W.E.B. Du Bois and the Aesthetics of Emancipation

Street painter painting, Rome, Italy, December 2019 (Shutterstock)

“I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in his June 1926 lecture “Criteria of Negro Art” at the NAACP’s annual meeting. Beauty, in its eternal, perfect form sits above “Right” and “Truth,” he went on, but is also inseparable from them, all working in concert with one another. This vision of beauty, this understanding of it to set the world right was not a vision that positioned the experience of beauty being passively received. Art and beauty exist not merely to amuse or make us comfortable, to bring us pleasure amidst the world’s tumult, but to broadcast the possibility of human freedom, and in the United States, Black American freedom in particular. I believe we are rewarded if we see Du Bois as a thinker who engaged with the aesthetic as an active, even world-shaping, experience with life itself. “The Negro is primarily an artist,” Du Bois wrote in 1913, gifted with a sense of color and music, possessing a rich literature, but oppressed and denied access to a full life by the arbiters of culture. If art is to have power, Du Bois believed, that is, if its production and reception are to mean anything in this life, then art must be made a weapon of emancipatory power. And this is precisely why art matters, for Du Bois called art “propaganda” in his 1926 lecture, and intended the word to be understood, as a means of “restor[ing] beauty to an impoverished American culture.” Art, Du Bois affirmed, is simply beauty created by man, “something of which a human soul conceives, a human hand executes and all human hearts everywhere acknowledge beautiful.” 

Beauty, Du Bois claimed, makes this world bearable, wringing from it truths hidden whether by coincidence or intentional obfuscation. We have come to misuse the term “beautiful,” he concluded, but if we are able really to see “things of real lasting beauty” this will be enough to give even the sorrows of our life “curves of grace in a crooked world.” Life, he optimistically declared, is “one striving toward the Eternally beautiful.” Still, this did not mean Du Bois was interested in art for art’s sake. He opened “Criteria” asking why it was he speaking about art. After all, he said “what have we who are slaves and black to do with Art.”  His answer was that if Black Americans wanted to be full-fledged Americans with the rights that all other Americans had they would have to create art that was associated with value. But to have such a world one had to engage with culture. Beauty and its creation would begin the process of bringing Black Americans out of the wilderness of their cultural and social inequality. “[I]t is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of Beauty,” he wrote, “of the preservation of Beauty, of the realization Beauty.”

For Du Bois beauty made truth and goodness known. Truth, “the one great vehicle of human understanding.” Goodness, “the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.” Du Bois, though, was careful to articulate that truth here was not to be understood as a “scientist seeking truth,” goodness was not “ethical sanction.” Rather, by actively embracing the beautiful in its promise, Black Americans would become apostles of truth and right. The art they produced would be a form of propaganda, one that Black people could love and enjoy, discovering and asserting the validity of their humanity over against a country that remains unprepared to bear this truth. Too much of Black artistic production was judged by Whites, through the rules of Whites, Du Bois protested. This was not seeing the real America. This was the sight of Blackness through White eyes. Only propaganda would solve this problem:

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.

Du Bois longed for a world where Black artists were taken seriously, judged by Black Americans through the lens of their own aesthetic freedom. He imagined an America where artistic production was not first understood by the color of one’s skin, but as the truth of their humanity.

“There is something in the nature of Beauty,” Du Bois began his last section of “Of Beauty and Death,” from his 1920 experimental work Dark Water, “that demands an end.” Whereas ugliness, of which there is so much in the world, is indefinite, trailing “into gray endlessness,” beauty is different. Beauty desires completion, and in our experience of the beautiful we desire completion as well. The eternality of ugliness resides not in its essence, but in its partiality. We find joy, Du Bois wrote, because ugliness never finds completeness, while beauty’s finality ends in the release of death. Du Bois anointed as celebratory, “the sweet silence of perfection, the calm and balance of utter music. Therein is the triumph of Beauty.” Beauty succeeds because it ends. The ugliness of the world does not—it stretches out, spilling into everything—never finding closure, never finding death. Beauty triumphs in completion. Its value is that it is finite.

Here we find what I believe is the crux of Du Bois’s ultimate vision for the beautiful. Recall that Du Bois made a similar point about completion in “Criteria of Negro Art.” By wielding art as a form of propaganda, Du Bois believed, we can find an endpoint in the dehumanization of the nonwhite races. Du Bois’s art qua propaganda formulation allows for the possibility of completion: of actively demonstrating that those who are not White are capable of cultural and moral value, capable of creating beauty. Moreover, if beauty, as Du Bois’s former professor George Santayana wrote, frees us from “slavery to fear” and “the shadow of evil,” leading us to moral goodness—then art, for Du Bois, as the propagandistic vehicle for beauty, finds its end in the demonstration of the truth of human potential. I think, then, we can read Du Bois’s propagandistic aesthetics in this way: by asserting truth through art’s triumph—even if that triumph is only temporary—the Black American artist emancipates both themselves and those who experience the work art, striking a blow against White supremacy. Not solving it, but destabilizing it enough so that its hold on the world becomes ever more unsteady, always off balance, open to endless assaults.

Yet, I’m curious, if in his framing of ugliness as endless incompletion does Du Bois in fact grant ugliness a victory in its pernicious effect on society? It strikes me that beauty, in Du Bois’s conception, is merely palliative and not ameliorative, meaning rather than making things better beauty merely lessens the pain of racism and White supremacy. In his belief in beauty’s capacity for completion Du Bois gestured towards making beauty, I think, not fully a part of our world, but instead a brief intruder, maybe even a voyeur. Beauty comes to us, asserts the truth of human potential in the face of White supremacy, and then, once it has established its points, disappears. The ugliness of existence, and of existence in America in particular, continues on, maybe weakened, maybe remaining meaningless, but ugliness still has a foothold in the world.

I am left to wonder, what good beauty really does here.

Though maybe we ought to see the palliative striving in Du Bois’s use of beauty as the aesthetic core of, and link to, his idea of “double consciousness.” “[T]he African-American must neither reject America nor vanish into it,” David Levering Lewis wrote, “Du Bois intended the divided self to be a phenomenon that was spiritually and socially evolving, one that would define itself through struggle and attain ‘self-conscious manhood’ through ‘strife.’” For Du Bois, then, beauty’s emancipatory importance resides not in solving the problems of Black Americans or fixing the world, though in some ways it does help those things, but in beauty forcing a confrontation with the truth of life in America. By employing beauty/art as propaganda, Du Bois attempted to create a bulwark against the iniquities of racism and White supremacy that haunt the lives of Black Americans. In not being able to reject or disappear into America, Black Americans are required to use beauty not to fix the divided self, but instead make the struggle through “strife” to attain “self-conscious” personhood a bit more bearable. The utility of the beautiful, the reason Black Americans should seek it out and know its pleasures, Du Bois seems to insist, is not because it will free them of their suffering, but—and here I am thinking of Oscar Wilde—that it might make life, even if only for the briefest of moments, just a bit less painful.

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Clay Matlin

Clay Matlin has a PhD in American history from the University of Rochester and is an adjunct in the art history and Visual and Critical Studies departments at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Currently he is working on two book projects, one is a reconsideration of the influence of the painter Barnett Newman and the other is an intellectual history of postwar Black abstract painters from 1945-1965.

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