Highly regarded as an artist and a scholar, David C. Driskell is considered one of the world's leading authorities on African American Art. During his distinguished forty-six-year career in the field, he has authored five exhibition catalogs, co-authored four others, and published more than forty catalogues from exhibitions he curated. His articles and essays on black art have appeared in more than twenty major publications throughout the world.
He has lectured at the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University, Howard University, University of Michigan, Spelman College, Fisk University, Haverford College and the University of California at Berkeley as well as numerous colleges, universities and museums in Europe, Africa and South America.
Driskell also has appeared on NBC's The Today Show, CBS's In The News as well as programs on PBS and foreign television stations. In 1977 Driskell was commissioned by CBS Television to write the script for and narrate an award-winning, one-hour long television program on African American Art called Hidden Heritage. His contributions to the field also were highlighted in a British documentary titled Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting.
Born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1931 and educated in the public schools of North Carolina, David C. Driskell earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University. Later he graduated from Catholic University with a Masters of Fine Arts degree. He also pursued post-graduate studies in Art History at the Netherlands Institute for History of Art in The Hague. He is the recipient of ten honorary doctoral degrees in art. He also received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton on December 20, 2000.
Driskell has taught at Talledega College, Howard University, Fisk University, where he succeeded Aaron Douglas as head of the art department, and University of Maryland, where he also was head of the art department. In 1995 he was named Distinguished Professor of Art at University of Maryland. He retired from teaching in 1998. That same year the University of Maryland established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora.
Recent books by or about Driskell are The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr. and Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection.
This interview, presented here in its entirety, took place at M. Hanks Gallery on May 25, 2001, during a visit to talk about and sign copies of The Other Side of Color.
Eric Hanks: How and when did you first become interested in art?
Dr. David C. Driskell: I think I didn't recognize that I had what we called talent in art until I was perhaps in the third or fourth grade. I was in elementary school attending a one-room school in western North Carolina in Appalachia, Rutherford County. We lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My teacher recognized that I could draw and having done that she gave me assignments when she wanted posters done. And even in third and fourth grades, I didn't know any better, so I did them all. As I recall, it wasn't terribly creative but it was something that my teacher assigned, she had me draw the entire contents of a book when I was in the fourth grade, called Sleepy Town Wakes Up. After that, I took it as a matter of fact that all of the teachers thereafter would be calling on me to draw. When I completed the fourth grade I went to a four-room school, which, to me, was a big school for us in segregated Rutherford County. And there, my teachers prevailed upon me to do the same kind of things. I guess the word had gotten around that I could draw. So that was the beginning of my knowledge of how I became interested in art.
Hanks: And when was your first formal art instruction?
Driskell: I had no formal art instruction in elementary or high school. It was actually when I attended Howard University and only after having been at Howard for almost two years. I entered Howard in January of 1950. And it was 1952 as I recall, the spring of 1952, that I took my first formal art course. I took it not with the intention of becoming an art major. I was a history major at that time. I took the course with the intention of minoring in art. It was a drawing course with James L. Wells, who taught drawing and printmaking at Howard.
Hanks: You said you were a history major to begin with. What were you intending to do after you graduated, assuming you earned a history degree?
Driskell: I went to college and I always tell people I went to college unannounced because I had made no application to attend college. I got on the train and went to Howard University and announced myself. The University had been in session for more than three weeks. I arrived and said, "Here I am, I 'm ready to go to college." Our teachers told us to go to college, so I went. I was planning to be a social science teacher with an emphasis in history. In those days, one could begin a major in the freshman year with the approval of one's advisor. I began studying history from the beginning of my arrival there in January 1950. I had gone to Howard in the fall of 1949, as I said, unannounced and assuming you just went to college as such. They told me that I would have to wait. Howard was on the quarter system at that time. But I still went to classes. I sat in on classes as though I was enrolled and I wrote home and said, "I'm in college." Those were some interesting days. I had planned to become a teacher of social science on the high school level. That was my intention.
Hanks: As an artist, who are some of your major influences?
Driskell: I suppose the first and foremost influence for me was one of my teachers, James A. Porter. He became my advisor, my mentor and a role model for me. I thought, upon seeing him, that I wanted to become not only an artist, a painter, but I wanted to become an art historian, as he was. So, it's interesting that I did not take my first course in art from him but, as I said, from James L. Wells. Porter came into the classroom one day, saw me drawing, came over and introduced himself to me and asked my name. I told him and he said, "I don't know you. Are you an art major?" I said no. And he asked, "What is your major?" I said history. Porter then said, "You don't belong over there you belong here." After that conversation I changed my major to art. Porter was one of my first influences. I looked to him for direction. After that I met Lois Jones and in many ways she became a role model for me. Outside of these, I began to look at European artist like Cézanne, Rembrandt, Miro, Matisse, all of whom played a significant role in the development of my design concept-that is-the way I saw myself as a painter, as a draftsman. I guess later in life, I came under the influence of another artist, Romare Bearden. I attended Skowhegan in the summer of 1953, in my junior year, and there was a social realist painter by the name of Jack Levine, a commentary artist. I won't say that there was any great influence from him but I was very much taken with his technique of painting. After that I began experimenting with a form of chiaroscuro painting, that is from dark to light. It was in the Dutch tradition of putting on a layer of dark umbers, then developing the paint stage by stage thereafter. In 1953, 1954 as late as 1955, when I graduated from Howard University, I was still experimenting with that technique. But in later years it would be the art of Romare Bearden, in particular, that would be a great influence on my work. I think I learned an awful lot about color from Lois Jones.
Hanks: Did you ever spend any time in Europe studying the works of some of the persons you were mentioning, Cézanne and so forth?
Driskell: My first trip to Europe took place in the summer of 1964. By that time I had developed my own style of painting, but I still was interested in going to some of the sources. I grew up in the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery of Art and I saw works by Cessna, Miro, and Matisse and others. But it wasn't my first introduction to these artists's work. It was my chance to really study in detail, artists like Rembrandt and other Dutch Masters. I had this great interest, for some reason, in Dutch art. So I went to Holland that summer after touring, beginning first in Greece and going to Italy and around to Spain and to France. I formally studied that summer at Rijksbureau Voor Kunsthistorische (Netherlands Institute for Art History) in The Hague. Rijksbureau Kunsthistorische is an art history center that was funded by the government. We were not accountable in the sense that we had to do major reports or anything like that, but it was a certification program. One could pursue certificates in art history there. My interest was Rembrandt. I loved Rembrandt's drawings and a part of my project, which I assigned myself, was to go out into the countryside and try and draw, sketch in the various places where Rembrandt had gone. I retraced his steps in Leyden and Amsterdam and Arnheim and other places like that. Many of the drawings that I executed in the early sixties have that influence, of a kind of liquid flow, wash drawings, pen and ink, etc. I even drew with Sepia ink like Rembrandt. I went to his studio in Amsterdam. To places where his art could be found. To the Rijksmuseum and other such places. And I immersed myself in Rembrandt. That was my project for the summer at Rijksbureau Kunsthistorische, in The Hague. My drawing style developed as a result of that experience, the line drawings I did. I still do them today, even though my art oscillates between abstraction and figuration. My drawing oscillates always closer to a form of realism than it is to abstraction. I think that is because I was so greatly enamored by the study I did of Rembrandt's drawings.
Hanks: During the span of your distinguished career what changes, if any, have you noticed in the field of African American art?
Driskell: I have noticed many changes in the field of African American art over the past 50 years that I have been involved in the study of it. I came to the study of African American art first in 1952 on the suggestion of James A. Porter. I took a course from him at that time at Howard University. The course was called Negro Art. It included principally the art of African Americans but I also took a course which dealt with African art. When I took the course, in what we would call today African American art, I was the only person in James Porter's class. And he taught the course from his own book, Modern Negro Art, published in 1943, as though there were twenty-five or thirty people in the class.
Hanks: You literally were the only person.
Driskell: I was the only person sitting there. I was absorbed by the brilliance of this man, the way he taught. And his teaching reinforced the notion that I wanted to become a college professor. I wanted to be like this man. I wanted to have his command of knowledge. He was very encouraging as he singled me out and said, "look it's noble, it's great that you want to be a painter. And that's good and you have skills there." He said, "but you have a good mind. So you have to study history and help define our culture." What Porter said was like a mandate, a heavy weight to carry because at that time I don't recall any other students at Howard that were interested in that particular subject. Porter, more or less, pounded this notion into my head. I couldn't get away from it. And even when I had finished my course of study at Howard, he kept on me about the importance of reading in the field, of doing research. He was persistent.
Hanks: Up until that time there really wasn't a whole lot of materials written about African American art.
Driskell: Very very little has been written other than what Porter and Alain Locke and James Herring and a few other people outside of the field had written. Porter had more or less defined the field. I took him very seriously. When I went to Talladega College as a young teacher for my first job, in 1955, I did not teach a course called African American art or Negro art, as it would have been called then, but I did incorporate some of those materials in the course that I taught in the humanities there as early as 1955. When I left Talladega College to go to Howard University to teach in 1962, after teaching at Talladega for seven years, I joined Porter, Wells and Lois Jones as a colleague who had great interest in African American culture.
Hanks: So all of them were still teaching at the time.
Driskell: Yes. Porter, Wells and Jones were still teaching at Howard in 1962 when I returned. My former teachers then became my colleagues. When Porter went away to Africa, he asked me to take over and teach his courses. So I taught a number of the courses that Porter taught at Howard, which here again reinforced my interest in the subject of Negro Art. I continued to do some research. I had already organized exhibitions at Talladega of works by African American artists. I did not do it just for the sake of doing black shows, as there were other shows that I was doing. But I did those exhibitions, I'm sure, keeping in mind that the mandate had come from Porter, to help define the field and help keep it alive. Howard gave me a broader chance to continue the kind of work that Porter was still doing in the field. He was still publishing catalogues in the field. One of the exhibitions I did when I was acting chair of the department while Porter was away, was by Alma Thomas. I kept in mind that I didn't want to necessarily settle in at Howard. I was looking other places. In 1966 the chance came to go to Fisk University to take Aaron Douglas's place there as Chairman of the Art Department. I took with me the ideas that I had amassed at Howard, some of which bordered on reconstructing the whole concept of what black art was about or what Afro-American art was about. We were calling our art so many different names in those days.
Hanks: A lot of name evolution has taken place.
Driskell: A lot of name evolution has ensued. As a matter of fact, when I went to Fisk I think I still used the term Negro art until circa 1967. Then we changed to Afro-American art. I think that label may have remained for a while. But we were interchanging back and forth, black art, black American art, Afro-American art, etc. So by the time I published Two Centuries of Black American Art in 1976, the title shifts had been made back and forth across the line, Afro-American, black American art, etc. The lineage of that interest in developing those courses was from first including some of the material in my teaching of the humanities as we didn't have pure art history courses per se at Talladega College. I did teach one course which could have been labeled art history; it was called Christian art. And then there were the surveys, which we called art appreciation. I had a broader chance to teach those courses at Howard. Then from Howard, after going to Fisk, I developed the format for what I planned to do in the following years by teaching two courses, a lower level course and a more advanced one, which included the work of African American artists as well as traditional and contemporary African artists. When I left Fisk in December, 1976, and assumed my teaching position at the University of Maryland in January, 1977, one of the things that I said must happen in taking the job there at Maryland was that I had to have the chance to develop a curriculum in African American art. And I was given that chance. Prior to that time no courses in that area had been taught at the University of Maryland. I felt very fortunate in being given a chance to develop a curriculum which eventually included courses of study from the undergraduate to the doctoral level.
Hanks: And now, if I'm not mistaken, there's a center that's grown out of that, right?
Driskell: Yes. Upon my retirement from the University of Maryland in 1998, as a tribute to the developing curriculum that I put in place in African American art history, a center has been founded, in my name; the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora. It will be inclusive of what African Americans and other persons of African ancestry have done in other parts of the world; in particular in South America, Central America and the continent of Africa.
Hanks: Can you see a common thread that runs through works that, for example, are from traditional Africa to African American art maybe of the past or even the present, and works by persons of African descent elsewhere throughout the world, like Brazil or the Caribbean or whatever?
Driskell: That's a very interesting question. The sociopolitical element of survival, and the economics of survival, have more to do with whether or not the lineage of a culture can be traced from its origin perhaps than anything else. In our case, persons of African ancestry in the Americas, it's not so easy. It's easier to trace one's Africanity in some places than it is in the United States. In the United States, there was the deliberate attempt in slavery to cut all of our African ties, to cut all of those roots; not by the Africans in the Americas themselves but by the colonial exploiters who oppressed anything that was not European, socially or culturally, etc. And so the survival of various forms of artistry in the early years of the slave trade was almost underground in the sense that mask making, statuary making, sculpture, etc., costumes, all of those things were banned. In order for them to survive, they had to be done subversively and so some of that happened. It happened through the work ethic, through the skills of craftspeople who were able to disguise certain art forms like the making of pottery; that which some have described as slave-made pottery, the grotesque jugs, and things of that nature. They have African features, almost like masks but they are not masks. Some costumes and textiles that made their way into the colonial experience and the post-colonial experience also retained African survival elements. Not because there was a desire to have that design concept but because those people who were in charge did not know where these designs came from. So some forms survived inadvertently in that manner. Also, there were architectural forms which survived. When slave owners, slave masters, etc., didn't pay that much attention to the building of the little houses on the plantation, the African builders, who did most of the building anyway, were smart enough to subvert the whole concept of architecture and make forms that were acceptable to the slave society, simply because they were workable. For example, in New Orleans, the shaping of the roof, the hip roof, which permits the rainwater to run off readily, is an African design. Many of the plantation houses took on that same roofing style. Much of this subverting of the building trade was not known to the plantation owners. They saw it as a practical form of architecture. There are some surviving examples in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in Midlothian, Virginia where the Keswick Plantation is located. There are some examples of indigenous African forms in sculpture, and the crafts. I would say that this is both rare and unusual in many ways because slave owners were particularly adept at looking and finding these crossovers and eradicating them as often as they could. In dance and in song, particularly in music, in speech and in other areas, the survival of form was much stronger because there was the chance to socialize and keep these kinds of things amongst themselves in the slave community. Things were different in certain parts of Central and South America; in Surinam, in Brazil, in Venezuela and places like that, and even in Peru. The slave societies developed, in some cases, all but independent of the slave owners. There, many of the African forms more or less transformed themselves into local forms that became acceptable by the whole society. One finds that to be the case particularly in Brazilian culture. But it happened that way there because it was a totally different form of slavery from what was practiced in the north. Slavery was not quite as harsh in some of the other areas as it was in North America.
Hanks: Okay, I want to shift gears a bit. How long have you collected art?
Driskell: I began collecting art as a Howard University student in 1952. The first piece of art that I bought was a print by James Wells. After Thelma and I got married in January 1952, Professor Herring gave us, as a wedding gift, a print by Wassily Kandinsky. That was the first major collectible work to enter the collection. We were extolled by Lois Jones in particular, by James Porter and others, and by James Herring, to collect each other's art, that is, amongst students. I remember Earl Hooks bought a beautiful painting from Lois Jones called Still Life with Zinnias. I was taken with the notion of collecting art, from the beginning.
Hanks: You mean the fact that he (Earl Hooks) bought it.
Driskell: Yes. Earl bought an oil painting and paid $300 for it, which was a lot of money in 1952-1953. I bought her book and paid $30 for it and I was scrambling to pay that amount. But you know art in those days was very inexpensive in comparison to what it is now. Then, even $300 seemed like a lot of money. Today that painting is worth $30,000 or $40,000. It was a wonderful investment. But I don't think he was buying for investment. We liked the works. So I began collecting as soon as I became an art student and I have continued to do so. Our teachers emphasize to us that it was very important to collect, and I don't think all of us of that era are collectors, but we certainly knew the importance of it. Earl Hooks, for example, amassed a rather large collection. I don't recall that too many other classmates did. But he and I probably collected more than anyone else.
Hanks: And why is it so important?
Driskell: Collecting reinforces one's own connection to one's culture. And, just the physical nature of possessing something beautiful, or possessing something that enhances one's life is important. More recently, particularly in the sixties, we came to recognize the importance of the reinforcement of cultural values by collecting things that were important to us, because we had for so many years been told that we had no culture. Then to see that we have one of the richest cultures in the world is a very valid statement about one's own personal identity, who we are, what our origins are and what our self-identity is.
Hanks: I know one of the things many people grapple with is how to judge quality in a work. I was wondering what are some of the things that you look for when you are evaluating a work of art?
Driskell: The only standards I know are the standards of the Western canon. I can't say that I know an African American canon all to itself. I don't think there is any such thing yet but I believe one may be in the making. We were all taught by the same people. We all went to the same schools. We have not, in the main, attempted to break away from the American mainstream and establish our own canon. If we were to do that what would it be? Would it be different from the concepts of design that we have been taught? That's a very serious question. Even in African art, we judge it by a Western canon. We talk about classical stylization. We talk about the use of line, the use of the elements of design, etc., etc. So I think in talking about standardization of any work of art, we go back to those principles of design that are Western. Is it well made? Does it adhere to the principles of design that one expects to find, in the sense of the unity of the work, of the elements, or the unity of the color, the unity of line? What about the form itself? What about the shape of the object? Do all of these things add up to the making of a form that is either aesthetically pleasing or serviceably oriented, so that it fits within the canon of Western art history? And that is what we go by. Is it well made? If it's a serviceably oriented object, is it well made? If it's a bowl, can it be used as a bowl? Is it made from material that enhances its appearance? If it's a sculpture, did the artist violate the principle of "truth to the materials" by trying to do something with that material that can't be done in sculpture? All of those things must be taken into consideration. Now, there is a strict Western canon that we've been taught, about proportion, color relationships. African American artists are often accused of violating that canon when it comes to color. People very often say, "well you know black people just mix any colors together." I don't think it's a matter of their mixing any colors together. If there's anything that's different, I think there may be an aesthetic difference in the sense of how one perceives color. Look at the work of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Lois Jones. They have learned the standard, as far as the Western canon goes, but in some ways they have pushed it in a slightly different direction. I often think of the African American artist as being very active with his palette, with form, with the way he or she sees form in the world. They are not afraid to engage it in their work. In so doing we establish the importance of cultural form and the confrontation we have with objects. When it comes to the use of what we call bright colors, I think there's a sensibility that has been developed there amongst some artists, not all, but amongst some black artists, that says I can violate any of the rules I want to and I can still make this thing work. I think there are certain differences that manifest themselves in the making of art by a person of African ancestry. Sometimes African American artists feel that they have an obligation to their culture to present something that deals with social issues. Jacob Lawrence was very cognizant of the role that his art played in history. He seemingly did not have the luxury of creating abstract art. If you analyze his art, it is very abstract. The formal analyses of his work is that it creates abstract patterns based in a cubist format. It isn't Picasso, Braques and Juan Gris's cubism, but that which is African in origin. The juxtaposition of forms, one against the other and problem solving have been relevantly helpful to some African American artists and a hindrance to others. I say helpful in the sense that to Bearden and to Lawrence, it was always the social content which let us know that there's a humanistic theme running throughout their work. It becomes the overpowering statement in a work to the detriment of it, if it is reduced exclusively to propaganda. So the question is how much of one does put in and how much of the other remains? I don't think Lawrence's work was propagandistic but I do think there are plots and plans within it that echo history, that mirror history, that challenge the status quo. Many deal with unpleasantries such as lynching, segregation, racism, etc. And those social issues are important, but for me the question remains, Where do we place the unpleasant visual statements in the context of the historical process? As a cultural statement? As an aesthetic statement? All in one? There are very few people who can do it and make it come off and do it well. Lawrence was one of them. I think Ben Shahn did it. And to a certain extent I think Jack Levine does it. Other artists have succeeded at doing the same. But these are examples, I think, of the modern masters of figuration and at the same time they're able to bring an element of the socialization of the theme in art to our consciousness. In trying to establish this realm or this place for African American artists is very difficult in American art simply because we all come from the same source and yet at the same time we don't have the same problems. We, as African American artists, have the problem of acceptance. Caucasian artists don't. They can network differently because they own the museums, they own the major collections, they are the major patrons. They are "the mainstream" we often talk about.
Hanks: The whole system is kind of controlled by mainstream society.
Driskell: Indeed, it is controlled by mainstream society. So we have to knock at the door and ask to be let in. It is my belief that until such time that we develop our own patronage system and call the shots the way we wish them to be, particularly in our own institutions, and I'm not asking for segregation so much as I am for identification and for affirmation, then we will continue to be outside the so-called mainstream. One of the cards that we hold is, that even though we are considered outside the mainstream, there are always those who are looking out the door trying to see what it is that we are doing, because there's something about that activism that we have in the arts that is appealing to mainstream society. It's just like the activism that African artists had for Picasso and others who formatted the cubist tradition. It's the same thing that white American musicians were peeping out at when they saw Jazz and the Blues and became enamored with it. It's the same thing that white America's great idol, Elvis Presley, was looking at when he searched the streets and the alleys of Memphis and all of those places, trying to create his own aesthetic. So there, amongst us, is always that surprise, I think, that bigger America is looking out at smaller America, not only us but the other so-called minorities. Look at Salsa music and all of that now. How it has taken over.
Hanks: Everything, everything Latin American.
Driskell: Everything Latin is in. Yes. There'll be the same thing, I suspect, for an Asian counterpart soon. So in the midst of all of this agony, the grief of racism, of segregation, of oppression, and I'm not saying that this is good for any nation, but this particular nation, the United States, has the chance to look at its misery and proclaim something through a regenerative process that says it can perhaps do something that no other nation in the world could do. Perhaps if Brazil and South Africa get their act together, they too will do the same thing because they too are the so-called multiracial democracies. I firmly believe that that infusion of humanity from all of these "other" racial and cultural sources, is a great asset to a nation, not a detriment. That is a part of what our artistry in this nation has thrived on. We know that nowadays, nobody goes to the European countries to find the resurrection of new ideas. It's here. Or, it's in Africa, or it's in countries where things are bubbling and blooming. In Latin America and in Asia.
Hanks: A lot of people struggle with appreciating abstract art. When I say abstract I mean what some call nonobjective work. During exhibits of abstract art in my gallery, I've overheard some visitors say, "My five-year-old could do something like that." What would you say to those people that would say that about abstract art, nonobjective art?
Driskell: I would first say grow up and get an education, because it's not that simple. Abstraction means that there is a form of sophistication that a person has arrived at, if it's done well and properly. It means that that person knows the source. You can't abstract from nothing. You abstract from something. What is the something? So abstraction is to reduce it to its essential qualities, its essential elements. The abstraction of that door (Dr. Driskell points to the door in the room) is not that full meaning of what you see in all of those panels, but the geometrics of that door. I say grow up and get an education because if one insists on knowing more about the form than the person who made the work, who may be trained as an academic as well, then you're fooling yourself. Abstraction is the richness of the final experience, in my mind. I mean that which in our eyes can be pushed no further. You reduce form to its absolute essential element a-which may mean shape alone. It may mean color alone. It may mean line alone. It may mean any combination of elements to arrive at that conclusion. So to say, "oh my five-year-old kid could do that," or, "I could do that with my eyes shut," is really absurd, all but ludicrous. But it is also an acceptable statement in our society because we don't like to think beyond anything that tests the capacity of the mind to move beyond that which is literal.
Hanks: That's kind of what I was thinking too. I just thought that it requires more effort on the part of the viewer and I think perhaps we've become a little, as a society of viewers, a little lazy.
Driskell: We're lazy visually. Our visual literacy is, and I say this out of experience of teaching for 44 years on the college and university levels, if we were to grade it from one to ten, ten being the highest, I would say our level of understanding in the scale of visual literacy, for the most part, is like two or three. We've simply refused to push ourselves, to go beyond that which makes a first visual appearance. And to go beyond that means using the mind. What is the structure of that thing? I mean, we have the greatest component for understanding that in the universe. It's the human body. And we all know that there is a skeleton inside. There is a structure. There is something that is concrete there, that allows us to exist, to move, to have our being. Now why can't we understand that with the evolution of form in looking at art? In looking at a building? In looking at nature? The pattern is there for us but it's a matter of unraveling it, analyzing it, taking the time to be literate. Often we don't mind sitting there seeing a thing but don't press us to go into analyzing what we're seeing. That's asking too much.
Hanks: More in the effort department...
Driskell: I will admit that modern art very often does move us away from the language of signs and symbols that traditional art has. But even there, there can very often be a language which is based in color, which is based in the other elements of designs. Just a slight exercise of the mind can lead us to a fuller understanding of what a given form is. To go into the Museum of Modern Art, or to the County Museum of Art, and see a contemporary work, an abstract expressionist work, a nonobjective work, and say, "I don't understand what's going on with art." Well, you don't understand it because you haven't given yourself the chance. Get a book, read. Read the history and evolution of modern art and try and figure out what is really going on.
Hanks: What would you say is the biggest misconception about African American art?
Driskell: I think the biggest misconception comes from outside of the African American community. And that is basically that African American art, in order to be genuine and real, has to be naive, unsophisticated and very often in the definition of what white society calls "primitive." I think a part of the reason for that is their not wanting to share the stage with those artists who have equal status in their development. Or not wanting to share the stage when it comes to the marketplace, when it comes to placement in museums, institutions of that nature, and the primitive notion of racism, which still is pervasive in our society. And for a person who's been in and out of major museums as guest curator and lecturer, this may sound strange coming from me, but it's the truth. When one goes to the major cities around the nation one finds that most non-black people know one black artist in that city. They don't want to know anyone else. That's enough. Two is a crowd. Two becomes threatening. Until we dispel the notion that one artist can speak for all, one is the answer, there will continue to be these misconceptions, which are basically downright racist.
Hanks: Yeah it seems kind of self-serving.
Driskell: It's self-serving.
Hanks: It feeds a sense of superiority...
Driskell: It is a form of supremacy any way you look at it. And this business of thinking that all African American artists work alike, well that's not true. They work the gamut, as everybody else does. What is basically being said is, we don't want you to be American and to be American is to have the First Amendment right in art, to do whatever you want to do. So I think the greatest hindrance comes from the outside community. Those who sit in judgment from outside, and call the shots, who write the history as well as the critics. That is why I think it's so important that we train our young people to take on the responsibility for themselves and to help define it for themselves, instead of looking, always to the outside, for exterior validation.
Hanks: What advise do you have for new collectors?
Driskell: First of all, read, read, read and read again. Gather as many books as you can on the subject. Second, try and build confidence in somebody that you can go to and ask for help and information. Third, go to as many exhibitions, galleries and as many shows as you can, to see what is going on so that you will experience what is happening. On the basis of those three things combined, you can start building you own sensibility about collecting, patronizing, and knowing in general what is good and what is bad, as an enterprising collector.
Hanks: As far as your own works, the works that you've created yourself, do you have any favorite pieces?
Driskell: No, I don't think I have any favorite pieces. I have kept works out of my oeuvre over the years that I set aside for my family. I say these will stay in the family. But I wouldn't necessarily consider those favorites. It's like all of your children are your favorites. So it's very difficult to point to one or two things as favorites. There are some things that I will probably always return to and say this was done at the highlight of my career. But, for the most part, I don't think I have any one or two works that I would hold up and say, "Oh this is it." Things develop as one goes along. I never work on one work at a time. I work on several works at the same time, so they have equal importance as they develop. Some may reveal more things than others. They may have a greater discovery pattern than others. But I'm not sure that I really single one out as being a favorite.
Hanks: When you work on several works at the same time, do you cross media? Do you, for example, do all acrylics at the same time?
Driskell: No. I mix media. I cross over. I may draw while I'm still doing a gouache or still doing an egg tempura an encaustic, so I'm not restricted to one medium or one way of expression.
Hanks: Have you ever done sculpture?
Driskell: Yes, I've done sculpture.
Hanks: Do you still do it? Do you like to do it?
Driskell: I still occasionally do sculpture. I almost never show it. I've never had a sculpture show but I have mixed a few sculpture pieces in with other works. My sculpture is usually wall based. I have done free standing sculpture but very often it's wall based, or installation based. As early as my graduate days, I did stone sculpture, in the 1960s, and wood sculpture. I have worked with wood since then but I don't consider this a viable medium for myself.
Hanks: My last question is, now that you are retired from academic life, what are your plans for the future?
Driskell: Well they are fairly simple. I plan to continue trying to develop my own artistry, painting, printmaking. I've just bought a new press. I've never owned a press before. And, I will continue to write on African American art.
Hanks: Is your press for lithographs?
Driskell: No. It's an etching press but it's adaptable for woodcuts and Linocuts. So, I'm excited about that because I have all of these wood blocks that I did dating back to the sixties that I have never editioned. I continue to do woodcuts. I will do one or two prints and put them aside. So I'm looking forward to editioning these. And I am also looking forward to continuing my own scholarship, writing and researching the subject of the African American artist in various ways. So I think I will be busy if I stay around long enough.
Hanks: Great. Thanks a lot David.
Driskell: Thank you.