liquid blackness Presents: Music Video as Black Art: Claiming the B-Side

Curator's Note

At a conference Robert O’Meally organized on the work of Romare Bearden, Toni Morrison describes the “liquidity” of the black arts as the history of practicing one artform in terms of another: for example, musical rhythms as visual conceits, photography as improvised music, and, we add, filmmaking as music-making.[i]

In 1998, O’Meally had already published the influential anthology The Jazz Cadence in American Culture, which can be regarded as a precursor to Morrison’s claim about liquidity.[ii] There, within the section inspired by Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw, O’Meally reprints Arthur Jafa’s essay “Black Visual Intonation,” arguably still the most explicit and influential “manifesto” about black liquidity as an aesthetic goal. BVI introduces the idea of liquid creative practices for the moving image for which black musical experimentations and vocal textures provide a vital formal—but perhaps, more profoundly, informal—model.[iii]

As an artmaking practice, liquidity is now a given among multimedia artists of the post-black generation, a feature of where their work lives (commercial, art, and online spaces), its promiscuous patronage (from the art house to the fashion house), and, sometimes, an explicit reference: Kahlil Joseph’s short film Music Is My Mistress (2017), commissioned by Kenzo, for example, features an intertitle exchange between Kelsey Lu and Ishmael Butler: “her: Who is your favorite filmmaker?” “him: Miles Davis.”[iv] This exchange anticipates another by scholars Uri McMillan and Mark Anthony Neal, who agree that contemporary black music is explicitly visual and, through the work of filmmakers like Joseph, has returned the music video to its status as “black art.” Not only has “music video” entered the spaces of high art, but it is explicitly in conversation with art history, and it demands to be approached with expanded art historical methodologies unbound by disciplinary distinctions between the sonic and the visual, music history and the history of the black visual arts, experimental cinema and popular culture.

On September 21-23, 2023, the liquid blackness extended community – inclusive of GSU graduate students, editorial board members of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, friends, supporters, and community members—will gather to explore these possibilities for a Symposium titled “Music Video as Black Art: Claiming the B-Side.”

For us, liquid artmaking is a practice that deserves attention to what I call “futural archives of black intentionality” which harnesses radical potentialities from the past to pass them on to future generation—the queer times/black futures both Kara Keeling and Jenn Nkiru explore in their work.[v] More radically, however, we are interested in the liquid praxes that sustain this creative work, and, particularly, in the way that, inspired by musical avantgardes, the communal ethos of musicians in the jazz ensemble and their formal experimentations with law-making and law-breaking, liquid artmaking becomes a praxis of black study[vi] that divests from artworld’s fixation with the singular genius and complicates the integrity of the art object, differently understood as a reportage of the collaborative process that engendered it. Liquid praxes challenge established art historical categories: the object (if the object is process, the process is a practice and practice is ultimately praxis, what is the subject and object of black art?); archival and reading protocols (if black study is ensemblic, and the work of the ensemble is fugitive—because its internal relationships of reciprocity and care resist accounting—how may it index itself in the art object?); the autonomy of form (if black study hinges on the informality of experimental socialities, can formal analysis attend to its work?).

Thus, we’ll gather in the spirit of these liquid praxes to follow their same ethos: informality.

This is a “conspiracy without a plot” – a gathering to study how to better gather again.[vii]

To be continued….


[i] Toni Morrison, “Abrupt Stops and Unexpected Liquidity: The Aesthetics of Romare Bearden,” in Robert O’Meally ed., The Romare Bearden Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 178-184. See also Raengo, “A View from the Music: Anacinema for Other Ends.”

[ii] Robert G. O'Meally, ed. The jazz cadence of American culture. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[iii] “Black Visual Intonation” reprints a paper titled “69” originally delivered at Gina Dent’s and Michele Wallace’s groundbreaking 1991 conference on Black Popular Culture; the first print appearance of this essay is in the collected anthology by the same title: Gina Dent, ed., Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace (Bay Press, 1992).

[iv] This is a line of inquiry that the liquid blackness research group has pursued under the title “Music Video as Black Art.” See Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer, “The Unruly Archives of Black Music Video.” JCMS, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, 59, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 138-144 and liquid blackness, “Music Video as Black Art,” digital humanities project: It was partly inspired by Uri McMillan and Marc Anthony Neal, Left of Black, October 6, 2017. YouTube video,

[v] Kara Keeling, Queer Times/Black Futures (New York: NYU Press, 2019) and Jenn Nkiru, “Jenn Nkiru’s Pan-African Imagination: Black Studies as Aesthetic Practice,” Georgia State University, April 14-15, 2019.

[vi] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013)

[vii] Stefano Harney and Valentina Desideri. “A Conspiracy without a Plot.” The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, edited by Jean-Paul Martinon. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).

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