On Saturday night, I went to Disjecta’s annual art auction, and I even snagged an artwork. It was made by Colin Kippen, who takes discarded hard plastic packaging and uses it as a mold, into which he pours a mix of cement and perlite. This stuff captures the curves, grooves, dents and “decorative” flourishes on those abandoned plastic containers perfectly, and then Kippen paints them with pretty, seductive acrylics, and affixes the concrete to various objects. In this case, it was the business end of an old rusty shovel (without the handle).
The first time I noticed a lot of Portland artists using discarded objects in their artwork was in the late 1990s. Other artists in the 20th century had done the same, but these were the first artworks I’d seen that were explicitly about recycling or re-use—and not just about re-use. They were re-use. Around the same time, local architects seemed to focus on green designs, before that became a national trend. And a little later, Portland passed its recycling initiatives, without really much opposition. I think these things are related, and so I date our deep cultural acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability to that time.
Anyway, I was drawn to Kippen’s piece because it reminded me that the ubiquitous disposable plastic containers that surround us have all been “designed” by someone—actual care and consideration, even “art,” have gone into them. Kippen points out and then emphasizes their surprising beauty with his treatment of them. I could get into the political and social “meaning” of the piece I bought, but this column isn’t about that.
At the auction I was introduced to a woman who had been working in swing states for the Clinton campaign. She looked exhausted and shell-shocked (she wasn’t the only one, either), and we talked just a little about what it had been like out there. Then she asked me a question: What special responsibility do artists have at a time like this, she wanted to know. It was an actual question. People ask so few real questions these days—so often we ask a question just to give you our answer. Or as a rhetorical device, often dripping with sarcasm. This women wasn’t that kind of person.
I launched into a discourse on the various roles the arts play inside societies generally, not just in times like these. I started with consolation, because I thought someone working on behalf of the Clinton campaign probably needed that. Music, for example, can console us when we are sad and somehow move us to other emotions, without losing the sadness. I had just started in on how the arts can preserve our most important cultural values, help us generate a common meaning of what our society is like, even help us understand that we ARE a society, when the patient campaign worker was saved by the arrival of my wife. I was a long way from answering her very specific question. What can we rightly expect of our artists now?
I’ve been reading a lot of Raymond Williams these days, and his thoughts about the arts figures in the paragraph above. They are going to figure in the ones about to come, too.
First, let’s pose the question a little differently: What role should the arts play in these times? Presumably, artists have the same responsibilities as citizens do, to work in their various communities to make things better. An artist is no different from an electrician in this.
Williams saw art as a communication system, a particularly vivid one. Artists give meaning to the experience of life around them, and the deeper their experience and the more they are able to communicate that experience to other people, the more important their work is. A society in change is more likely to operate at the frontiers of art-making (art in the 20th century was especially dynamic) as it attempts to deal with the way individuals experience their time: war, technological change, social movements, fascism and other authoritarian forms, hyper-capitalism, etc., during the 20th century, for example.
In such times, artists have to recreate meaning, in the same that they have to reorganize their lives, just like everyone else. One way to look at the art of the 20th century is as one long reaction to the century’s history of coercion, danger, alienation, anxiety, psychosis, death, and, well, I could go on. This art verifies our own feelings of dislocation, anger, fear and confusion. Of course, those are feelings we tend to flee; escape into the easy, ethics-free embrace of Hollywood and other mass entertainment systems (which are savvy enough to co-opt resistance itself, if it can be commercialized) allows us to draw a curtain on our real experience of life.
At the end of Part One of “The Long Revolution” Williams argues that his society, Britain in the 1960s, focused on government and economics. “The birth and care of human beings, along with the neglect of their creativity, have not been accounted for,” he wrote. Even radical critics of capitalism and government in the West talked in terms of economic and political orders/modes, and failed to address the “human order,” the way human life was being organized—stretched, mutilated, ended—even during a time of peace.
For me, this is where the arts can come in—to make us aware of the way we are living, the stresses we feel, the events we observe, the sense of neglect of our needs, the alienation we battle, our understanding of our failure to consider climate change or the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few or the bigotry that resides within us and is codified by the society. Actually, this list could go on almost forever: each artist has a different experience, a different understanding, a different set of priorities. Human experience is complex and vastly multiple, after all.
In my first response to the election, I suggested that it represented a failure of our culture, specifically the failure to carry forward specific values announced by the Declaration of Independence, namely the equality of all people and their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t necessarily think of it as a failure of the arts, because during my lifetime, the arts have embraced those values and very frequently addressed them directly—in the ways that art does, of course.
I wanted to tell the Clinton campaign worker that the arts aren’t necessarily that good at responding immediately to events, especially something like an election; the changes have to be lived first, become particular. Graphic artists and political cartoonists can get off the mark earliest, but composers, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and others operate in longer-form media. But I do believe that artists WILL respond to attacks on the environment, specific religious or ethnic groups, on immigrants, on the rights of women, and the rights of all people to occupy whatever part of the gender spectrum they choose. I don’t think they have a special responsibility to do that in their art, necessarily, but I think they will, because that’s one of the things they generally tend to do. And some artists will feel these things more deeply than others, then integrate that experience into their art more fully. I only have to look at Colin Kippen’s sculpture to see one of the ways this may look going forward.
ArtsWatch will attempt to connect you with artists and provide our interpretation of what they are communicating. It’s not a specifically political role, at least for me. The political realm isn’t the only one that needs our attention, our best efforts to repair. And yes, I’m back at the culture in which the political is embedded. It’s a longer process, perhaps, but political progress will have a better chance of sticking if it comes with cultural progress, and in our case, repair.