Jacob Lawrence: On Black Artists Compared to White Artists – Unequal Pay, Unequal Society

“We know that the Negro artist does have a problem, you see. He has a problem far beyond that of the white artist, speaking generally. We know this. So we must say we know this, we accept this fact.” – Jacob Lawrence

Excerpt from an Interview of Jacob Lawrence conducted 1968 October 26, by Carroll Greene

Jacob Lawrence: Generally the negro artist who is as successful in his way as the white artist does not get the same material –

Carroll Greene,: Compensation?

JL: That’s right. As the white artist. But then again I look around and I say – well, some white artists do not get this. But this has something to do with our whole social condition. This does not only apply to the artist. We can pick up any book on sociology and the Negro experience and we can apply this to the Negro artist, too. I don’t think it because – as I talk now things are coming to me, I think one of the areas where this is very evident is in a man like Pippin whom we spoke of a while back. Now they have claimed (when I say “they” I mean the critic, the art establishment) they have put Pippin in the category of what – they call him a primitive. Now regardless of how we interpret this primitive can usually mean two things. We usually mean the early pre-Renaissance people, or we usually mean an untrained person in a formal sense. I think that’s the general broad. . .Now we’ll take the latter. So when they say here’s a primitive painter, a very good primitive painter, you see, this is what the art establishment says here, then they’re speaking of it in the latter sense of a person who has not been trained in the formal sense. Well, they apply the same definition to Grandma Moses. But yet Pippin never achieved the material success of a Grandma Moses, you see. He never did achieve it. And I think aesthetically, plastically and otherwise he’s a much greater painter. Now so this has to do with our whole American social condition here, you see. But, on the other hand, had Pippin – I don’t know, I never met Pippin, I was never fortunate enough to meet him, I wish I had met him – so I don’t know if he knew this or if he realized it. But in any event I’m sure that if he did it would not have stopped him from painting. See this is what I’m talking about here. You see, he can think of it intellectually, he can think about these things, and he can say well I would like to live, you know, I would like to have the money, I would like to have the material success of a Grandma Moses or someone else; and even if I didn’t live like they lived I would like to say well this is of my own choice. But maybe he never had the choice to even say that I would like to do this or do that, you see. Now I don’t know what this does to the psyche of the artist and I think this is an individual thing, you see. Maybe this is why I’m groping here. And this is strictly that. Now maybe to me I have – if it was a problem (and I don’t know if it ever was) maybe I have solved it in a subconscious manner which I do not know you see. Maybe I’ve done that. You see, maybe I’ve ignored all this other thing around me. Maybe it’s been a protective kind of thing, and I said what the hell I can’t do anything about it. Not consciously I’ve never said this. But then again I’ve never had to say it. I’ve never had to say it consciously. But I have realized I know of colleagues who’ve gotten things that I haven’t gotten, you see, and I know that they’ve been invited places and gotten big fees from serving as artists in residence in other places, schools, colleges, universities, you know. But I cannot see myself wearing this chip on my sleeve because I don’t think it’s because I’m an artist but I think it’s because my whole American experience, our whole American experience as a Negro, you see, I guess it’s because I’m an artist maybe I come in contact with more people than a carpenter would come in contact working in a Negro – you know, if you happen to be a Negro. So maybe my experience is much broader in that sense, my social experience.

“Now how I am to get this or am I to dwell on it am I to talk about it; do I waste my energies by going out and telling the establishment, look, her I am, he gets this, I don’t get this. How much of this am I going to do.”

I think the question that remains uppermost in my mind – not because I can answer it but because it is, as I said before a very difficult question to answer, and that is the Negro artist his dilemma in our society as a practicing artist. I’ve had the experience of speaking to many artists all my life, Negro artists like myself, and white artists and I’m just trying to think of how they may differ as artists, not just as people, they naturally differ as people. And there is a common denominator here that the Negro artist talks about when we get together, we discuss. We may disagree with each other. We discuss our acceptance or non-acceptance in the community as artists. And I’m still thinking about this question. I’m thinking about some sort of positive answer here as to how this relates to me, you know, how it has related to me. I’m very conscious of this in one respect but I’m also conscious of the fact of not letting it but trying not to let it influence my work as a practicing artist, you see. But at the same time protecting myself and getting the most out of what society offers too. If I am a success I want to have everything else everyone else wants as a successful practicing artist. Now how I am to get this or am I to dwell on it am I to talk about it; do I waste my energies by going out and telling the establishment, look, her I am, he gets this, I don’t get this. How much of this am I going to do.

 

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The Migration Series Panel no. 3 @ Jacob Lawrence

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The Migration Series Panel no. 22 @ Jacob Lawrence

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The Migration Series Panel no. 17 @ Jacob Lawrence

“Generally the negro artist who is as successful in his way as the white artist does not get the same (compensation).” – Jacob Lawrence

CG: “He” being the white artist?

JL: Yes. The establishment, yes. Not the white artists but –

CG: But the establishment that metes out to the –

JL: That’s right. Metes out to the artist, you see. How much of this am I going to. . .Will I waste my energies doing this? I have to do it to some extent. Whenever the opportunity arises I have to speak out. I have to say something about it. But I cannot make this my focus. I cannot make focus this part of my activities, make this greater than my involvement in painting. I cannot do this. Because if I keep doing this well then it’s sort of a vicious cycle. I would no longer be a painter. I’d become something else. I’d become a agitator. Which is good, too. You have to be some of this. So this is the question. I think this is it.

We know that the Negro artist does have a problem, you see. He has a problem far beyond that of the white artist, speaking generally. We know this. So we must say we know this, we accept this fact. But then the question comes as to what extent are we going to do anything about this? How much are we going to, as you say, politick or whatever you may call it, or agitate to better this condition. Artists have always done it to a lesser or greater degree. I think this is the question more than the techniques of Madison Avenue and how they may affect me as a Negro painter, or that type of thing. Now I think I’m clearing this up. I think your question would come, you see: how much have I accepted; and if I accept some of it, if I accept this as being a valid thing and a valid part of our society, which I believe it is, I think it is. I think that Madison Avenue is a valid part of our society, you see. Well then, if I accept this then I want to participate in everything and I want to have everything which this society has for me.

 

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

Published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York

(All rights reserved. Interview Excerpt of Jacob Lawrence conducted 1968 October 26, by Carroll Greene, for the Archives of American Art.)

Posted in Interviews, Painting and tagged , , , , , , , , .