DEFINING TASTE: ALBERT BARNES AND THE PROMOTION OF AFRICAN ART IN THE UNITED STATES DURING THE 1920s
Clarke, Christa J.
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Dr. Albert C. Barnes, though best known as a daring collector of modern art, was also an important and influential advocate of African art during the 1920s. In an era in which many Westerners perceived objects from sub-Saharan Africa as ethnographic curiosities or ritual artifacts, Barnes was one of the first American collectors to selectively acquire and actively promote a "comprehensive" collection of African sculpture . In 1922 , Barnes began purchasing African art through Parisian dealer Paul Guillaume. The resulting collection of over 100 masks and figural sculptures was carefully arranged by Barnes in the galleries of the Barnes Foundation, his educational institution in Merion, Pennsylvania that opened in 1925. Barnes used the collection to advance his educational aesthetic philosophy and championed the merits of African art in gallery lectures, public addresses, and published writings. Through numerous contemporary publications and photographic reproductions, the Barnes Foundation collection of African sculpture gained international recognition, contributing to the establishment of a canon of African art that is, in many ways, still accepted today. My dissertation critically examines Barnes's collecting and promotion of African sculpture as a defining moment in the history of Western taste in non-Western art. My objective in this study is twofold. First, I evaluate the aesthetic positions endorsed by Barnes and the conceptual strategies he adopted in promoting an appreciation of African artistry within a Western aesthetic framework. Second, I consider the broader parameters of Barnes's influence in defining "African art" and his role in fostering an interest in it, particularly among key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, or "New Negro" movement. As a vital and specific case study, my analysis challenges, as it engages, discourse about modernist "primitivism" as it relates to Western perceptions and constructions of African art.