Art vs. Propaganda: The 1920s Debate between Alain Locke and W. E. B duBois



Download 20.2 Kb.
Date conversion21.04.2016
Size20.2 Kb.
Art vs. Propaganda:

The 1920s Debate between Alain Locke and W.E.B DuBois

Monnel Cremin

ED 608


Final Essay

October 21, 2010

Throughout the history of the mankind, there have been people who have been oppressed, abused and enslaved. My suggestion is that you start with the United States with the second part of your second sentence. The enslavement of the African people was never solely the crime of the United States; however, America was responsible for continuing the degradation and oppression of African Americans long after slavery was abolished. (citation). By the early 1900’s, African Americans began making a more coordinated effort to break in breaking through the walls of racism. By 1920, the Great Migration was well under way; African Americans were leaving the South to head to the cities in the North and West. They were looking for work, a better life and social acceptance. This migration became the catalyst for of a cultural movement that would later be called the Harlem Renaissance. It was characterized by a “dramatic upsurge of creativity in literature, music, and art within black America that reached its zenith in the second half of the 1920s.” (Rampersad, 1992, p. ix) The Harlem Renaissance was also a time of social change because racial stereotypes were being challenged by the artistic accomplishments of the latest generation of African Americans. There were many writers and artists who were well known for their contributions at this time, but two stood out due to their debate over how to promote the “New Negro” that became the focal point of the Harlem Renaissance(Locke, 1925, p.3). Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois both agreed that art was pivotal in defining a new image of African Americans, but they disagreed on how this message should be delivered to the public. Locke was an idealist who believed that art should be produced freely while DuBois felt that the art created should be used as propaganda. There was a very fine, almost invisible line separating their argument. Clear argument informed by the primary sources and grounded in the historical context.

Reversing the negative images of African Americans was no simple, straight-forward task. Throughout the last third of the 19th century, Currier and Ives’ Darktown series and Harpers Weekly Blackville series portrayed African Americans as comical figures who were dimwitted and physically distorted. (citation)By the 1920s, and particularly after World War I, thousands of African Americans were migrating to cities in the north and west looking for work. With the rapid increase of the African American population in these cities, the need had arisen for a new physical, mental and social image of African Americans. Both Locke and DuBois agreed that this could be accomplished through all of the arts: music, literature, painting, sculpting, drawing, theater, film and photography, etc. Thise attempt to use the arts to change public opinion about African Americans positively or negatively could roughly have been defined as propaganda. Locke refused to consider using art in this way while DuBois embraced it.

DuBois had been trying to use art to sway public opinion even before the Harlem Renaissance movement. His work for the Exhibit of American Negros at the Paris Exposition in 1900 was an opportunity to display positive sympathetic? photographs of African Americans, DuBois argued that the exhibit featured, “There are several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas” (DuBois, 1900, p. 577). The exhibit was an important endeavor because it demonstrated displayed that some African Americans rose were rising above hard times and lead were leading productive lives. The reality of lynchings and other racial injustices were purposefully left out. DuBois wanted to replace negative images with pictures that depicted scenes that Europeans would be able to assimilate with their own lives. an According to DuBois, the exhibit would d, “set the great white world straight about black people” (Lewis, 2003, p. 33).

Alain Locke emerged as a pivotal figure of the Harlem Renaisssance when he edited the March 1925 edition of The Survey Graphic. (one sentence description of the journal and its audience here) Locke was very particular about what artwork would accompany the articles in The Survey Graphic. He used several illustrations by Winold Reiss, a German-born artist, because he admired the honest and realistic portraits that RWeiss produced. RWeiss didn’t shy away from depicting African Americans with non-European facial features and darker skin tones which many artists and photographers had avoided before. Locke wasn’t choosing art in order to make find connections to the white the population. Instead, he wanted to jar the white and black population into acknowledging and appreciating the differences. This was a new and radical approach and as a result Locke drew criticism for his choices. His critics felt that his selections were controversial and could be viewed as a form of propaganda. (citation) They saw the artwork Locke used in the journalit as a promotion of Locke trying to promote African American culture which, by their? definition, was considered to be propaganda.

Locke reacted almost immediately. In the May 1925 issue of Opportunity, (describe the sponsor of this journal) Locke wrote an essay entitled “To Certain of Our Philistines.” He wrote this essay as a direct response to his critics and addressed his position regarding art and propaganda, “Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have obscured and overlaid. Finally it must reinforce our art with the dignity of race pride and the truly cultural judgment of art in terms of technical and not sentimental values.” (Locke, 1925, p. 162) When it came to art, Locke was a purist. He believed in the power and beauty of art to overcome racial stereotypes by merely existing. “Too many of us still look to art to compensate the attitudes of prejudice, rather than merely, as is proper, to ignore them.” (Locke, 1925, p. 161) He wanted African Americans to be revaluated through the arts, but he didn’t see this as propaganda. However, his distinction between what and what? was minimal. In what way?

The emergence and recognition of these up and coming artists was seen by DuBois as an opportunity to combat racial stereotypes. In the October 1926 issue of The Crisis,( a publication of the ….) DuBois wrote an essay entitled “Criteria of Negro Art” which blatantly disagreed with Locke’s interpretationopinions of propaganda. DuBois stated, “Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” (DuBois, 1926, p. 42) DuBois couldn’t understand the reasoning behind not using art in this way. To him, Locke’s approach was too subtle; DuBois refused to take the risk of the message being ignored or misunderstood. DuBois did notn’t want to wait and see if the populace would someday understand the meaning of these works of art, he wanted to use it openly as propaganda in order to make sure that it replaced the racial stereotypes that had endured for so long.

The idea of art being linked to propaganda was an ongoing battle for Locke. He wrote another essay entitled “Art or Propaganda?” that appeared in the November 1928 issue of Harlem, a journal sponsored by?. Early in the article, Locke openly stated why he was so opposed to propaganda, “My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it.” (Locke, 1928, p.49) Locke believed that the appreciation of art should exist on a higher plane. He understood that this wasn’t always possible; that this was an ideal that was difficult to aspire to. Even though Locke disapproved of art being used this way, he did concede that propaganda helped the social cause of African Americans. In the same essay, he wrote, “Propaganda at least nurtured some form of serious social discussion, and social discussion was necessary, is still necessary.” (Locke, 1928, p. 50) For him to have made this statement in the same essay, where he had so vehemently criticized the use of propaganda, demonstrated how blurry the line between art and propaganda had become, even for Locke. Clear support for the argument you made in the beginning.

W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke, despite their many arguments and debates, had a common goal. Both men wanted to replace the racial stereotypes of the African American that existed in the early 1900’s. They seemed to agree that African Americans should be recognized through works of art and literature; however, they disagreed on how this should be accomplished. What followed was a heated discussion through essays. Their public disagreement brought about a revaluation of how African Americans should be portrayed just as much as the art itself. Was there a winner in the debate? There is no answe(I’m not sure you could answer this question without looking at how readers of these journals responded to the articles. Perhaps you should just reiterate what you have already argued. r. DuBois was for propaganda and that was always clearly stated. Locke was against propaganda, but at the same time pushed for the recognition of a new image of African Americans through art which could have been, according to his critics’ definition, by definition a form of propaganda.

You have a very strong essay here. You used the primary sources (and even tracked down additional ones) to build your argument about the subtle differences in the debate about art as propaganda. You also used the secondary sources to ground your argument in the historical context. If you don’t mind doing one more revision, based on the minor changes I suggested here, I would appreciate it because I would like to use this as an example for future students. I plan to give everyone a holistic grade for the essay and the question and argument process leading up to it. I will get that out to you soon. For now see my attached assessment of the essay based on the rubric we used in class.

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

DuBois, W.E.B. “The American Negro at Paris.” The American Monthly Review of Reviews, vol. XXII, no. 5 (November, 1900): 575-577.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett. African American Literary Criticism 1773 to 2000. Twayne Publishers, 1999.


  1. DuBois, W.E.B. “Criteria of Negro Art.” The Crisis (October 1926): 39-43.

  2. Locke, Alain. “Art or Propaganda?” Harlem (November 1928): 49-50.

Locke, Alain. The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Albert & Charles Boni, Inc, 1925.

Stewart, Jeffrey C. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture. Garland Publishing Inc, 1984.



  1. Locke, Alain. “To Certain of Our Philistines.” Opportunity (May 1925): 161-162.

Secondary Sources:

Lewis, David L. and Deborah Willis. A Small Nation of People: W.E.B DuBois and African American Portraits of Progress. Harper Paperbacks, 2005.



Nadell, Martha Jane. Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Rampersad, Arnold. The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. (Introduction)


The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2016
send message

    Main page