Achebe’s standard of great art

“The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in this world. And the question is whether a novel that celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. ” (Achebe 344)

In “An Image of Africa”, Achebe reacts very strongly against what he perceives as Conrad’s racism. However, his chief concern is not with a single person’s xenophobia but an entire civilization’s xenophobia. The question of what should be considered “a great work of art” is not merely a question of aesthetics but a question of politics. In fact, Achebe does not doubt Conrad’s artistic talent – he commends Conrad for writing one of the most memorable passages in English literature. Yet, he insists that by categorizing Conrad’s work as a great work of art is to be complicit in his racism. By categorizing “The Heart of Darkness” as a landmark piece in English literature is to stand by the Conrad’s racist outlooks. And to Achebe, it is proof of an entire civilization’s racism.

For Achebe, an artwork is not merely measured by its aesthetics but also by the type of values it promotes, subtly or otherwise. Achebe’s standard of great art highlights one of the central problems of modernism. Modernism wishes to celebrate art for art’s sake. Yet, very often art cannot be divorced from its own political/social implications.

Perhaps, the modernist’s aspirations can only be fulfilled when his art is kept within the safety of Europe. Once the work is exposed to the colonized world, the modernist will be forced to examine the political/social/economic implications of his work. He must then answer the questions of Achebe and the likes on what can truly be considered “great art”.