Hosted by the University of Tennessee Humanities Center, and funded in part with a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, this symposium is an academic event to be held on the UT Knoxville campus and is free to UT faculty, students, and staff. The plenary sessions will be live-streamed at this website to allow for members of the public to attend virtually. The lecture by Fred Moten on Thursday afternoon is free and open to the public.
The symposium will create new knowledge about Black arts history and American late modernism for scholars working in literary studies, musicology, and the visual arts by looking closely, for the first time, at work by two men—-writer James Baldwin and painter Beauford Delaney—-who were also among the greatest of 20th-century Black American artists. Friends for more than thirty-eight years, they had much in common, for neither man fit easy artistic or identity categories. Both were prolific craftsmen who moved through many artistic genres and modes; both were influenced by jazz and blues, were obsessed with the connotations and properties of color and light, and were gay expatriates from the US alienated by homophobia and racism that permeated society and arts cultures. But while the story of their friendship is well known, and their respective influence among peers was extensive, there has been to date no study clarifying how their relationship shaped their works or influenced 20th-century arts. This project is intended to remedy this significant gap in the critical discourse.
The subject of this project is how Baldwin and Delaney together and separately speculate on the present and bet on the future as artists who embrace their diasporic Black identities. It asks how they create spaces in their lives and in their art works that allow thinking anew about Blackness and the social realities in which they move, and how they wager and gamble on a different future through the very forms of their respective arts.
The symposium will call for scholarly work concerning six categories of research questions: arts history and Black aesthetics, music and sonic arts, ethics and social values, style and form, gender and sexuality, and biography and legacies. The following are the research questions that speakers will be asked to explore:
• Arts History and Black Aesthetics: How should we understand the delight in, and despair with, the exploration of light and color in Baldwin’s and Delaney’s works and lives? What frame is needed to understand their fascination with and withdrawal from pellucidity? Richard J. Powell has written that Delaney’s colors have affective charge, indicative of emotional interiority: in what ways might form and affect merge or serve new aesthetic ends in these artists’ works? In what ways do expressionism and abstraction contend? How might the works of Baldwin or Delaney be seen to presage new definitions of Black aesthetics, such as new definitions of synesthesia or opacity or contemporary re-visionings of Black abstraction? Whom did they influence, and how?
• Music and Sonic Arts: How might we reconfigure our understandings of the arts of these two mid-century artists—or the aesthetics of their artistic surround—in relation to the sonic arts, specifically jazz and blues but also other kinds of sonic form? In what ways does “transmedial consonance” resonate through their respective works or shared aesthetics? What roles do the sonic arts play in Black modernism and postwar arts and how might these resituate Delaney and/or Baldwin historically, artistically, bodily, politically—and vice versa?
• Ethics and Social Values: How might the friendship between these men be reassessed through the lens of Black care? In what ways might care ethics help us to situate their expatriation and chosen diasporas? In what ways do mentorship and love become redefined as an aesthetic relation and a relation of care? What is a formal consequence of this friendship in their works and on their philosophies of art and life? How does viewing them through the lens of care ethics help us to rethink Black masculinity or Black creativity in relation to history?
• Style and Genre: What are the contexts and framing discourses that might allow us to reevaluate Baldwin’s and/or Delaney’s promiscuous play with genre, style, and form? How might their expatriate wanderings and their generic wanderings demand a new descriptive vocabulary? What are the stakes of their wager on a multiplicity of expression or a polyphony of discourse, or what Fred Moten has called a “categorial blur”?
• Gender and Sexuality: What can queer theory now bring to our understanding of these artists and their productions, and vice versa? On what are they speculating in their cross-generational and improvisational familial / lovers’ relation? What role does gender, sexuality, love, or the reproductive future play in the lives of these men and in their arts? In their lives and aesthetics, what is the interplay and resonance of exile as the basis for creative erotics?
• Biography and Legacies: How might Baldwin and Delaney see the theory that now wishes to include them? Are our current theories congenial to them, or is a more radical revisioning (or more conservative separation of historical periods) required to see the true relation between their speculations and our own time and desires? What arts/artists today are influenced directly by their work and/or philosophies of art? What new arts, such as digital arts, have adopted their aesthetic practices or philosophies?
Scholars from multiple arts and humanities fields are being invited to address these questions. The threads holding this tapestry of disciplines together will be Delaney and Baldwin—their times, arts, friendship, politics, and influence. With Delaney and Baldwin as a fulcrum, papers should generate new insights about the mid-century arts and how they contributed to new definitions of Black identity, creative expression, and confraternity and thus have the potential together to construct new genealogies for contemporary Black arts.