His students refer to him as “Master T” The honorific references Robert Farris Thompson's enduring presence at Yale University as Master of Timothy Dwight College, but it also reflects his preeminence in the field of African and African Diaspora art history for the last half-century. Thompson's 2011 book, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music, provides a glimpse of his contribution to the field through a collection of short writings from throughout his important career. While the book takes the form of disparate case studies, it puts forth the thesis that there is a complicated, yet cohesive, aesthetic that connects Africa and its westward diasporas into a unique cultural sphere: the Afro-Atlantic. Through many specific analyses, Thompson's vivid, vibrant prose describes the ways in which African social and visual philosophies are maintained and transmitted around the world through visual art, music, and everyday practice. While Thompson may be best known for large-scale projects such as the exhibitions “Black Gods and Kings” (1971) and “African Art in Motion” (1974) as well as discipline-defining monographs such as his widely disseminated and well-loved Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983), such texts often overshadow the important ways in which Thompson's theoretical framings and cultural analyses have been formulated and refracted through the form of the short essay: a fact that Aesthetic of the Cool makes strikingly clear. In all, the book demonstrates the far-reaching ambition in Thompson's career-long project of describing the unifying characteristics of Afro-Atlantic art and culture.
Thompson defines the “aesthetic of the cool” that he identifies throughout African and African diasporic culture as a “deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play” (p. 16). The book seems to embody this aspect of the cool with its large format and extensive illustrations that give the volume the feel of a high-production exhibition catalog rather than a collection of essays. Mixing elements both serious and pleasurable, the visual appeal and pleasing prose of the book are balanced by the theoretical rigor found in the included essays and interviews.
In all, the volume contains twenty-three essays and two interviews with Thompson, presented roughly in chronological order according to their original dates of publication. They range from his early 1966 essay on African and African Diaspora music in “Aesthetic of the Cool” to the more recent 2005 “Kongo Louisiana/Kongo New Orleans.” The book also includes a previously unpublished essay on the art of famed contemporary artist David Hammons. The texts’ original publishing venues vary from popular magazines such as Rolling Stone to scholarly journals like African Arts. This reflects yet another way in which the volume (like Thompson's scholarship) collapses genres, but also makes accessible a number of essays that are normally difficult to find. For example, the sampling of rare writings includes “The Afro-Cuban Departure of Mongo Santamaria” reprinted from the liner notes of the 1960s LPs Más Sabroso and ¡Arriba! La Pachanga. In addition, Lowery Stokes Sims introduces the volume and it concludes with a bibliography of Thompson's writings.
The essays gathered here cover a broad scope of topics including music, dance, and visual art and the context of their production range from arts in daily life, including Haitian buses called tap-tap and break-dancing in the Bronx, to art made by some of the most well-known contemporary artists. This array of subject matter underscores Thompson's abilities as a cultural theorist as he deftly, and at times poetically, tests his conception of the Afro-Atlantic, convincingly demonstrating the durability and versatility of propositions such as the aesthetic of the cool.
The collapsing of genres, space, and time is central to Thompson's strategies in representing the workings of the Afro-Atlantic. This strategy is reflected in his early essay “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” which explores the aesthetic as found in African and diaspora music that seems to move from West Africa to the barrios of Afro-Cuban New York in the space of a downbeat. “Aesthetic of the Cool II,” from 1974, expands upon the previous version by applying this technique to visual art. Using transoceanic pairs such as Dahomey and Haiti, Thompson demonstrates enduring diasporic connections in a way that anticipates later, better known texts such as Flash of the Spirit. In describing the concept of the cool, Thompson moves smoothly from music to language to visual form, and the inclusion of an elaborate chart mapping the term “cool” in different African languages alerts readers to the central role of language in Thompson's study. His analysis seems to employ tactics of the jazz he describes: polyphonic to the core, making leaps from one register to another, relying on verbal and formal affinities where historical record is sparse. Perhaps this is the best way to analyze diaspora culture, which often resists easy assimilation or academic classification, but those with an empirical mind may be lost if they wish to look for clean narratives or a steady analysis of historical record. In Aesthetic of the Cool, the reader must give way to Thompson's seductive phrasing and dig the groove.
The chronological organization of Aesthetic of the Cool highlights another key facet of this collection: each essay is inextricably rooted in its time. As much as the book posits and supports the concept of an Afro-Atlantic as a cohesive aesthetic world, through it, one can also trace Thompson's contribution to the evolving discourse of African Diaspora art. In particular, the book situates Thompson in the global story of multiculturalism in later twentieth century art. The essays in Aesthetic of the Cool were part of the increasing recognition of the importance of black art and culture by a broad American (and international) viewership. In his essay “Activating Heaven,” Thompson makes a prophetic claim about Jean Michel Basquiat: “With his meteoric rise … it seems to me the vanguard of Western art and Afro-Atlantic visual happening are now becoming one. This has enormous implications” (p. 38). Originally published in 1985, this statement forecasts the profound impact of multiculturalism's rise in contemporary art canons. The text goes on to celebrate a generation of art stars including Basquiat, Hammons, Betye Saar, Renée Stout, José Bedia, and Keith Haring. In doing so, the book also underscores Thompson's importance as a cultural critic working in dialogue with the art of his time. Considering the fact that most African American artists of the 1980s and 1990s read his writings, one senses the interwoven nature of their production and Thompson's interpretation. Whether intentional or not, the text highlights a feedback loop that collapses often implicit lines between art history and art production, between observer and participant.
Thompson is a master of language and one can be swept away by his turn of phrase. It is no wonder that many of the included writings found their original home in popular venues such as Rolling Stone. Yet, some scholars may be frustrated by a lack of footnotes and other forms of exterior substantiation if they have the desire to find the roots of his arguments. Some chapters, such as “An Aesthetic of the Cool II” and “Keith Haring and Dance,” are fairly well documented, but others, such as the poetically written chapter on David Hammons, have no footnotes at all.
Illustrations reflect another limitation. While the book includes hundreds of images, many clearly did not accompany the original essays. On one hand, this demonstrates the strength of Thompson's arguments by highlighting their continuing relevance—revealing the way in which other, often more recent, expressions are still illuminated by his ideas. But, on the other hand, there were moments where I wished to see the original work being referenced. For example, in “From the First to the Final Thunder: African American Quilts,” Thompson gives an intriguing description of a quilt by Odessa Doby who “shades the count” in her compositions, but the account lacked the corresponding image. Since his arguments are so often based in visual analysis, one is left with a definite sense of incompleteness.
Overall, this book is a great resource for a broad audience. It is an enjoyable, image-rich volume that serves as an accessible guide to anyone interested in art of Africa's Atlantic diasporas. Further, scholars who have already read most of these texts can gain new prospective by exploring these essays together. Thompson has readily earned his status as “Master T.” Through its survey of writings that reflect his unique style and perspective, Aesthetic of the Cool demonstrates why this is so.