The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
“I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.” ― John Berger
All too commonplace and to the general detriment is the sense that in America, art seems to be consumed at a distance from matters of state and society; largely relegated to bearing witness and reacting to events, rather than invited to take a more integrated pro-active seat at the public policy table. While many of course see the arts as vital and indispensable, with few breakthrough exceptions, contemporary art in particular is witnessed by relatively small audiences, dismissed as elitist, and treated in the general-interest media sparsely, except in market or celebrity-adjacent contexts. In most of the country it is, despite all the soulful depths which is has to offer, not included even in the most progressive cultural discourse in the same way as film, television, fashion, and popular music.
Yet as Berger suggests, art, at its best, is sagely, passionately engaged in a fundamental conversation about the world, with the capacity to change both the kind of society we inhabit and the kind of people we want to be. Like anything, this potential must be realized only when the work and its meaning reaches and is understood by as large an audience as possible.
Art critics and cultural journalists, in helping to unspool these messages, serve to influence opinion and understanding of the world at large, not just the art world. What writers can do in amplifying, describing, and contextualizing the best art they see, is not only to help the artists in telling their stories, but to help audiences discover further paths to learning about themselves and the world. Art criticism to me is a kind of bridge between artists and audiences, facilitating communication and encouraging a shared experience by giving each the tools to better understand the other. Chief among that understanding has to be the championing of voices whose diversity deepens the whole dynamic -- especially those in danger of being (re)marginalized by the culture-war policies of the incoming administration.
Women, people of color, immigrants, members of the LGTBQ community and other groups have faced systemic antagonism to their presence in the mainstream of art history, contemporary art media, institutional collections, and the upper echelons of the art market -- but also in society in general. This is a contemptible situation which many kinds of journalists have long been working to rectify in the name of a more just, sustainable, eclectic, humanistic society. Arts writers in particular might also view the disengagement between the arts and the rest of society as part of this problem, compounding it. This is what Berger is getting at when he expands the critical conversation beyond formal evaluation and into moral engagement. Just like all journalism has this duty to hold the powerful to account, report facts, and offer useful information that encourages critical thought, arts writers must own this dimension of our practice and do our best to use what influence we have for the greater good -- as media, as citizens, and as humans -- just as our profession’s heroes, like Berger, have done before, when world events required.
“We have a sense of solidarity with our own time, and of psychic energies shared and redoubled, which is just about the most satisfying thing that life has to offer.” ― John Russell, author and screenwriter
Examples from art history like Picasso’s 1937 anti-Nazi masterpiece "Guernica;" or the visceral anti-violence paintings of Leon Golub (and the spiky political satire of Robbie Conal, to whom he was a hero and mentor); or the Guerrilla Girls visual interventions in the 1980s, making something dark, confrontational, and disruptive amid widespread social complacency can pierce the veil of ignorance and ennui, forcing the public to engage and take action. Like the Dadaists in WWI, or the contemporary feel-good efforts of FriendsWithYou (FWY), making something beautiful, ostensibly escapist, or pleasantly absurd amid an atmosphere of vast ugliness can in itself be a form of resistance, a defiant refusal to give up on humanity, a flower in the barrel of a policeman’s gun.
In America’s new governmental context we anticipate a crucible to test our principles. As we proceed with trepidation, artists will decide what they need to do. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s my promise, if the art is good, I will continue to shine a light on it, to tell its makers’ stories, the stories of who they are or where they hail from. Amplifying instances of empathy, humanism and aesthetic inspiration from the local center to the international edges of contemporary visual art was always already its own reward. But now it is also a civic imperative. Telling stories keeps people safe, because it makes them be seen. Context, curiosity, and empathy -- these are things that help me be better at my job every bit as much as my education. I hope they will continue to serve me well.
It is my job as a journalist and critic to treat the work fairly, to empathize, interpret, and amplify the best of it, with concern for its intention; to elevate the genuinely good, the emblematic, the iconic, intimate, moving, finely crafted, nimbly conceptualized, rooted, transcendent works of art -- and thereby in the same keystroke to tell the stories of the people who created it. So I am not going to change, I am going to resist by persistence, because I know that what I’m already doing is part of what was once a kind of default progressivism that is now looking more and more like an active resistance. To my understanding of art history, inspired in no small part by empathetic intellectuals like Berger, context is everything. And in the new context of these dark clouds that gather now on the horizon, I see those same goals as not only laudable -- but as a matter of proper urgency. I am not lost, I am here. The path is lost.
Top Image: Picasso’s "Guernica"
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