Religious space in public art

The New Negro and the New Deal in Harlem

Authored by: Michael McLaughlin

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities

Print publication date:  December  2020
Online publication date:  December  2020

Print ISBN: 9780367367121
eBook ISBN: 9780429351181
Adobe ISBN:


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Robert Orsi argues that religion consists of stories people tell that weave together Heaven and Earth. This chapter explores how this process of finding companionship with mythic figures can take place beyond formal religious institutions and within the most ordinary, overlooked spaces of daily urban life. Drawing on Michel de Certeau’s work on the rhetorics of walking, I show how Harlem’s public art that engages in what Josef Sorett calls “racial aesthetics” generates spaces which can offer a spiritual companionship to black New Yorkers. I center my analysis on Vertis Hayes’s Pursuit of Happiness (1937) and its reincarnation as the illuminated facade of the Harlem Hospital Center, a process I read as a culmination of the New Negro ideals present in works like Aaron Douglas’s Aspects of Negro Life (1934). By reflecting and magnifying the lives and heritage of black Harlem residents, Hayes’s work entangles passersby in a shared narrative of struggle toward black flourishing and becomes a larger-than-life companion in that story. In doing so, Hayes’s work demonstrates how seemingly secular public art produced by black artists and sponsored by New Deal art programs can bring religious significance to their surroundings.

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