Something New Under the Artificial Light

After discussing Bernice Johnson Reagon’s article “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” originality’s importance to African American song actually made me think of art history. Specifically, I started thinking about two artworks: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) and Archibald Motley’s Nightlife (1943).

Both of these paintings have close ties: they are part of the Modernist movement—specifically the Harlem Renaissance for Motley—and Hopper’s work actually helped influence Motley in his rendering of Nightlife. The close association is evident in the similarity between the two works, especially in the artists’ characteristic use of artificial light and their respective names.

Now, how do two artists who were at the height of their careers during Reagon’s infancy tie back to what she has to say in her article? Well, in her article, Reagon comments on African American song saying, “Within African-American culture, there is a very high standard placed on the moment when one not only makes a solid statement of the  song or sermon, but the offering is given one’s own signature.” The paintings realistically illustrate this point Reagon is making, only in painting rather than vocal art. While the common use of hazy, vibrant colors, realistic human depictions, and artificially lit scenes would make the mind stumble toward thinking Nightlife is imitation (“nothing new under the sun”), it goes without saying that Motley didn’t copy Hopper’s piece. Rather he took the techniques and applied them in his own original style—his “signature.” Specifically, Motley’s signature includes adding cultural context, depicting what the Art Institute of Chicago describes as “the vibrancy of African American culture.”

Motley’s cultural contextualization also relates to Reagon’s idea of straddling. Reagon notes that those who straddle “are born in and of one place and culture and are sent […] to master and achieve access and mobility for [themselves], and thus [their] people, in the larger and dominant society.” Motley did just this: he took inspiration from one of the most influential Modernist painters of the twentieth century, who happened to be from a different culture, and utilized it to mobilize expression of his own culture. Motley used inspiration from Hopper to create his own unique art, simultaneously expressing an appreciation and understanding for African American culture to the world. And he, by his own inherent talent, created another Modernist masterpiece that is is accessible to the larger society.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but there is something new under the artificial light in these art pieces.


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