David Hammons takes an uncommon approach towards standard white art practices and symbols of oppression.
No one can deny the atrocities like murder, violence, poverty, starvation, political unfairness, and the denial of being human that Africans have faced coming to America. Anyone who does is probably a desperate and pathetic, though relentless, human slave owner, a monster wrapped in a 50 cent white sheet his mother sewed, a police officer with too large a temper and too many weapons around his waist, or maybe a president elect with soon too much political power. To this day politicians and police officers among many others are still out to torture these innocent and undeserving people. Employers, landlords, and even the banks in America can have disastrous effects on the lives of Blacks in this country. It is not to say of course that they are doomed to this forever. But the truth cannot be ignored. These people have been living in a nightmare with symbols of oppression for 240 years with only a few heroes and heroines along the way to guide and help. However, Africa is rich in culture and has brought a positive attitude to America. From the earliest years of living in America, Africans utilized the arts such as music to communicate. Though David Hammons, a contemporary African-American artist, denies that he is an artist, but utilizes that same communication. Hammons assembles his work like billboards of symbols. The sculptures, Higher Goals, from 1986 measure 20-35 feet tall which are high enough to broadcast David Hammons’ sounds. David Hammons is facing these difficulties he and his ancestors share, and while rejecting art forms and critiques common to Caucasians, expresses a truth about Africans living in The United States.
Higher Goals by David Hammons
Higher Goals by David Hammons, towering 35 feet above the ground, are the perfect tools for broadcasting any political or inspirational message. Five sculptures rage like excited Warriors fans leaping from the bleachers straight into the air after a three point shot. Actually the sculptures themselves are made from towering telephone poles alluding to the communications that the poles used to carry. The poles shoot straight up and unobstruct the messages they hold. The journey is a beautiful zig zag on the way up from the ground. Many beer bottle caps, symbols of oppression towards Blacks, are fixed all around the poles creating “chevron designs that resembled the dazzling mosaics of Islamic decoration, African textiles, and black southern folk art” (Weintraub 87). These found materials are arranged in patterns that are reminiscent of Blacks in America. If the poles are addressed envelopes, then the tops of these poles are the letters inside. Each pole has been repurposed to hold a basketball hoop and backboard. These hoops “…commented on the futile belief among the neighborhood’s African-American youth that basketball was their ticket out of the ghetto” (Belcher 70). These soaring symbols of oppression are shouting and sharing a history of the ghettos that Blacks are all too often crammed into. This is the message Hammons wishes to broadcast; though it’s made of telephone poles, beer bottles, and bball nets, the artist is sculpting a history of the creation of ghettos.
White Artworks are Symbols of Oppression
David Hammons uses his peculiar materials to remind onlookers or uplookers of African history as well as his own. Historically white people have swept artists’ identities like Hammons’ under the rug like nothing. “Hammons’ childhood provided minimal opportunity for identification with his African American roots” (Weintraub 86). Because of the enormous hardships and symbols of oppression Africans have faced in his country it is often hard to trace one’s roots. There is, of course, no better way to learn about something than to experience it more. Hammons, in the 70s moved to Harlem to try and surround himself with the truth of what’s really happening. He was immersed enabling him to explore the impoverished life that people like him are stuck in more in this way. While approaching these struggles Hammons did not become an enlightened martyr; he just became a sort of garbage man. Surprisingly he became inspired by debris like glass and tin containers, sneakers, chicken bones, and even condoms found in the streets. Hammons worked hard to acquire these things like the beer bottle caps discussed earlier on Higher Goals as representations of what it is like to survive as a Black person in an urban area (Weintraub 86-87). These materials became the symbols of the political strife and an unfit lifestyle experienced by men and women in many cities. “The children of the Chicago ghetto were jammed into a segregated school system,” says another essayist (Hansberry 34). This national, unfair, racist, unsanitary way of living is what Hammons is trying to recall when working with such found materials. Paint nor marble cannot describe the disgust Hammons has with what’s happening. Only litter and refuse found in these neighborhoods can describe the struggles he and other Blacks face.
David Hammons shows his spectators the wrongdoings of the Whites in America, but can’t do it in the realm of art as Americans know it because they are symbols of oppression. Hammons artworks probably aren’t sketched out and perfected; instead they might blow in with the wind and down the street like a weed. Hammons was “…influenced by Dada, an early twentieth-century movement that embraced deliberate irrationalism and rejected traditional notions of art…” (Belcher 69). Like Dada, the artist appreciated the importance of found objects, especially those of the poor, instead of those chosen and purchased from an expensive supply store. Art and art supply stores are the artist’s enemy because they are run by his worst enemy: whiteys. “He […] abandoned painting and printmaking because they belonged to a white, European art tradition” (Weintraub 86). Hammons obviously is constructing images of African struggles, so there’s no reason to do so in the tradition of Whites such as Western painting. The Pope did not ask for Higher Goals to be carved from marble, polished, and laid in a church. Hammons would be horrified by such an orderly request and of “…the tidy, sanitary decorum of white cultural values” (Weintraub 87). It would be backwards to use such materials to show the truthful lifestyle of day to day Harlem. Not only has Hammons rejected the evils of white people in order to make his communicative works, but has rejected their process of making and critiquing artwork.
Higher Goals are no accidents; they uphold Hammons’ tradition of communication and form. David Hammons has renounced both racism and traditional Caucasian art criticism to create these tall, traditional, but unique sculptures. These are towers showing everyone the hardships of Blacks in America and spreading David Hammons’ messages about these hardships. “He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation” (Schjeldahl). It’s obvious that Blacks have needed a voice against symbols of oppression and it should be clear by now that Hammons is very interested in being this voice through Contemporary sculptures. If his works were all competing radio stations, Higher Goals by Hammons would have a shining example of what ratings should be. These superior examples of Hammons’ work are “…symbols of triumph over adversity and bigotry” (Weintraub 87). These sculptures make for good examples of his work because Hammons is always trying to overcome African struggles in America via these visual forms. Undoubtedly the message is heard loud and clear. The sculptures “…serve as visual pep talks directed at youths…” and “…they are encouragement to aim straight and high” (Weintraub 87). These sculptures in particular are a message to the youth to overcome that “futile” belief that there’s nowhere to go and become even more successful than the White people David Hammons has rejected. This is a typical example of how these sorts of themes are expressed by Hammons and how he uses visual form, often sculpture, in telling truths of African life in America.
The bottom line is that the works of David Hammons are ones of intrigue, beauty, and much respect. I love his work with one exception. (This isn’t an essay of what art is, so it’ll just be mentioned briefly.) If I had to ask David Hammons one thing I’d ask: why, if Higher Goals are enormous symbols of oppression, inspiration, and needed change, is your work not art? However I understand his need to reject symbols of oppression and the way Europeans critique art. On that note, it seems perfectly logical to want to escape the confined space of both the art world and the real world. His career may be confusing, but his work, his visual forms, and his ideas are empowering to Blacks of a dark history run by Whites.
Nobody’s opinion matters; the facts speak for themselves. Those are the ones that haven’t been swept under the rug that is. But David Hammons has lifted the rug and collected all the bottle caps and condoms. He has utilized and turned these symbols of oppression around. He’s swept the dirt, the glass, the chicken bones, and all the debris right back out from underneath. Not many people in the art world are using such things like this to make art, but that’s exactly what makes this art so truthful. In this way David Hammons has taken the disgusting realities of the treatments of Black, stripped it all of the White opinion, and used these materials to create forms with nothing short of impactful messages.
Belcher, Emily M.. “David Hammons” Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, edited by Emily M. Belcher, Dr. Altonon Hornsby Jr., Dr. Ronald Woods, Gale, 2009, pp. 69-71.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “The Scars Of The Ghetto.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine 67.1 (2015): 32-35.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Laughter And Anger.” New Yorker 92.6 (2016): 86.
Weintraub, Linda. “David Hammons: An African-American Man.” Art on the Edge and Over, edited by Linda Weintraub, Art Insights, Inc., 1996, pp. 84-90.