Diaspora is a defining condition of the history of the past century, a prehistory to our disastrous moment in time and also the foundation of our political landscape. Yet it is notably absent in much art-historical discussion of modernism, despite the fact that the experiences of diaspora and migration are often embedded in the lives of modernist artists and other actors; in the formations, networks, and dispersals of modernist institutions and group affiliations; and in the deployment of characteristically modernist artistic strategies (temporal fragmentation, collage, montage, and the readymade) that manifest a dialectical entanglement of self and other. This essay ponders the disconnect between the historical structures of modernism in art and its theorization, and considers the questions: Can diaspora and diasporic thinking help further our understanding of the twentieth century in art? Can it help us in reconsidering modernism from a diasporic perspective today? As prompts for further thought, the text considers four historical episodes in which ideas of diaspora, modernity, and modernism are entwined: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First Universal Races Congress in London 1911; Georg Simmel, Du Bois, and Alain Locke in Berlin and the emergence of a matrix of modern sociological thinking; Mikhail Bakhtin in exile in Kazakhstan and the formation of his dialogical philosophy of language; and Aaron Douglas and Meyer Shapiro at the First American Artists’ Congress in 1936 and in the pages of Art Front.
*I am grateful to many in the writing of this essay, and would particularly like to acknowledge helpful and stimulating conversations and comments from Homi Bhabha, Huey Copeland, Jason Dubs, Hal Foster, Simon Gikandi, Jodi Hauptman, Susan Homer, David Joselit, Adam Lehner, Carlota Ortiz Monasterio, and Anne Umland.