Art By: Thumy Phan
Art By: Thumy Phan

From Bohemia to the Black Arts Movement: Recent Books Explore Art Rooted in Chicago’s Urban Space

In 1967, when Black Power activists occupied part of Washington Park and renamed it “Malcolm X Shabbazz Park,” artists from the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) were in attendance. They were there not just as fellow activists or to simply lend their techniques to a propaganda stunt. In her book Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975, art historian Rebecca Zorach says they were “claiming space.” The occupation resulted in clashes and arrests, and it was an instructive experience for the OBAC members, who in Chicago’s Black Arts Movement (BAM) and beyond consciously deployed their artistic practices for social transformation on a terrain of contested public space. 

Zorach’s is one of two relatively recent works that make clear how the fate of the cultural cutting edge has depended on such configurations and refigurations of Chicago’s urban space. Keith M. Stolte’s Chicago Artist Colonies surveys the dedicated spaces for artists and freethinkers that popped up from the late nineteenth century until around World War II. This historical background provides an interesting context to Zorach’s story, which largely depicts alternative spaces after the decline of this bohemia. 

Reading the two together shows how twentieth-century Chicago worked as a home for groundbreaking art. The growth of artist colonies reflects the initial interactions of commerce and creativity, of elites and avant-gardes, that built Chicago’s institutional fine art scene. The history of the Black Arts Movement, like the earlier bohemia, is one of artists, in tandem with radical socio-political developments, claiming space and building their own institutions. The struggle of those socially and politically engaged Black artists poses still-relevant questions about cultural production against the grain in a segregated, post-industrial metropolis.

Chicago’s Bohemia

Stolte maps the emergence of numerous small-scale artist colonies in the 1890s, in the penumbra of the elite cultural stomping grounds where artists sought patronage. Later, commercial ambition spurred the assembly of artists in spaces like Tree Studios and the Fine Arts Building, which took on the character of “colonies” as a critical mass of artists participated in salons and club activities. 

The Fine Arts Building originally served an established “triumvirate” of turn-of-the-century Chicago artists (painters Oliver Dennett Grover and Ralph Elmer Clarkson and sculptor Lorado Taft), but subsequently incubated artists and literati who pushed beyond academic painting and society patronage. Harriet Monroe published the journal Poetry from inside the Fine Arts Building beginning in 1912, breaking ground by publishing Carl Sandburg. Fellow tenant Margaret Anderson published defining works of twentieth-century literature, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, in The Little Review.

Beyond these elite studio spaces, turn-of-the-century Chicago hosted a wider bohemia characterized by radicalism and independence. Old society mansions were converted into rooming houses in the area around the old pre-fire Water Tower—now the site of flagship luxury retail establishments on “The Magnificent Mile.” During World War I, a subculture of auto-didactic hobos and revolutionaries emerged in “Towertown,” which Stolte describes as “an oasis of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sexual diversity.” The Dil Pickle Club there—founded by “hobohemian” and former mine worker Jack Jones as a forum for syndicalist speeches—became defined by welcoming anyone who was “a nut about anything.” Sandburg became a regular, and one could catch one-act plays by Theodore Dreiser and Edna Ferber.

This cross-pollination, the heady buzz of a happening “scene,” is more than incidental. Stolte singles out the phenomenon as the essence of the artist colony or bohemian district. Further, he argues that the haunts of today’s young “creatives” “lack the fraternal intimacy or collaborative interaction” that characterized the earlier colonies. He’s not the only one: analyses like Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals point to structural changes in the American city and society to explain what Jacoby saw as the intellectual underachievement of his Baby Boom generation. Jacoby marks the decline starting with the loss of the cheap rents in urban bohemias such as Towertown, which had enabled artists to access the city and its resources, and more, to collaborate (and compete) with others in the same game.

The urban transformation chronicled by critics such as Jacoby and Jane Jacobs would claim Towertown as well as the 57th Street artist colonies, studio spaces developed in a disused concession building remaining from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and gradually populated by members of the Fine Arts Building community in the 1910s. Once home to principals of Chicago’s literary world, including Ben Hecht, Harriet Monroe, and Floyd Dell and his wife Margery Currey, who fostered something of a kingdom of free love and salon conversation, the studios were destroyed as part of the Hyde Park urban renewal project spearheaded by the University of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Seeking to achieve a “stable,” racially integrated and affluent neighborhood, this “renewal,” like similar efforts around the country, resulted in the expulsion of poor Black residents and the loss of the artist colony, as well as more than twenty taverns on 55th Street, Woodlawn’s blues clubs, and dozens of Black small businesses.

Art By: Thumy Phan
Art By: Thumy Phan

The Black Arts Movement

The roots of the ’60s Black Arts Movement lie in the same period of urban transformation that encompassed urban renewal and the rise and fall of the earlier bohemia. Hundreds of thousands of Black migrants from the south arrived in several waves before and after World War II—and until 1948, racist restrictive housing covenants and other forms of discrimination kept them concentrated in a South Side “Black Belt” and a West Side ghetto where homes were subdivided and increasingly unlivable. 

This situation inspired Black cultural efforts that addressed oppressive social conditions and took part in movements to change them, including the “social realism” of artists such as Charles White and Margaret Burroughs, whom Zorach singles out as a figure linking this era to the later BAM. Zorach’s chief argument is that for the BAM artists, Chicago communities were more than objects of representation and social comment, as social realism might pose them. The neighborhood and street could be art material, gallery, and critical forum, and the people of “the community” were the subject depicted, the audience, the critics, and the collaborators in the artists’ projects.

When Black Chicagoans finally had the chance to move out of the old “Black Belt,” they were met with collapsing or hostile public resources in their new neighborhoods. Black Chicago Public Schools students were forced into portable classrooms known pejoratively as “Willis Wagons” (after CPS superintendent Benjamin C. Willis). Police violence was routine, and a struggle for true open housing occupancy went on for decades, culminating in Martin Luther King’s 1967 Chicago Freedom Movement campaign. In the context of domestic assassinations and international decolonization, activist agendas shifted from Civil Rights to Black Power, a capacious slogan that signaled the unleashing of attempts at community self-determination. Black artists responded with efforts to not only portray and protest ongoing oppression, but also to launch artistic experiments in making something new for and with Black people. 

Zorach points to The Wall of Respect, a collaborative Black history mural at 43rd and Langley in Bronzeville that anticipated similar murals in many American cities today, as the inception of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago. It was an initiative of the OBAC, first organized in 1966–67 to unite “cultural workers.” The Wall’s array of “Black heroes” provided alternatives for Black people in neighborhoods where billboards and mass media still mostly displayed white images. Moreover, the Wall made the corner a new kind of place, “turn[ing] the street into a public forum for poetry, music, theater, and political rallies.” 

The site for the Wall was chosen in part because the chief artist, Bill Walker, lived nearby and had a rapport with the predominant local street gangs. The artists had to continually negotiate with the Blackstone Rangers and other gangs so they wouldn’t be run off the block. 

BAM artists took an active interest in the gangs as a social problem, a folk practice, and potentially more. Zorach quotes OBAC member Jeff Donaldson as claiming the concept of the Wall of Respect was “an adoption and an extension of the turf-identifying graffiti scrawled on neighborhood buildings by Chicago street gangs.” This interest in criminal aesthetics parallels the overall ’60s interest in the self-determination and ingenuity of the guerilla. 

But a more common perspective was that street crime was a misdirection of the numbers and organization apparent among the gangs. Some artistic projects tried to bring this energy to new outlets; Oscar Brown Jr. actually enlisted the Stones in 1967 as the chorus for a revue titled Opportunity Please Knock. This served to keep “kids off the street” but was itself a venue for a militant mood: the chorus went on to release a record expressing skepticism of Civil Rights Movement freedom rhetoric. 

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In this context, it’s worth observing how the venues of the old, white Chicago bohemia engaged the “otherness,” and indeed criminality, of their day. The Dil Pickle Club was in large part constituted by people almost universally regarded as menaces: hobos and labor radicals. Their railway “tramping” was, of course, illegal, and labor organizing was criminal or as good as criminal in much of the country. As a space, the Dil Pickle was anarchic and self-determined. It didn’t try to redirect or reform. 

Phil Cohran’s Affro-Arts Theater, at Pershing and Drexel, then, might be more in the spirit of the Pickle than other forms of 1960s “community art.” The theater served not only as an incubator where artists, such as Earth, Wind and Fire frontman Maurice White, got their start, but as an intellectual center for conferences and debate. Cohran embraced the cosmic capaciousness of his mentor Sun Ra, and Affro-Arts had a curriculum of classes ranging from Black history to natural eating and gender roles. 

But in 1968, Affro-Arts closed following police raids, municipal harassment, and a court summons for Cohran. Like Walker and Brown Jr., Cohran had built relationships with the Stones. But the period in the later ’70s and early ’80s, after the theater closed and the remnants of the Stones became the El Rukns, saw them become a more threatening presence in the neighborhood, with the theater building actually becoming the clubhouse for gang founder Jeff Fort and his lieutenants at the peak of their deadly involvement in the heroin trade. It was the city’s paranoia about incipient Black radicalism that led it to shut down Cohran, and that destruction of space for autonomy and culture opened the doors to more destructive forms of “autonomy” later on, namely that of gangs. 

A “Black Aesthetic”

Black artists, inside the Black Arts Movement and out, have borne a special burden that has influenced artistic form and content. In his treatment of two waves of Black Chicago visual arts, Murry DePillars shows how, on the one hand, early white Chicago audiences wondered why a Black painter would join contemporaries in pursuing post-impressionist landscapes instead of exploring his supposed “jungle origins.” But for their own part, generation after generation of Black artists have seen the need to provide images of and for Black people that counter degrading ones generated by the white mainstream. 

Among those artists making Black images, a further dichotomy remains, exemplified by the work of Walker and a fellow member of the collective AFRICOBRA, Barbara Jones-Hogu. Walker followed the Wall of Respect with the Wall of Truth, shifting from depicting ideals and role models to sharing “hard truths” about the conditions in the community, including intracommunity violence and exploitation. Jones-Hogu, on the other hand, shifted from protest images to “positive” ones offering visions of life and values in a liberated Black community. Zorach attributes this shift to her move from academic settings with white audiences to a more radical “nation-building” milieu. 

All these issues were coming to a head at the time depicted in Art for People’s Sake. In his 1967 Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a complex, influential, and often perplexing polemic that guided many in the Black Power moment, Harold Cruse made a case for Black cultural production, brought forth in Black-controlled institutions. OBAC co-founder Hoyt Fuller, as described in Jonathan Fenderson’s recent Building the Black Arts Movement, was an interlocutor of Cruse. Fenderson attributes to both men a Black nationalism in the cultural front, focusing on “forward-looking creative production, criticism, and institutional control, not African American social behavior, ethical mores, or a reclamation of past beliefs.”

Cruse criticized DuBois, the NAACP, and Black leftists for (among other things) alienation from the Black business base that he thought would be necessary for institutional independence and endurance—but in the Black Arts Movement, he saw potential to transcend that. In Chicago, Fuller worked diligently at Johnson Publishing. Against the grain of his controversy-shy employer, one of the city’s foremost Black business enterprises, he used his editorial perch to provide a forum for Black arts and nationalism, modeling the approach Cruse advocated. 

With OBAC, Fuller advocated what he called a “black aesthetic.” Fuller pointed out that the idea that “black is beautiful” expressed in the youthful upsurge of ghetto rebellion was an aesthetic principle. Black artists could draw on the “distinctive styles and rhythms and colors of the ghetto” and the “cool” of Black performers. Black critics could study these qualities to escape the “irrelevant” criteria of white values and liberal integration.

Along with artists and critics, though, the third necessary element in a cultural dynamic is audience. In this, the BAM aimed to connect art and community. Larry Neal opened his 1968 essay “The Black Arts Movement” with the statement that the movement is “opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community.” And the relationship between art and community is the standard Zorach sets for her treatment of the movement in her title, subtitle, and introduction. 

In Art for People’s Sake we do get vivid looks into community engagement with the BAM, especially when it comes to the Wall of Respect—Zorach focuses on the children of the neighborhood who made the Wall their own, posing to give Black power fists and charging a quarter for tours and explanations of the artwork. This is a welcome addition to the well-researched chronicle of the intellectual, artistic, and organizational dynamic of Chicago’s BAM artist protagonists. Zorach’s use of thirty interviews conducted with BAM participants primarily over the last ten years, on top of her archival work and sensitivity to Chicago’s broader cultural and social context, are valuable, first for creating a record of the movement, and further giving readers a window into the relations of personalities in the movement. But the breadth implied by “community” necessitates other methods for evaluating the BAM.

Zorach thus looks to media strategies deployed by Black activists in Chicago, such as the opening of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s apartment to both TV crews and community tours after his murder by Chicago police. She quotes a journalist describing the site becoming “a combination shrine and political education center,” making vivid how Black communities related to the struggle through both sites and images. It is interesting to think about the aesthetic and formal dimensions of the Panthers’ decisions. But such strategies are vulnerable to Cruse’s critique that they remain ephemeral, especially compared to institutions, which provide continuous networks, patronage, and education. 

An answer to Cruse here comes from James Hall, who argued in an essay in Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual Reconsidered that the avant-garde jazz musicians of the post-war period were intellectuals in their own right. The practice of musicians like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane directly countered the existing capitalist production and distribution of jazz, demonstrating that time-based media like music, film, and performance can have social impact in their own way, even as they interact with site-based art and cultural institutions.

In Chicago, Phil Cohran is an interesting example of this intersection. He ran the cultural site of Affro-Arts, but it was his musical output and the “happening” around it that most dramatically served as a “public prose” with nation-building impact. Cohran performed a series of weekly concerts at 63rd Street Beach where, in his words, “Chicago became Black.” At the end of this street—once Chicago’s largest commercial district, home to the Illinois Central station that brought Great Migration arrivals to Chicago—dashikis and natural hair became regular sights.

This is the clearest testament to the importance of the Black Arts Movement: even when individual works or institutions did not last, the movement provided space for Black community expression and experimentation. Its legacy is felt from hip-hop to the literal background in major U.S. cities: the distinctive socially conscious urban murals in Black neighborhoods can be traced to the era that kicked off with the now-eradicated Wall of Respect.

In the book’s conclusion, rather than looking forward to phenomena like further muralism or hip-hop that harken back to the BAM, Zorach makes a similar move to Hall, refashioning what “counts” as artistic or intellectual production. “To fully consider the poorest and most oppressed members of the community as makers of art would require a redefinition of what constitutes art,” but a redefinition, she adds “that went further than most of the artists in the movement would be willing to go.” 

“What if the urban uprisings known as ‘riots,’ ” she asks, “could themselves be understood as a gesture of creation instead of mere wanton destruction?” This provocative line of questioning is newly relevant in 2020. Zorach examines the general interaction of rioters and the media through the individual act of a Black boy photographed in 1968 painting an ephemeral “black power” graffiti with shaving cream—the reader sees the conscious actors behind spectacular action in the “street,” and can appreciate them as aestheticians. 

Taking theory and practice of the BAM seriously, though, should encourage us to look beyond what makes it into the media and evaluate our present moment by what’s going on in spaces (from the Weekly’s home at the Experimental Station, to the Black radical “oasis” The Breathing Room, to “happenings” like Charles Preston’s #ChurchOnThe9) where autonomy is being built. Broader forces of capitalism and racism are still shaping the urban environments where struggle takes place, as well. As the Weekly has reported, The same moment that brings hope for social transformation also means a lot of uncertainty for the fragile institutional life of Black Chicago communities where any such change will unfold.

In Art For People’s Sake, Zorach has done extremely important work documenting a movement and bringing its concerns, dynamics, and ambitions to life. This commitment to showing the Chicago Black Arts Movement on its own terms and in its historic place might leave Weekly readers wanting some comment on the particular legacy of the Black Arts Movement for Black life and activism in Chicago today. In addition to Art For People’s Sake, readers are advised to check out Zorach’s 2014 edited Art Against the Law, which anthologizes Mariame Kaba, Joyce Owens, members of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, and others. 

Rebecca Zorach, Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965–1975. $29.95. Duke University Press. 416 pages

Keith M. Stolte, Chicago Artist Colonies. $21.99. The History Press. 208 pages

Also recommended:
Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey, The Black Chicago Renaissance (2012). University of Illinois Press, 2012
Ian Rocksbourough-Smith, Black Public History in Chicago (2018). University of Illinois Press
Jonathan Fenderson, Building the Black Arts Movement (2019). University of Illinois Press

Update 9/18/20: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Murry DePillars. The Weekly regrets the error.

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Benjamin Ginzky is a law student at Chicago-Kent and lives in Hyde Park, where he is a docent at the Oriental Institute and involved with the 57th Street Meeting of Friends. He also edits nonfiction at Mouse Magazine.

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