bell hooks Left Behind a Legacy of Scholarship on Artwork and Love

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Bell Hook in 2009 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bell Hooks, a native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky who became an acclaimed thinker and cultural critic, died Wednesday, December 15, at her home in Berea at the age of 69. All of us – critics and writers and scholars – find ourselves in an endless dead game of imitation, trying our best to get our thoughts to the page like hooks. Her writing feels like stuttering and an idea is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t seem to find it, but suddenly it’s there, putting it all into words. Her lucid essays on the paradigm-shifting power of love or her observations on white racist capitalist patriarchy should be sewn into the very fabric of our understanding of our culture.

Not every academic’s work bleeds and spills into almost every cultural field. Generations of us have grown up on hooks across disciplines; She has helped us to see not just ourselves, but ourselves in the story that hangs on us like a leech. After leaving this segregated Kentucky town for college to attend Stanford, Hooks too disengaged through her studies and dove into feminism and the ubiquitous fact of white supremacy. By 1983, she had advanced degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she received her doctorate in literature. Between her studies, she published her first book of poetry and her first non-fiction book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, in which she describes the enduring effects of slavery and sexism on black women, which even revolutionary men sought to eradicate and marginalize us from. Before intersectionality entered the mainstream lexicon, Hooks challenged us to think about how our identities are constantly and simultaneously connected to race, class, and gender.

Some thinkers devour the world and spit it out, straight back to us, leaving the reader to navigate the many meanings of their harsh language and deep but circuitous arguments. But Hooks resisted this kind of academic jargon, preferring a more direct investigation. She looked out at the world, at the love and tenderness all enmeshed in white supremacy and patriarchy, and tried to make sense of it with the singular clarity of her pen. Though she is best known for promoting a feminism that focuses on the unique experiences of black women, she also called for new types of critique that took the work of black artists—especially in the visual arts—seriously. Why, Hooks wondered, do visionary black artists lack the kind of rigorous scholarship and criticism meted out to their non-black peers? Is there a future we can envision together, one in which our work can provoke intellectual inquiry for us and through us? How can we rid the arts of whiteness?

“Unfortunately, conservative white artists and critics, who control the cultural production of writing about art, seem to have the greatest difficulty in accepting that one can once be critically aware of visual politics—the ways race, gender and class shaping art practices (who makes art, how it sells, who appreciates it, who writes about it)—without sacrificing a strong commitment to aesthetics,” Hooks wrote in her introduction to her 1995 book about art. “As we critically envision new ways of thinking and writing about visual arts, while creating spaces for dialogue across borders, we are initiating a process of cultural transformation that will ultimately produce a revolution in vision.”

Not content to wait for a bevy of critics to comment on what was happening in the non-white art world, Hooks took it upon herself to write about the artists she felt critical of the field. She was impressed by the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Alison Saar, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Lorna Simpson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Emma Amos. Her seminal theory of an oppositional gaze—or a rebellious way of looking at images, especially films, that places black women at the center and rejects patriarchal views of white supremacy—may be extended to her art criticism. She found Weems of particular interest as both the critic and the artist actively decentered the white in their respective works. “[Her] Photographic works create a cartography of experience in which race, gender and class identity converge, fuse and mingle to disrupt and deconstruct simple notions of subjectivity,” she wrote of Weems’ photography.

For the past four decades, Hook’s work has outlived college curricula and drawn ire beyonce Fans remains a benchmark for how we understand our cultural landscape. After teaching positions at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the City College of New York, Hooks settled in Kentucky to teach at Berea College, where she founded the Bell Hooks Institute.