The Week in Arts

Where Do We Go From Here?

The past few weeks have been downright depressing. Robin Williams. Ferguson. Raymond Wilford getting maced by a Westlake Center security guard. And the earth seems to be momentarily splitting open.

Writing about art seems kind of superficial, especially given my skepticism regarding the real-life, social/political impact of art. My opinion being: art won’t save you. There are infinitely more effective ways to bring about change, and that it may be erring on the side of self-indulgence to lean on art as a political and social corrective.

And yet.

One thing that won’t stop flitting around my mind lately is Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Philosophical Tantrum #9: On art, imagination, democracy & hope.” In it, he unfolds his fucking fantastic, (not so) loco, artistic utopia. It wraps up with this:

In this imaginary place we dream about, artists and writers are actually needed and taken care of. We all have universal medical insurance, a decent low-rider car and a great studio space in the bohemian hood of our choice. We don’t have to write grants. And we get paid decently for what we do; and what we do matters. We make important decisions and fix concrete problems for society.

In this imaginary place we dream about, schools, hospitals, prisons and even airports are re-conceptualized and designed by artists; the daily papers are written by philosophers, novelists and poets. We have ongoing access to electronic media where we make people think, remember, imagine and laugh. Politicians and religious leaders consult our opinions before making important decisions. We collaborate with progressive doctors, activists, educators, lawyers, priests and socially-conscious scientists in the great project of co-imagining a better future for the borderless community of humankind.

Sounds so corny but so appealing que no?

It’s that second to last paragraph that, when I first heard it, stuck in my craw. One of the downfalls of our 400-year-old puritanical American culture is that from its inception it has treated art as decadent, secondary or irrelevant. Art is not given priority in education. It’s not ingrained in our identity. 

It follows that artists aren’t frequently consulted to contribute to the re-conceptualization of communities. 

What if they were?

I asked some local artists and arts admins for their gut responses to the following questions: What can we do to effect change? What needs to happen? What can or should white people do in response to Ferguson? Do you have any thoughts—pragmatic instructions or visions of the future, for Seattle or beyond—that we can put to use?

SHAUN SCOTT, Filmmaker
While I’m always glad to see moments of crisis galvanize splintered populations, I think it’s shitty that it takes moments of crisis to galvanize splintered populations.

I’m reminded of 9/11: security briefings warning that the aviation industry was a potential weak point in the country’s military-industrial armor went unheeded by many in the Bush Administration for a solid year. When tragedy struck, executives at the highest levels of government pretended to be blind-sided. We all knew better, but it was easier to evade responsibility and to pretend we didn’t.

As artists, I think we know best that we live in a profoundly disturbed world. The sick state of society is, in one way or another, the source of many of our greatest efforts as creators. But on the careerist hunt for recognition, we often forget that it was our alienation—not our desire for acceptance—that spurred us in the beginning.

I think artists who coquette with conservative ideals, or who congratulate themselves on their erudite and obscure interpretations of “feminism” or “anti-racism” should reconsider the cost of their hard-won individuality. If we decide to become politically active only when it’s convenient or fashionable, we’ve already lost the battles we suddenly become ready to fight.

As for the Seattle context: some of this city’s most critical writers and minds couldn’t wait to proclaim Seattle a “city of winners” after our wave of pop-culture victories in early 2014. Our luminaries failed us—they really did: rather than use the opportunity to think critically about the ugly context in which civic success takes place, I think many trumpeted vain and hollow civic boosterism that culminated in yet more middle-class pearl-clutching in the aftermath of a tragic but not shocking injustice in Westlake.

Seattle mayor Paul Schell—the one ultimately responsible for the security response to the WTO protests in 1999—died about a week before the Ferguson incident, which coincided with the injustice in Westlake. The tragic link couldn’t have been clearer to me. A regressive police force has been a problem in Seattle for at least 15 years, and its quickly becoming increasingly clear that a Super Bowl trophy, a Grammy, a single elected socialist, or a white rapper can’t fix it.

As the autumn of our civic innocence re-appears, there’s a saying that Seattle should appreciate: “The time to fix the roof was when the sun was shining.” Well, it’s raining in Seattle again, and some of us are left scrambling for umbrellas.

TIM LENNON, Events & Cultural Space Coordinator at Office of Arts & Culture Seattle
Right now I am at a near total loss as to what we as people of color can do in response to Ferguson. We are no less human than anyone else, but 400 years of asserting that fact in every possible way has yet to convince those in power of that fact, or to greatly improve our collective position in the systems they created or inherited and from which they benefit. We need the people who benefit most from these systems to (1) care, (2) engage, and (3) hopefully help change some things. I think that artists of all colors and especially white artists have a role to play in those first two steps. Artists can change a culture’s perspective. It’s a long game, but with artists working the perspective angle and lawyers and activists and thinkers and teachers and parents and neighbors all doing their part, I think we can move a little closer to creating at least a more compassionate and humane society, if not the utopia Gomez-Pena describes. Not that it’s easy….
I keep coming back to two bits of thinking by Black writers. The first is by W.E.B. DuBois, from 80 years ago (“A Negro Nation Within a Nation,” 1934):

“The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro. Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people. Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.”

The second bit is some off the cuff remarks from an interview that Chris Rock did a few years ago:

Before the victims or beneficiaries (of all colors) of our racist system can make progress on dismantling that system—before any of us can make our culture “less crazy”—we have to see that craziness for what it is and be moved to care enough to act. Art can move us. Art can make us less indifferent. It can’t in and of itself make people less crazy or make them decide to take action or change their lives or stop murdering or otherwise destroying “others”, but it can cause them to see things differently. These changes in individuals’ perspective can lead to changes in the larger culture. We’ve seen this proven for decades via efforts by artists working in more popular/mass-market media like film, theater, popular music, television and (especially lately) comedy. What is taking white visual artists so long to catch up to their brother and sister artists in other media? What are they afraid of?
I would love to see more white visual artists start taking more risks by explicitly addressing race and everything else we need to make “progress” on. I want white visual artists’ work to challenge their white viewers and white critics and white gallerists and white curators to be less indifferent about their place in racism, to be moved. I want white visual artists to tackle white American cultural norms vis-a-vis race in as many ways and forms as they tackle white America’s relationship to nature, or to cities, or to white women.
For a start, I want the visual art world to be more like the comedy world in its approach to race—in a word, and at a bare minimum: engaged. Comedians of all kinds have been tackling race forever. It has been messy and awkward and has often been disgusting and painful for artist and audience alike, and it will always be hard work. But as a community of practice comedians have been grappling with this forever and there is now this huge body of techniques and best (and worst!) practices that comedians have to draw from when crafting their own artistic responses to current events or old wounds that involve race. Race as a subject has been on the table for white comedians as long as landscapes and still lifes and portraits have been for painters. No one finds it surprising to hear race mentioned on a club stage or a late night talk show or a satirical essay or article. Why is it still so rare to encounter this at the gallery? White visual artists are just as much involved in the business of communicating ideas and perspectives as comedians but they’ve largely chosen to ignore this whole aspect of our culture. It’s everyone’s loss.
On a totally separate note—I would like to see more artists engaged with local politics, both through their art and as citizens/constituents/voters/nags. It’s totally cool to create work decrying injustice abroad or in history or in some other state or in the media, but we need to let our local electeds, etc., know that we are keeping an eye on them and will hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Our Mayor and City Attorney and Police Chief and City Council and Governor are the people who will decide whether or when to invest in us or to spy on us or prosecute us or shoot us or take resources out of our communities or send in the National Guard to contain us. They are the most vulnerable agents of the state and so they are the most likely to be swayed by our voices—but if we don’t bother them, they won’t bother with our concerns.

The longer I’ve thought about the interface between art and social change the less certain I am about anything. I don’t think I have any very practical suggestions but I wanted to write you back anyway, in support of you tackling these questions. This is a conversation I’m interested in us as a community continuing and trying to open up to complexity.

Sadly, I missed Gómez-Peña’s visit. He and his work seem inspiring. That artists might be some kind of universal creative consultants has often been proposed. I have doubts. For one thing: architect, school superintendent, reporter, politician, religious leader, doctor, lawyer, activist, scientist—these jobs already require intense applications of imagination, discipline, creativity. They provide ample opportunity for imagining and enacting better futures. Not everyone who does these jobs is interested or able to innovate and advocate, of course, but that’s true of artists as well. I think it’s naive, maybe even offensive, to believe artists can bring a level of creativity or innovation or social consciousness that those doing these jobs inherently lack.

Perhaps, however, behind Gómez-Peña’s vision is the idea that artists approach problems differently than reporters, doctors, scientists—or any number of other pursuits which society values and invests with potential for social change. There is an art-specific methodology we have to contribute. What is this methodology? How is it unique? I think finding answers to these questions, and being able to clearly communicate answers to non-artists, is a step towards making “artist” a more valued and powerful role.

One answer often put forward has to do with freedom. Artists are free to say and do the things that aren’t said, that are impolite, repressed or overlooked (a theme that has come up in your interviews lately.) This is the artist in the well-known role of the bohemian—the French 19th century idea that an artist’s job is to create a dirty mirror-image for the bourgeois. Art is a method of throwing off methodology, constraints, rules, social pressures and norms, living and working in ways which shock (and titillate) larger society. In the process, artists invent and model new, better ideas for society. I think this role is analogous to 19th century ideas about public parks: artists are the “lungs” of a city, the relatively open and wild spaces which allow a highly structured society to “breathe.”

We have our beautiful 19th century parks in Seattle (created under exactly this idea) and we also have many artists and art-involved people invested in the artist-bohemian role. I’d suggest that this role is highly antagonistic to artists being in a position to effect social change. I’d go as far as to say that the freedom of the artist-bohemian is a freedom almost exactly delineated by its inability to change things. The reasons are complex, but I think it comes down to this role being very well integrated and regulated by social forces. Marginalization—in relation to methods and means of power—is baked into it.

So, for me, in thinking about art and social change, a thing to consider is what other kinds of art-specific methodology and roles are out there, in history and in our imagining? I suppose that’s my (probably not-so-satisfying) answer to your desire for pragmatic visions. Rather than action, which I think would be more satisfying, this calls for research and reflection with a much less certain outcome. In the meanwhile, however, I think we as artists can and should, like any citizen, dedicate energy and time working for social change.

COURTNEY SHEEHAN, Program Director at Northwest Film Forum
Anand Patwardhan, a friend of mine and filmmaker from India, happens to have quite relevant thoughts on this subject. Tate Modern recently brought him to London for a retrospective of his films. An interviewer asked him, “what does the retrospective at Tate Modern mean for you?” Anand, who is renowned as one of India’s first and greatest independent political documentarians, replied:

The reason I am particularly happy about the Tate showings is that for many years I faced the criticism from some quarters that my films were issue-oriented and utilitarian. Because what drove me to pick up my camera were human rights violations or examples of religious bigotry and social injustice, they were described as “agit-prop.” Their aesthetics were rarely discussed because the issues they raised grabbed all the attention. Art and politics were seen in opposition to each other, a dichotomy I could never stomach. I retaliated by denying the importance of an art that did not speak to the reality of people’s lives, an art that was to be hung in galleries and in the homes of the elite.

The fact that these films, which were considered propaganda, are to be screened in the mecca of art gives me a perverse sense of joy. The joy is not that I now consider myself an artist. I do not believe in any art that is self-consciously created. I see art as a byproduct of the attempt to communicate. When this act of communication transcends time and geography, it transcends its immediate purpose. In the same way that indigenous Warli painters never self-consciously created art but once their work was framed in a gallery it changed perceptions, I believe that what the world considers “art” is mainly about framing.

What can we do to effect change? 

Stop feeling powerless. Especially if you, as a white person, have more power than you might realize—and privilege too. Having to listen to people with power and privilege complain that they feel powerless is fucking annoying. Don’t assume the only important questions or conversations are happening between White People.

What needs to happen? 

All the philosophical liberals in Seattle need to start knitting their actions to their lofty beliefs. Make booties out of all that hot-air and rock them on the catwalk. Step one: Quit preaching to the choir. Step two: Do the research. Seek out the opinions, events, people, and places that make you afraid and be with that fear. Step Three: Interrogate your issues on your own time. Bonus: Oh yeah, don’t be a big-ole butthurt burden to others while doing this critical “soul searching”—you can not outsource to Others (specifically people of color). Right now in America, Slavery, carefully disguised, is still thriving alongside Racism and Capitalism. Fer realz.

What can or should white people do in response to Ferguson?
Ferguson where? Ferguson, Everywhere? Ferguson, Washington? Just because Ferguson, Missouri is currently “trending” doesn’t mean (a) this hasn’t happened before, (b) this isn’t currently happening all over the US, or (c) that because white people have suddenly discovered Racism (a la Columbus discovering America) that it wasn’t here before. Whiteness is like a hungry ghost—it needs all the validation—all the attention—all the explanations—all the articles filled with carefully worded outrage. All the righteousness. All the power. All the feelings. How about giving a little instead of taking so much? How about listening? Or even using your power to give someone else a platform to speak?

Do you have any thoughts—pragmatic instructions or visions of the future, for Seattle or beyond—that we can put to use?
I am not a person who is content to think of myself as a brilliant intellectual mind surrounded by all the “right” friends, while lazily stroking off with a dictionary close by. No sir. No ma’am. No massa. Gluten-free name-dropping is not a turn-on for me. I’m a prove it kinda girl. Are you progressive? Prove it. Oh you aren’t racist like the others? Prove it. Love promoting black work and voices? Prove it. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from hard work—the substance of manifesting something out of nothing from a point of crisis to a place of triumph. Marinating in my feelings is an almost unimaginable luxury. This means, I’m constantly revising myself. I’m too busy working with my nose to the proverbial grindstone to get the attention I deserve. And folks know this. Yet, I survive. My vulnerability is my most intense project…I have to find a way to thrive and I have a black son to protect…and a daughter too. On Saturday at midnight, at LxWxH Gallery, I’ll be co-creating a space for White People to grieve alongside People of Color. This Guilt-Tea, will be a ritual to alleviate White Guilt.


Octavio Paz:

“There can be no society without poetry, but society can never be realized as poetry, it is never poetic. Sometimes the two terms seek to break apart. They cannot.”

I do believe that artists and the arts can be and have been agents and agency for social justice. It is a belief which comes from listening to Nina Simone to reading the poetry of Ted Joans to watching films of Chris Marker… It may be as simple as giving voice and framework to refute systems of oppression which confuse expression with commodity, consent with consumerism. It may be as complex as solidarity and recognition of inclusion with marginalized populations, as seemingly self-evident for many artists, and presenting alternative visions of utopia and pragmatic diy tools for autonomy. To provide the soundtrack or slogan or articulation for confronting conformity to the soulless life and conditions which is too often is equated as good behaviors. Art saves lives, for certainly the momentum for shifts in viewpoints and values are supported by creative actions and antagonisms.