Setting the Tone: Students' Recollections of Herskovits and the Study of African Arts

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How could so many students of one scholar, one who is not immediately remembered for his work on the arts, have produced so much major research on African and African-American arts and artists in virtually all media? This question became the genesis of this panel; but before turning to our illustrious participants, perhaps I could offer a few reminders of Melville Herskovits' involvement in the arts. In reviewing his bibliography, I was surprised to find that one of his first publications was a 1923 review of a Beethoven concert in New York City, and perhaps we’ll have a chance to come back to music because I think that did play an important role in this whole picture. In 1926 Herskovits published his first article on African and African-American arts and virtually every subsequent year was marked by at least one publication on the arts. These works reflect a constant interest in aesthetic creativity and a deep appreciation of the variety aesthetic expressions embedded in human cultures. Many topics, such as the importance of studying individual artists and performance contexts, are taken for granted today. Herskovits’ definition of art is exceptionally broad: "Any embellishment of ordinary living that is achieved with competence and has describable form" (1955: 235). Reflective of the depth of his concern about the arts was his frequent emphasis on art as a cultural universal -- "the search for beauty is universal in human experience" (1955:234). As well there was his proposal of an ''aesthetic drive” common to all peoples: "Why, then, does the aesthetic drive, if it be one, or tradition, or response - -- however one may call it -- lodge so deeply in human need, and bring such manifest satisfactions to those who experience it?" (1959: 44). The main suggestion I offered our panelists was for them to comment briefly on how they understood Herskovits’ interest in the arts, what approach was recommended, and how then their own individual work developed from that, either in keeping with or opposition to Herskovits’ ideas. I hope we will also recall some of those who contributed so much to this rich scholarly tradition, such as William Bascom, Alan Merriam, and Robert Plant Armstrong. In an attempt to be as democratic as possible with such a distinguished group, we will follow an alphabetical order which also gives us the opportunity to have our “participant observer," Roy Sieber, provide the final observations. So, we’ll have brief comments from Justine Cordwell, Warren D’Azevedo, Jim Fernandez, John Messenger, and Roy Sieber. Then I hope there will be further responses from members of the audience.

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  • 11/12/2018
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