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Kobena Mercer

Alain Locke and the Visual Arts (Richard D. Cohen Lectures on African & African American Art)

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A fresh perspective on the influential critic, offering new ways of understanding the art of the Harlem Renaissance
“Mercer’s sumptuously illustrated study . . . succeeds in positioning Locke as an important philosophical voice in the ‘not yet finalized story of Afro-modern art and culture.’”—Douglas Field, 
Times Literary Supplement
Alain Locke (1885–1954), leading theorist of the Harlem Renaissance, maintained a lifelong commitment to the visual arts. Offering an in-depth study of Locke’s writings and art world interventions, Kobena Mercer focuses on the importance of cross-cultural entanglement. This distinctive approach reveals Locke’s vision of modern art as a dynamic space where images and ideas generate new forms under the fluid conditions of diaspora.
Positioning the philosopher as an advocate for an Afromodern aesthetic that drew from both formal experiments in Europe and the iconic legacy of the African past, Mercer shows how Aaron Douglas, Loïs Mailou Jones, and other New Negro artists acknowledged the diaspora’s rupture with the ancestral past as a prelude to the rebirth of identity. In his 1940 picture book,
 The Negro in Art, Locke also explored the different ways black and white artists approached the black image. Mercer’s reading highlights the global mobility of black images as they travel across national and ethnic frontiers. Finally, Mercer examines how Locke’s investment in art was shaped by gay male aestheticism. Black male nudes, including works by Richmond Barthé and Carl Van Vechten, thus reveal the significance of queer practices in modernism’s cross-cultural genesis.
Published in association with the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University

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