Art and society

Today’s post has to do with art and social issues. Do we, as artists have an obligation to point out social inequalities with our work?

To my mind, yes, we do. Art is a powerful means of expression, a means that has been with us for at least 30,000 years. The beautiful cave paintings of Lascaux and Alamira, as well as the Chauvet cave in southern France, along with the wonderful rock carvings of the Sahara and the petroglyphs of the Americas, these are expressions. Of what, we really don’t know. What was the purpose of these? Again, we don’t know, we can only speculate. I think they were an expression of awe at the power and grace of the animals depicted.

In the gallery below, one of these images depicts what is a wounded man. Even back then, some artist painted a situation that disturbed she or he. As far as we know this is the first dark image in art. This is from the cave of Lascaux, the shaft of the dead man.

Shaft of the dead man, Lascaux

Lascaux cave, depiction of a dead man on the ground.

Let’s fast forward a few tens of thousand years, to the present.

In the modern era, art as social commentary was considered to be so powerful that the former Soviet Union as well as Nazi Germany, disappeared many of their artists, their poets and their intellectuals; the writers, the dancers, no one was safe. Both of these states considered art to be so powerful that these states only allowed artists to produce propaganda art, to pound home to the populace that the people were now under totalitarian rule.

Propaganda art, Nazi Germany

This is an example of Nazi propaganda art.

Now a little more fast forward, to Senator Jesse Helms in the 1980’s, who wanted the NEA de-funded. He used the Piss Christ and the work of Robert Mapplethorpe as the issue to hang that desire on, but the true thrust was to limit the power of artists to enact social change.

In today’s political climate, art has been removed from the schools; those who make art have been reduced to scrambling to make ends meet in a society that no longer has been taught about art. This is not an accident; this is plan on the parts of those power brokers behind the scenes.

Our world is rapidly devolving because of the machinations of the 1%. That 1% is not just in America, they are the global 1% as well. That group is not good with social change, with social equality, with a healthy middle class. Part of the drive to accomplish the return of serfdom is to gut education. That gutting started, in American schools, with the cuts to art, music and now science is on the chopping block. This is a planned coup, done over time so We, the People didn’t notice.

With a citizenry that has no education in art, they don’t have the tools to discuss art, to be able to intelligently critique a piece or to even have a notion of what the artist was trying to express.

This extends to the gallery scene; most galleries now have a standard formula, as far as I can tell, that they follow like lemmings over the cliff. Here in Portland, Oregon, we’ve seen many galleries close, victims not just to the recession, but victims to that formula.

That formula has a stranglehold on the galleries; not just here, but in other large cities I’ve been in. Truthfully, I can name one gallery, Continuum Heart Gallery, in Pioneer Square in Seattle, Washington, has the most diverse gallery I’ve seen in years! That gallery is fresh, the art is contemporary and the gallery owners are men of taste and distinction.  I think one of the big reasons that their gallery is so successful is that they tossed that formula out the window, they ditched the comfy traditional art, and they went for art that points out social issues, art that isn’t the comfy staid landscapes. That break with tradition has been a very good thing for both the gallery and the artists in that gallery.

*Disclaimer, I forgot to add this earlier… I have work in that gallery in Seattle. It’s how I met Mike and Jack. The reason I’m happy to be in that gallery is because of their approach. *

The art world has seen, since the recession and the Bush administration, a drive to stay away from “dark or edgy” work; to only paint, sculpt or show art that’s “family friendly”.  In my mind that is censorship, no two ways about it. When I was growing up, much of my schooling was in the southern California school system, that was in the 60’s and 70’s. In that time, I had art appreciation classes, where we saw nudes. Because is was art it was not considered UN-family friendly, it was considered art.

I would like to take our nation back, not just in a political sense, because for the sake of a healthy art world, that should happen, but also to allow freedom of expression, again. I would like to see those  galleries who allow themselves to be dictated to, to develop a spine and show some real art, not formulaic motel art, but the real art, that points out social issues, that addresses inequities, that makes us LOOK at the people, the world, the society around us.

I would like to see an end to the bland tapioca art that abounds. I’d like to see art that addresses concerns, art that makes us think, art that makes us uncomfortable, art that won’t let us hide behind our BS, art that is true.


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