Postcolonial Thoughts: Alain Locke’s essay “Art or Propaganda?”

by Christopher Hutchinson

Alain Locke

Alain LeRoy Locke is heralded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance” for his publication in 1925 of The New Negro—an anthology of poetry, essays, plays, music and portraiture by white and black artists. Locke is best known as a theorist, critic, and interpreter of African-American literature and art. He was also a creative and systematic philosopher who developed theories of value, pluralism and cultural relativism that informed and were reinforced by his work on aesthetics. Locke saw black aesthetics quite differently than some of the leading Negro intellectuals of his day; most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, with whom he disagreed about the appropriate social function of Negro artistic pursuits. Du Bois thought it was a role and responsibility of the Negro artist to offer a representation of the Negro and black experience which might help in the quest for social uplift. Locke criticized this as “propaganda”-By Jacoby Adeshei Carter

ART or Propaganda?


If there was a start here button on Black Aesthetics, an essay that should be a mandatory read for all artists of colour, it would be this. Alain Locke writes this simple five paragraph essay that is clear and easy to understand. This article is an attempt to unpack and apply the critique Alain Locke posed 87 years ago. Art or Propaganda? Alain Locke first posed this question in 1928 juxtaposing art and propaganda as binary opposites.   He positions his argument as a statement to where the question becomes rhetorical. Locke’s makes a statement in this essay as to the virtue of art as opposed to the vice of propaganda. The problem with propaganda is “It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained”. Yelling on your soap box is not art.


Dred Scott performance I am not a man 2009; duration 1 hour. Performance still 22 x 30 inches, pigment print.

Dred Scott performance I am not a man
2009; duration 1 hour. Performance still 22 x 30 inches, pigment print.


My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression, in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda.–Alain Locke

How many times are we going to allow the same images to be so-called repurposed, and reinterpreted to the same “perpetuation of group inferiority even when crying out against it”? It seemed that Locke had his fill of this “monotony” in 1928 and yet this method is still a tried and true way to get a response as a Black artist-STOP IT! Even in cities where Black is the majority this practice is most sought after, it is most commodified.

Shift of Psychology

There is more strength in a confident camp than in a threatened enemy. The sense of inferiority must be innerly compensated, self-conviction must supplant self-justification and in the dignity of this attitude a convinced minority must confront a condescending majority. Art cannot completely accomplish this, but I believe it can lead the way.–Alain Locke

The only negative to this essay is the overtly biblical context that assumes that everyone has this knowledge. Within this religious context Locke articulates “Art or Propaganda?,” more clearly into two camps, David or Goliath. David being Art and Goliath being the propaganda. This illustration points to the populous and plentitude of number that the camp of propaganda holds as well as the strength of one individual with carefully chosen “five smooth pebbles fearlessly”. Locke urges that the practice of David should lead us. Alone we should be willing to choose carefully five pebbles and stand without propaganda against any number army. Terry Adkins is such an artist, one of the David’s Locke foresaw.


“Recital” comprises a selection of work spanning the last three decades by artist/musician Terry Adkins. Born in 1953 in Washington, DC, Adkins grew up deeply invested in visual art, music, and language. His approach to art making is similar to that of a composer, and the exhibition is conceived as a theatrical score that punctuates and demarcates space, creating interplay among pieces in different media and from diverse bodies of work. Together they act as facets of a crystalline whole, reflecting and illuminating each other in ways that amplify their intensity.

Locke would be disappointed in the overgeneralization and lumping of the Harlem renaissance artists into a Black propaganda machine and Black art today largely falls into the camp of the Philistines. He credits propaganda as a necessary step in our development, as it is necessary for an infant to cry for milk. Art, on the other hand, requires much more than cry’s for necessities, it demands an honest dialogue that allows one to specify nuances of imagery,language, time, and music ones individual aesthetic within a populous culture. …the primary responsibility and function of the artist is to express his own individuality, and in doing that to communicate something of universal human appeal.-By Jacoby Adeshei Carter


Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.


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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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One Comment on “Postcolonial Thoughts: Alain Locke’s essay “Art or Propaganda?””

  1. March 26, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    indeed ‘much more than cry’s for necessities’….

    Liked by 1 person

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