careful, a must-read for sure (can one say such a thing about a philosophy book?). Taylor has assembled a thought-provoking book that provides useful tools for thinking critically and productively about pressing issues in contemporary black culture.