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Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music is arguably Robert Farris Thompson’s most canonical study of visual art, music, and dance in the Black Atlantic world. True to its subject, the book attempts to identify and examine commonly held traits among these modes of creative expression. Presented in twenty-five relatively short chapters (two of which are interviews), the book is effective in its aim by providing readers with a broad yet simultaneously succinct view of Afro-Atlantic music, dance, art, and, more importantly, the individualized and collective cultural meanings ascribed to each of these artistic outlets. Aesthetic of the Cool is in many ways the culmination of Thompson’s impressive five-decade career as a historian of African art. Importantly, the book does not solely attempt to explain the phenomenon of the “cool” in the visual arts, but importantly extends this analysis to music and dance in Africa (particularly the Yoruba region in Nigeria) and the African diaspora throughout the Americas and the Black Atlantic—a term coined by Thompson.
Aesthetic of the Cool never professes to be an encyclopedic understanding of Atlantic blackness. Rather, the book strives to weave a thread of unity between disparate aspects of creativity in the Afro-Atlantic world, particularly in West African societies and the United States. This goal is readily apparent in the simple fact that Thompson intersperses chapters on art and music throughout the book, rather than privileging—or divorcing—one group from another. He ultimately argues that the aesthetic of the cool is not only historically, geographically, and racially traceable from various African countries to North and South America by traversing the waters of the Atlantic, but that the thread of retention continues to bind Afro-Atlantic cultures and customs even today.
In line with Thompson’s cross-disciplinary methodology, Aesthetic of the Cool is an anthology of twenty-three essays composed from the 1960s through the 1990s, plus interviews conducted by fellow Africanist Donald Cosentino and musician Ned Sublette, respectively. Accordingly, the book’s chapters are not organized chronologically (that is, according to their original publication date) or by theme. Instead, Aesthetic of the Cool guides the reader into the realm of cultural critique, then to music and dance, or art and art history, before diverting her or his attention back to any one of these interconnected categories. Thompson’s deliberate ping pong between the visual and musical arts benefits the reader twofold. First, the book’s organization allows readers to grasp the fluidity that exists between these “disparate” fields of creativity in Afro-Atlantic societies. Secondly, the movement from one essay on cultural identity to another on art history or dance allows Thompson’s audience to draw their own correlations between black cultures that span the Atlantic rim.
In the age of digital humanities and online databases, one might question the need for such a collection of previously published essays. Thompson’s Aesthetic of the Cool, however, weaves a rich cultural tapestry that would otherwise not materialize if the reader were to consider each of these essays individually. What is more, Thompson’s unique style of writing is immediately evident in Aesthetic of the Cool. It is lyrical, dynamic, and distinctly postmodern. As such, his prose perfectly reflects the very “coolness” of the rhythms and beats described in these pages.
So what is the aesthetic of the “cool”? And for that matter, what constitutes the “cool” in the Black Atlantic world of the twentieth century? The answers to these questions span the book’s essays, but are also more clearly defined in a chapter titled “An Aesthetic of the Cool II,” which Thompson first published as an essay in the journal African Arts in 1973. On page 16, he provides the following designation: “‘An aesthetic of the cool’ is the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and of play. Manifest within this philosophy of the cool is the belief that the purer, the cooler a person becomes, the more ancestral he becomes.”
Thompson nicely illustrates how the meaning of the word/concept “cool” shares certain similarities across the various languages of the Afro-Atlantic world, including the Black Americas and select language groups in West and Central Africa. Within a purely African context, to be “cool” understandably enjoys slight variations within different cultural groups, but collectively seems to suggest the following: to cool down, to be beautiful, to exhibit calmness, and to be nonchalant in times of stress. Within an African American context, to be cool equally means: to be controlled, to be charming, or to exhibit moral and/or aesthetic accomplishment. Turning to “coolness” in the United States, Thompson considers Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose personal demeanor was one of measured control, charm, and aesthetic originality. Thompson discusses Basquiat in two separate chapters, and argues that the young painter was more than just another “black kid on the street” intent on creating “high art” through the visual language of graffiti, but rather, was a sophisticated Afro-New Yorker, African American, and Afro-Caribbean artist. Running parallel to the myriad connotations of the “cool” in the Black Atlantic, Thompson’s estimation of Basquiat’s coolness likewise defies an overly simplistic or single vision of Afro-Atlanticism.
It is important to note that this admiration for Basquiat was not a one-sided relationship, but mutual esteem. Basquiat stated that Thompson’s ideas, particularly those espoused in Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), played a role in his own understanding of the African element in art. In turn, Thompson’s discussion of Basquiat’s painting Guagua becomes all the more telling. Thompson reads the image as a work whose meaning is contingent upon Basquiat’s Caribbean heritage (his father was Haitian; his mother was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents) since Guagua means “bus” in Latin-American Spanish. But another word—“carbon”—is also present in the painting, and, according to Thompson, this word reinforces the idea that Basquiat’s heritage is not simply Caribbean, but Afro-Caribbean. Thompson tellingly concludes that “carbon, the ‘fact’ of blackness, the Afro-Atlantic art tradition, goes on forever” (43). The notion that a black imprint, or a carbon impression of a black legacy, was historically established and then transmitted throughout the Afro-Atlantic world is at the very heart of Thompson’s understanding of the aesthetics of the cool.
Other chapters in the book provide a richer context for how music and art often merge into a collective art practice within the peoples and societies of the Black Atlantic. Basquiat, for example, drew heavily upon jazz and the blues—both forms of black classical music. In a surprising chapter on Keith Haring, Thompson demonstrates how Black house music, downrocking (a predominantly Afro-Caribbean form of dance), electric boogie, and capoeira (the Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines music, dance, and acrobatics) collectively inspired the iconography of “dance passages” and rhythms in Haring’s street art. Additional chapters on Afro-Latino musicians (like Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, and Barry Rogers) and African American hip-hop, soul, and funk performers (such as James Brown, George Clinton, and Prince) draw further affinities between African forms of dance and music (including Kongo dance and West African drumming) and the specified art forms that materialize throughout the Black Americas.
In an essay on the Miami-based Cuban artist José Bedia, Thompson asserts the significance of Kongo sacred dance on Bedia’s side of the Atlantic Ocean. Thompson likewise connects Bedia’s oeuvre to that of Wifredo Lam, who was of Afro-Chinese heritage and arguably the most significant Cuban artist of the twentieth century. In so doing, Thompson draws attention to the manner in which Lam and Bedia collectively cited the iconography and spiritual significance of Yoruba gods in their respective works, even though their artistic styles are largely (if not entirely) dissimilar. Originally published in Art in America in 1997, Thompson’s essay helped to propel Bedia’s visibility in the U.S. art world (particularly since Bedia had only moved to Miami from Mexico City in 1993), while simultaneously reinforcing Thompson’s role as an influential art critic during this period.
In her illuminating and schematic introduction to the book, curator and scholar Lowery Stokes Sims offers that one of the principle strengths of Thompson’s analysis of Afro-Atlantic cultures is his consistency in avoiding hegemonic language throughout his writings. Sims further explains the uniqueness of this, given that numerous contemporary scholars of Black art, music, and culture tend to get stuck debating the racial implications surrounding the historical dichotomy that was fabricated between “civilized” and “primitive” peoples. With Sims’s analysis in mind, it becomes clear that Thompson eschews unnecessary justifications of, for example, Yoruba drumming or African American funk music, when discussing their place in the canons of art and music histories. Somewhat ironically then, Thompson’s ability to circumvent dominant post-colonial, post-antebellum, and post-segregation discourses of blackness in the United States reciprocally reveals just how prevalent these discourses currently are in the literature on Black Atlantic art and music.
What individuals ultimately serve to gain from reading Aesthetic of the Cool is not simply an appreciation for the complex language and ideas expressed within its pages, but the possibility of its critical application beyond the author’s case studies from decades past. As such, Thompson’s belief that “the ‘fact’ of blackness . . . goes on forever” is continually implicated in the art, music, and current affairs that shape and transform the Afro-Atlantic world of today.
Nathan J. Timpano
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami