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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915—Artist Kara Walker Discusses The Power of Music

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Artist Kara Walker offers her interpretation of the painting The Power of Music by William Sidney Mount, on view in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Carrie Rebora Barratt: This is Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator—with my colleague Barbara Weinberg—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than one hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. Their paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.

In William Sidney Mount's 1847 painting The Power of Music, an African-American man listens in as a group of white men enjoys a fiddler's tune. The artist was a fiddler himself, and a strong believer in the therapeutic value of music. Mount painted the picture in Stony Brook, New York, and the African-American man is known to be Robin Mills—a local landowner and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church. This was one of the first American paintings that circulated widely as a lithographic print and was seen by thousands of Americans. It can be read as a picture about exclusion and racism, or, on the other hand, it can be viewed as a representation of the power of music to transcend division.

We asked the artist Kara Walker to share her own interpretation of the painting.

Kara Walker: I'm looking at what seems to be a portrait of a black man at the forefront. He's in the foreground of the painting in a very sort of considered and considerate kind of posture, leaning against a wall. And he appears to be listening. The painting is compositionally interesting because there's a division in it. There are several divisions, and some of the divisions are implied as social divisions—not necessarily class, but racial divisions.

We have men in their sort of work clothes and farmers in a barn maybe relaxing to the violin playing of another man on the left-hand side. And I'm really interested in the way the two standing male figures—they're on opposite sides of this dividing wall, this barn door, each concentrating, turning their ears in the direction of the music. And very calm. You know? The painting technique, the way the light falls across the plain, the way the figures are sort of angled, there's a sort of inward, introspective quality to each one of the figures. Anyway, I'm just very interested in the way he alludes to harmony and racial harmony and music as a kind of solution to tension or racial discord that would have been extremely present in his time.

Another thing that I was thinking about when looking at this painting was the idea of crossover. I was on my way over here, listening to some R&B on my headphones, and I was thinking about this idea of that term "crossover" or "crossover music," implying not so much the universal qualities of the musics that we listen to and the music of the Americas, but this idea that within this universal ideal there still exists a racial division. And it's kind of a strange arbitrary idea to impose on music, that there is black music and there is white music, or non-black music.

But what you have really is—in crossover—is the kind of spirit, I think, that's present in this painting, that idea that within R&B, and blues, and soul, and gospel, and country, and rock 'n' roll, there is this kind of American blending that at its very best does away with the barn door and the imposed divisions along racial lines or along class lines or along gender lines.

I think I must have encountered this painting in a text, you know, talking about the image of the black in American art, and a black image in American art. And I worked, you know, really hard to kind of find the divisiveness in the painting, looked to find, you know, the artist's point of view and, you know, tried to maybe lock him into a particularly racist white point of view that might have been ubiquitous at the time. But I didn't find it here, right? Even in his kind of compositional division with the barn door, it's not a huge gap, right? It's not really speaking very clearly about slavery.

The black man in the front seems to be so sensitively drawn, sensitively rendered, that he almost looks like a friend or somebody who's at least a known subject. Even trying to read the implements—the jug and the axe that are next to him—there's maybe the suggestion that there's some kind of laziness going on, but nobody is working, you know? [Laughs] I mean, it may be almost too subtle, you know? There's this kind of sweetness in the rendering that might be too harmonious, you know, maybe ignoring the realities.

This is, you know, a few years prior to the start of the Civil War. This is a time when abolitionism is becoming a real political force, a real political point of view. The slave trade has been abolished in England already for years and, you know, this is a painting about—what? It's just like everybody getting along. Everybody sort of meets right here in the center, having done the same amount of work to get to the same place. And then music just becomes this kind of metaphor for that.

The idea that there's salvation in music is similar, in a way, to this idea that I kind of have that there might be salvation in pictures. This is maybe what makes this such an American painting, in a way, because the whole composition suggests labor and talent. It'll kind of be the salvation of the human spirit. But also, it's part of the American ethos of hard work and then rest or leisure at the end of that, like leisure that's earned.

And there's something about this image—and I think others from that time period that I've seen—where the laborers, the workers, the farmers, the slaves, the indentured servants are all kind of unified in this post-labor kind of moment. This fiddler is a part of this kind of labor structure in a way that he's bringing his talents to the fore and kind of wiping away the trials of the day, right? All the trials—all political and social and physical—are kind of washed away by his playing. Like I said earlier, it's almost too sweet. You can almost hear the painting, in a way. I mean, maybe it's a little Ken Burns-y. You know, you can almost hear the strings of the fiddle.

But if there's anything that kind of fascinates and annoys me about paintings like this—and it's really a love-hate relationship with American genre painting that I have—it's that the painter seems so maybe taken with his craft, taken with his self-control, his ability to sort of render light and color in harmony with such subtle dexterity that he seems to assume that everybody else in his pictures—his subjects—would also have the same tendency.

I guess because I am impatient and temperamental and sort of nutty sometimes, and histrionic, my figures would probably tend to reflect that. So there'd be more of a bend in the back, you know? The music would be faster. It would be more sort of—you know, think about early rock 'n' roll and the kind of fear of like children going wild from this kind of savage music. It would be about the kind of universal kind of savagery that is also maybe apparent in the music that we play, yeah.

It's so restrained. And, like I said, I mean, it's a love-hate relationship. I've been interested in American genre painting for awhile, but not as a historian so much as as a painter, or a person who makes images, anyway, and for this kind of budding sense of identity, of looking at paintings to see where they represent, like, an American sense of coming into being as Americans. This painting has all of those elements that I think are quintessentially American.

It sort of talks about race, and it kind of talks about labor, and it talks about this kind of spirit of achievement or success, or talent begetting leisure time at the end of the day. So it suggests all of that, and then it glosses it over—everything—which I think is also quintessentially American, or at least quintessentially kind of middle-class American.

Carrie Rebora Barratt: This work, along with the rest of the paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There, as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries, you can also hear a range of perspectives by Barbara Weinberg and me, as well as by artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr., Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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