Book Launch at the Smart: Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975

panorama of late-season snow in back yard with green grass, flowers, a grill, a garden, and a lilac almost in bloom.
that late-season snow, in my back yard.

Today was pretty disgusting in Chicago and its environs—that late-season snow basically flooded us all out, and I laughed so hard I pretty much cried, because like what else are you gonna do?—but it was, in all, a terrific day for me: my friend S and I went to a delightful little café (Café 53, which is on 53rd Street, as is right and proper), and then to a book launch at the Smart Museum of Art. The Smart has always had, in case you’re wondering, an incredible collection; I grew up walking to it, almost as often as I did to the Oriental Institute. I lived, after all, maybe a six minute walk from the Smart (if you walked slowly), and a fifteen minute (very slow) walk to the Oriental Institute. We were very small nerds, and we loved our museums.

Going back to the Smart for a book launch—for, in particular, this book launch—is, perforce, something very special. (It’s even better to go with a friend: after all, I went with my friends all the time, as a kid.) The launch, today, was of Rebecca Zorach‘s Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975. While it isn’t directly tied to the Smart’s (now former) exhibit The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960-1980, which Zorach also curated, it covers much of the same territory: the vibrant art worlds of Chicago’s South Side (and sometimes West Side) Black communities. (And definitely check out the catalogue for that exhibit—it’s so worth it.)

As a librarian, and as someone who writes about Chicago (primarily the South Side, that being very much my world), I’m incredibly excited to see work coming out about the cultural contributions of the people who make Chicago what it is. There has been, for far too long, a denial and a silencing of these South and West Side communities of color, and of the artists and intellectuals from those communities whose work should be more widely known. There’s far more to say about the structural racism and classism that has made many of the artists discussed in Art for People’s Sake and The Time Is Now! (and, for that matter, currently on display in Solidary & Solitary and Smart to the Core) less well-known than, say, the Hairy Who? or other pioneering artists of the ’60s and ’70s.

This hegemonic art world was, of course, mentioned, although I guess I felt it was also a bit of the elephant in the room. (Someone asked about pricing of the art: how, as it were, are you making sure you’re paying fair price for historically undervalued art?—and as a musician’s daughter, and a writer, I am so very glad that someone asked such a question at all, because too often we try, genteelly, to pretend that money doesn’t enter into the equation—and it does. It very much does.) I will also say that the question and answer segment of the launch made me think, once again, of one of the things we discussed at the Information Literacy Summit: our social locations, and how they influence what we see and how we see it. (And how we as white people—maybe particularly we liberal white women, in whose name so many people of color have been tortured—interact with the work of people of color, and how we must actively work not to appropriate it.)

My social location? Well, in a nutshell: of northern European descent, learning disabled, descended from planters and overseers and Irish revolutionaries and lawless Prussians, educated from an educated family, still able to perform middle to upper class even if my family fell out of it a long time ago now. Because my disabilities—from learning to constant pain–are invisible, I carry a lot of privilege. (Most people have no idea that my brain is always misfiring.) I also spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about what my face (pale as the dead) and my background and my ability to perform an acceptable (albeit leftwing) white womanhood means, both for me and for the people with whom I work. (Mostly I try to use my face and shared ethnicity with people as a force for, you know, furthering understanding, and have you read any of these amazing books yet? Totally suggest them! So fascinating!)

So, I don’t know, I think if I were ever presenting such a work, I’d start off by acknowledging my particular social location, because it does influence who I am, and what I see, and how I understand and interact with the world. But, holy cow, I am so excited to have my hands on Art for People’s Sake, as a South Sider, as a librarian, as a Chicagoan, as someone who writes about the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago. The artists Zorach discusses, and the Smart has begun to showcase, helped make Chicago what it is—and certainly brought a hell of a lot of beauty to our city. It is so long past time that we finally begin to celebrate them for their importance, and their centrality, to what makes Chicago great.

oh, and you should go.

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