The Banjo Lesson

One of the most vibrant and momentous social movements in history, the Harlem Renaissance was fueled not by protest or politicking, but by art. A bit ahead of his time, Henry Ossawa Tanner painted “The Banjo Lesson.” Rediscovered during the twenties by proponents of the Harlem Renaissance seeking to bring a new race consciousness to the country, Tanner’s 1893 painting captures a moment of paternal intimacy that transcends racial barriers—and for that matter, most cultural and social barriers—to reach its audience.

Its composition speaks effortlessly in visual and humanistic terms to its viewers. Rendered front and center, an aged man is seated, feet planted apart on the floor. A boy stands resting between the man’s knees, protected on either side by his elder’s massive form. Their heads converge, each angled in a downward gaze at the instrument cradled in the boy’s arms—more specifically, at the small hand strumming it. Two hands support the long neck of the instrument, the boy’s dwarfed in comparison to the man’s. Together, the two figures—man and boy, teacher and student, father and son—form a triangle worthy of a renaissance portrait of Mary and Jesus, and are certainly absorbed in a moment of tenderness that is fittingly sacred.

The brushwork speaks magnitudes as well. Engulfed in their sacrosanct affection, the man and boy appear oblivious to their surroundings—the worn wooden floor beneath them, the utterly plain walls, the half-eaten loaf of bread sitting atop the crude dining table—all translated for us in rough strokes so that we feel distanced from it as well. Our attention is drawn instead to the heart-shaped focal point of the painting—the two expressively angled heads—where the strokes take on a more polished quality: careful brushwork illustrates the man’s mature features and the wispy grey hair receding at his temples, as well as the boy’s softer features, lips parted in concentration. The material, Tanner tells us, is secondary to what is universally human.

Finally, we glean meaning from the palette of the painting. If the coarse rendering of the setting is not enough for us to discern that the pair lives a humble lifestyle, then the color most certainly is. The entire scene is expressed in a gradient of earthy browns. We sense immediately—viscerally—that this is an unpretentious, grounded, and simple home, where necessity eclipses any care for elegance or decoration. Or maybe we can gather that material elegance is just truly worthless, because, as Tanner’s composition and brushwork have already informed us, human camaraderie is, above all else, what is sacred. And to reinforce this idea, it seems, he has placed the two companions centered amid the light cast by a fireplace, where the earthy browns of the painting take on a brighter hue. In effect, the light appears to be radiating from them.

Through an arrangement of visual symbolism, color, form, and texture, Tanner expressed meaning that is universally affecting and deeply engaging. It was daring, in 1893, for Tanner to paint African American subjects, let alone to paint them with dignity and sensitivity. Read in its historical context, the painting is a plea for recognition of the fact that race does not somehow obscure what is distinctly human. Its communicative power, however, operates independently of its historical meaning. Like that of so much other art (not only from the Harlem Renaissance), its resonance lies in the fact that it speaks so personally and so interactively. Reading its endlessly decipherable canvas engages a dialogue of emotion, poeticism, personal experience, historical understanding, religion, sensitivity to color, sensitivity to shape, intuition, creativity. It integrates, in short, a diversity of human experience and human intelligence. And because it is subject to interpretation through such a diverse array of approaches, its impact transcends difference. Its message reaches out with a blind hand and grips the viewer regardless of race, age, gender, class, marital status, interests, hobbies, I.Q. It is all-inclusive and all-embracing.

All this from a painting.

“The Banjo Lesson” is a testament to the power of art. Moreover, it is a testament to the educational power of art. It was first presented to me in a U.S. History class, on a rare day when the period did not proceed in the format of a lecture. After a few short minutes of gazing at it, I found myself captivated. It animated for me—vividly and personally—that infamous struggle for dignity, that colorful and multi-dimensional historical narrative that I had only ever heard about from the black and white pages of textbooks and from the evocative but still somehow one-dimensional lectures of my teachers. It spoke in immediate and tangible terms about the Harlem Renaissance—the way Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of a migrant mother speaks about the utter unfairness of Depression-era poverty, and the way Edvard Munch’s discordant expressionist paintings speak about the psychological horrors of industrialism. It brought a level of personal meaning to what I was learning that nothing other than subjective and creative expression could have.

In today’s faltering education system and in the face of falling graduation rates, subjective and creative expression is exactly what our schools need more of. Over a third of all public school students across the country do not manage to graduate high school within four years, and over a million annually drop out entirely. In a recent study investigating the causes underlying these alarming statistics, nearly half of former students surveyed said that their primary reason for dropping out was that their classes felt uninteresting and unimportant. It just so happens that there is a correlation between which schools have the lowest graduation rates and which schools offer the least opportunity for involvement in the arts.

For many, this will come as no surprise. And yet sadly, to most, it probably will. In recent decades, it seems the testing-crazed, rankings-obsessed populous of educators (followed in suit by the general populous and the world of cultural stigma) has wedded itself to the notion that the arts are frivolous and unproductive—a distraction from “real” subjects of study, namely math and reading. Those who harbor that grim notion embrace a very narrow definition of intelligence and a very narrow outlook on what it is to be academically successful. They boil academic ability and intellect down to something very impersonal and mechanical—something less about substance and individuality and more about marketable skill. No doubt classes designed to cultivate that sort of academic growth do seem uninteresting and unimportant.

In an educational setting, what art does is allow for a wide range of intellect; it is a medium for relating to the world and relating to each other that molds to fit both those who study it and those who engage in it. It is an essential part of humanity, and it encompasses, as author and educator Ken Robinson puts it, the “richness of human capacity.” Becoming involved in the arts has been the catalyst for countless academic turn-arounds, the saving grace for students who found themselves struggling—for socioeconomic reasons, for matters of self-esteem, for lack of motivation—but eventually managed to re-stake their claim in the educational arena, backed by a newfound source of inspiration and confidence. And for those still concerned with test scores: whether integrated into class work or pursued extra-curricularly, involvement in the arts has been scientifically proven to enhance cognitive ability, and has remained, throughout all grade levels, in close correlation with academic achievement in math, reading and every subject in between.

A force that spurred a renaissance—a literal rebirth by which a whole segment of society managed to develop and assert its voice—should certainly not be underestimated.

Works Cited:

Israel, Douglas. “Staying in School: Arts Education and New York City High School Graduation Rates.” Center for Arts Education (October 2009).

Robinson, Ken. “Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity.” Ted Talks. Online Video Clip. (February 2006). creativity.html.

Smith, Fran. “Why Arts Education Is Crucial and Who’s Doing It Best.” Edutopia (January 28, 2009).

Gina Hatch, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Gold Key

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