AT THE END OF 2021, the National Gallery in London published initial findings from an inquiry into its ties to transatlantic slavery conducted in collaboration with University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. The report named individuals involved with the museum in its early decades who profited from slavery or the slave trade, either through the direct enslavement of people or through financial ties to plantation economies. It is a lengthy list, encompassing collectors, philanthropists, and artists. Among those named are the marine insurance magnate John Julius Angerstein, whose collection of paintings by Raphael, Rubens, Van Dyck, and others formed the museum’s foundational bequest; the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who benefited from the patronage of Antiguan sugar planters; and the sovereign and art collector Charles I, who in 1632 granted royal authorization to syndicates trafficking enslaved Africans from the Guinea coast to the Americas.
The National Gallery’s report is part of a broader reckoning with the ways the art world has long profited from slavery. This reckoning is not new. In 1851, the abolitionist activists William Wells Brown, Ellen Craft, and William Craft staged a protest at the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace, asserting their presence as formerly enslaved people to emphasize that the art and industrial progress celebrated at the fair relied on wealth from chattel slavery in the Americas. To make his point visually, Brown famously placed the British illustrator John Tenniel’s satirical illustration of a “Virginian slave”—which depicted a Black woman shackled to a pedestal inscribed with the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”—at the base of the American sculptor Hiram Powers’s white marble statue The Greek Slave (1841-43). The illustration was, as Brown reportedly said, “a fitting companion” to the sculpture that demanded fairgoers acknowledge the relationship between stolen labor and the making and display of art.
These critiques of complicity, first sounded by radical Black abolitionists and activists like Brown and the Crafts in the nineteenth century, form an urgent part of ongoing work within museums and art history. The UK-based National Trust recently published a 115-page report on the connections between historic houses and art collections under their care and the history of slavery and colonialism. Similar initiatives are also underway at European and American museums, including the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis, both in Amsterdam, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And apart from museums, grassroots movements and advocacy initiatives such as Decolonize This Place, Museums Are Not Neutral, and Strike MoMA have put further pressure on the problem of neutrality claimed by many institutions with origins in wealth from imperial extraction, slavery, and colonialism.
Complementing and intersecting with this work is a body of scholarship that calls into question how some of the materials and aesthetic categories so central to the art world have shaped, and been shaped by, slavery and the slave trade. Two recent books—Henry Sayre’s Value in Art: Manet and the Slave Trade (2022) and Anna Arabindan-Kesson’s Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton, and Commerce in the Atlantic World (2021)—consider how these histories inhere in the word “value,” which is fundamental to the intertwined discourses of aesthetics, race, and economics. How is value accorded to people, things, and ideas? How, and to what ends, have critics, artists, and viewers variously evoked the term? How are these operations embedded in the violence of slavery, racial capitalism, and white supremacy? And finally, what kinds of approaches do scholars take to understanding these processes?
Sayre begins his narrative of value in 1865—the year Édouard Manet exhibited his famed canvas Olympia at the Paris Salon. The painting depicts a white woman and a Black woman side-by-side: the white woman, a courtesan, lies nude on a bed, while at right the Black woman (presumably a servant or attendant) seems to have just entered the room, bearing a large bouquet of flowers. Sayre aims to understand anew the oft-studied Olympia by analyzing it in relation to Émile Zola’s 1867 pamphlet “A new manner of painting: Édouard Manet,” in which Zola argues that the painter’s art is above all guided by a “law of values.”
Sayre is especially interested in value as a property of color—lightness and darkness, to be exact. His argument hinges on the double meaning of “value,” and Zola’s description of Manet’s concern with “the right relations” (les rapports justes) between tone and color is understood to have both formal and moral implications. Sayre uses Zola’s remarks as a driving force for his book’s central claim that, in Olympia and in his broader artistic practice, Manet uses the materiality of paint and its contrasting effect as veiled metaphors for a critique of race relations and the aftermath of racial slavery in Second Empire France.
This argument is provocative, but the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading. Sayre seems less interested in parsing Manet’s specific relationship to the slave trade—a term whose parameters are never fully defined in the text—than in speculating about the artist’s attitudes toward race, slavery, and empire more generally. Manet’s work has often been read as an autonomous art of form and surfaces, sealed off from the world around it: Michel Foucault famously regarded the artist’s canvases as “painting-objects” that were about the act of painting itself, and art historian Jean Clay wrote of Manet’s ability to distinguish form from referent. Sayre seeks to draw out the politics that animate and subtend those surfaces.
Value in Art uses a prolific array of sources, both primary and secondary, in its attempt to reconstruct Manet’s politics, racial and otherwise. Sayre enlists a wide range of historically contemporaneous texts—from early French translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to anti-imperialist critiques of Napoleon III’s presence in Mexico—to evoke the networks of knowledge and influence that may have led Manet to feel or think one way or another about contemporary events. He also reflects on the veritable canon of art historical literature on Manet’s Olympia, making use of recent texts like Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s important article “Still Thinking About Olympia’s Maid” (2016), as well as older studies by T.J. Clark and Griselda Pollock.
Conspicuously overshadowed, however, are the many Black feminist critiques of the painting, such as artist Lorraine O’Grady’s essay “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” from 1994 and scholar Jennifer DeVere Brody’s “Black Cat Fever: Manifestations of Manet’s Olympia” from 2001 (the latter of which is cited in passing in the book’s endnotes). Sayre also only lightly skims over Denise Murrell’s landmark exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in 2018 and its expanded Francophone counterpart, “Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse,” which opened at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris the next year, and then traveled to the Mémorial ACTe in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. Murrell is mentioned by name just once in the body of the text and is otherwise relegated to a few footnotes, even though her research provides groundbreaking historical and cultural context to the multicultural realities of artistic production in nineteenth-century Paris, a milieu in which models like Laure—the Black figure in Olympia—figured as important agents. It is unacceptable to write a book about Manet and race, with his representation of “Olympia’s maid” as the core case study, while simultaneously overlooking scholarship by Black women who were among the first to pay serious attention to her subjectivity.
Value in Art is in many ways about understanding spheres of influence and parsing the kinds of texts and narratives to which Manet was exposed that may have shaped his approach to painting. Yet the book’s points of reference are overly narrow, raising the question of not only how one writes about race and slavery but also whose experiences and scholarly contributions one chooses to acknowledge in so doing.
THE BUSINESS OF ACADEMIA, or what the postcolonial literary scholar Annabel L. Kim calls the “academic enterprise,” is predicated upon the production of knowledge, often packaged in the form of single-author books from university presses or articles in peer-reviewed journals. As Kim notes in her essay “The Politics of Citation” (2020), citation is an act “intimately bound up with the treatment of ideas as property, with the dynamic of exchange turning that property into capital, into a vector of intellectual value.” Understanding ideas in relation to property and value is especially relevant when writing about the intersections of art and slavery, for as Anna Arabindan-Kesson argues, both are rooted in a “speculative vision,” that is, a practice in which bodies and the labor they perform are abstracted by larger regimes of capitalist valuation.
Speculative vision takes center stage in her Black Bodies, White Gold, which deftly examines a single material—cotton—and its effects on the construction of Blackness before and after emancipation in the Atlantic world. Arabindan-Kesson sees cotton as a commodity whose production, circulation, and representation rendered Black lives legible and fungible under the political economy of slavery—replaceable at any moment by another of equal or greater productive potential. Cotton is also, crucially, “a material with memory” that holds narratives of Black presence and resistance within its warp and weft. The fabric called “negro cloth,” for example, was plain, coarsely woven cotton that clothed the enslaved while publicly designating them as such. Yet cotton was also, at times, reimagined and repurposed by Black women in quilts, objects that were at once “a form of memory, a pictorial register of history as well as a mode of communication.”
Arabindan-Kesson’s book looks closely at work by four contemporary artists: Hank Willis Thomas, Lubaina Himid, Yinka Shonibare, and Leonardo Drew, all of whom have used cotton as material, subject, or both. She takes methodological cues from the formal properties of the works themselves, using their structure to guide inquiries into the material, visual, and textual archive of slavery that extends back to the late eighteenth century. For Arabindan-Kesson, these artists, who often make veiled, metaphorical, or partial references to bodies rather than showing them outright—invite a broader historical consideration of the ways Black people have been at once abstracted (as productive “value”) and made hyper visible (as a racialized body and as “property”) under the regime of slavery and its speculative vision. This approach is especially meaningful when it moves between academic work and artistic practice, using both to help dismantle the visual histories perpetuated by the archive of slavery. Here, Arabindan-Kesson acknowledges how her thinking participates in—and has been shaped by—a rich body of interdisciplinary work in Black studies, contemporary art included. In so doing, she shows one possibility of what Kim imagines as a citational practice that looks to divest itself from the accrual of individual intellectual capital and instead works to “perforate, open doors onto other forms of thought, other territories beyond the ones we call our intellectual home.”
The question of value that Sayre and Arabindan-Kesson examine has direct implications for art institutions currently wrestling with their own complicity in the history of slavery and the slave trade. Both studies ask readers to think expansively about art’s involvement in a broader system of racial capitalism. So do initiatives such as the National Gallery’s historical self-assessment. Such projects are ongoing, and it remains to be seen what museums will do with the information brought to light by recent scholarship. Clearly one way forward, however, is to share knowledge and admit past errors, in a manner at once capacious and generous—one invested in thinking with history while also imagining alternatives.
This article appears under the title “Value and Its Sources” in the June/July 2022 issue, pp. 28–32.