Saturday, March 20, 2010

art as protest

over the last while i have been thinking of [my] art as a form of protest. this was triggered in part by a month-long binge of art:21 episodes, particularly season four's episode on protest with nancy spero, an-my le, alfredo jaar and jenny holzer. each had things to say that caught my ear:

part one (art:21)

  • nancy spero made no bones about the fact that "i'm interested in messages", and that her work was about addressing"the way i think it [events, relationships, politics, etc.] should be".
  • an-my le, on the other hand, affirmed that "the work seems ambiguous because it's meant to be". that said, the work raises questions, and those questions require taking a position in order to discuss them. interesting to place ambiguity in this grouping. it begs the question: what do we protest [against/ for]? and why?
  • jenny holzer also made some statements that resonated with me, especially regarding her process and art's utility. she stated that she wants the viewer/ reader to concentrate on the content, and not the author. the work must be"of utility" to as many people as possible. the process is very collaborative, with high input from a variety of people and texts. and her desire was "to offer [her] texts in ways that are lovely and exacting" (sigh. what a beautiful turn of phrase!).
the real eye/ear-opener for me, however,was alfredo jaar. i had always known him as a politically engaged artist, though i often found his work somewhat dry and theoretical. however, this episode brought out a depth and passion that was quite instructive. some of the things he said that caught my ear were:

  • "i strongly believe in the power of a single idea. the most difficult thing is to arrive at the essence of what you want to say. and when you reach that essential idea, it's extraordinary."
  • "there is this huge gap between reality and its possible representations. and that gap is impossible to close. so as artists we have to try different strategies of representation" (i.e. let nothing be arbitrary)
  • the exhibition is "a model of thinking"
  • "the power of art to create connections, build bridges...fascinates me"

part two (i protest)

now let me be clear as to what i mean by protest. it derives from the latin protestari - to "declare publicly, testify, protest" (pro- "forth, before" + testari- "testify"; in turn derived from from testis"witness" (from which we also get testament). first appeared in english c.1340, and meant "a solemn declaration". its meaning as a "statement of disapproval" was first recorded in 1751; that of "expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores" is from 1953 (in ref. to U.S. black civil rights movement). protest as a verb is attested from 1440, "to declare or state formally or solemnly" (from the old french protester). the first record of protest march is from 1959. a protestor, or "demonstrator, public opponent of the established order" is from 1960. interestingly, earlier usage of the word also includes the concept of affirming or approving - one could protest for, as well as protest against.

the main thing here is that the word encompasses the idea of justice. until fairly recently (read: the mid 1800s) art was expected to have some sort of moral conviction - it was expected to take a position and proclaim it, whether for or against something. that inherent sense of moral commentary was lost to much art in the modern era, which is one reason why we now have the somewhat problematic term 'political art'. the artists mentioned above are among those labelled as such (along with artists like leon golub or anyone working the feminist/ queer/ post-colonial identity politics vein). those artists may explore politicized territory but it is not necessarily the same as seeking justice. justice, in turn, must be allied with Truth.

those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that i sometimes refer to walter brueggemann's the prophetic imagination. to nutshell:
the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the of the dominant culture around us. they are to criticize the status quo and energize us to action. simply, it is to identify those things that are not as they should be. (emphasis added)
this is, i think, also what it means to make art as protest. it's not just a railing against, or an affirming of my own position. it is standing up for justice, for Truth, for others. with others. so choose. stop pretending that art is neutral, that it doesn't contain ideas, positions and even - gasp - [intentional] messages. artmaking is a deeply moral enterprise. or at least it could be.