The Dark Legacy of the Enlightenment

The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part 1, Slaves and Liberators

by Hugh Honour
Harvard University Press, 379 pp., $50.00

The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part 2, Black Models and White Myths

by Hugh Honour
Harvard University Press, 306 pp., $50.00

The Enlightenment, bearing the name it did, was ill-equipped to deal with dark-hued human beings. Seeking to make all things perspicuous to reason, that historical movement shied from the opaque. Thomas Jefferson, who admired translucent things (like his own house), criticized the black cheek for its lack of blushes. This inability to express shame indicated to him that there was none to be expressed. Only a bungling-workman God would have prisoned up a feeling inside people who could not convey that feeling visually. Thus a black’s “ardour after his female” lacks “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation”—the subtler forms of emotion that can be registered on paler skin, a kind of superior page for the writing of the human story.

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV)

Hugh Honour does not cite Jefferson’s discussion of blacks, perhaps since it is too well known, in his two-volume study of the black image from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century; but Jefferson’s text is a perfect illustration of his original and convincing thesis—that there is an innate conservativism to visual representation as compared with verbal and theoretical forms of communication. Jefferson recognized an equality between blacks and whites in the faculty that his own theory put at the apex of human activity, the moral sense. But an aesthetic revulsion prevented him from seeing the practical implications of that theory. How, for instance, could blacks have a fully developed moral sense without the emotions connected with shame and sentiment? Jefferson did not pursue the matter, since he saw (or thought he did) an absence of shame on the stubbornly unblushing cheek. Visual prejudice short-circuited his thinking—a pattern Honour finds over and over in the artists he considers.

Theoretical views can detach themselves from concrete perception in ways that the plastic arts cannot. It is commonplace to say that modernist art drastically changed our view of the world, but only in a minor way when we compare it with the influence of modern physics. Einstein was more radical than Picasso. A cubist table is still, so long as it remains in any visual way a table, a conservative construct compared to the understanding of its atomic and subatomic structure. In an analogous way, Wordsworth could convey the stature…

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