Friday, August 12, 2011

Art and Social Justice

- by Stacey Prince

Picasso once said that “art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth”. So true, but sometimes art also tells us the truth in ways that other media can’t. During my trip to Washington, DC this past week I had occasion to witness some difficult, beautiful, challenging, inspiring and visionary truths about social justice reflected through the visual arts. There are many ways to look at issues of social justice in the arts; for simplicity I will focus on the following three: inequities in the arts, social justice depicted through art, and art as social justice activism.

Inequities in the arts. While in DC I stumbled upon a lovely museum entitled the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I’ve been to DC many times, and yet have never heard about this wonderful museum, and I find it interesting that it has not been highlighted, or at least not prominently so, in guidebooks or local travel guides. Turns out it’s (from their website) “the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the contributions of women artists”. Though it is on the small side compared with some of the gigantic Smithsonian collections, it’s a treasure trove consisting of both permanent collections and special exhibitions. Its history on the website explains that the museum was a direct outgrowth of discourse beginning in the 1960’s regarding the underrepresentation of women and artists of color in museum collections and major art exhibitions, with two female curators taking it upon themselves to begin remedying that, at least with regard to female artists.

During my visit I enjoyed viewing works in the permanent exhibit which consists of over 3,000 pieces by women artists from the 16th century to the present. While some of the 20th century artists (Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe) were quite recognizable, others, especially those from the 16th through 19th centuries, were new to me. As many of you may know, apart from brief eras of prominence, most women artists up until the 20th century received little recognition and were constricted in both their access to formal training and their subject matter. Take, for example, this quote from Marie-Elisabeth Boulanger Cave, a 19th century painter: “Woman must confine herself to those subjects which are allied to her sphere… children, animals, fruit, flowers, etc.” Nudes were out, as were large canvasses and abstract images. Even Georgia O’Keeffe, enjoying the relative freedoms of the early 20th century, observed the following: “One day seven years ago I found myself saying to myself–I can’t live where I want to–I can’t go where I want to go–I can’t do what I want to–I can’t even say what I want to–...I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to. “

Unfortunately the stories of many artists of color follow a similar trajectory: difficulty obtaining education in the arts, underrepresentation in major collections and exhibits, and when they are shown, primarily being shown in separatist collections of African American art, Latin American art, Asian art, etc. See this article for an excellent discussion of exclusionary practices in the visual arts. The same is true in other media such as poetry and prose; see for example this 2007 report entitled Free Verse which found that less than 1% of published poets were Black or Asian.

What will it take for women, people of color, uneducated artists and other under-represented groups to be fully recognized and given equal opportunity by curators of major museums and exhibits, publicists, and other gatekeepers to the art world? Meanwhile, young people, aspiring artists and adults who are not members of dominant (white, male, owning class) groups will not see their experiences and artistic visions fully reflected in the major collections of art around the world. Although the revisionist approach of a “gallery of women in the arts,” “gallery of African-American art,” etc. is better than nothing, as is true in other areas of oppression separate is still not equal.

Struggles for social justice depicted in art. On another day, in another gallery - the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery - an exhibit entitled “The Struggle for Justice” blew me away. This permanent collection is filled with images (including paintings, photographs, and sculpture) depicting the struggle for social justice for many marginalized groups, focusing in particular on efforts to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism. Some of the images were familiar, even iconic - a contemplative Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, and a portrait of feminist and NOW founder Betty Freidan - while others depicted their message with a new vision, such as the beautiful painting of Eunice Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, with five special Olympians, all on a beach and gazing together toward the horizon. The image of Rosa Parks carved in wood (pictured at the top of this article) depicts her courageous and historic act of civil disobedience with power and substance. You can view the entire exhibit here, and this wonderful website also contains lesson plan suggestions for utilizing the exhibit as a teaching tool. Although not named as such, the gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs at the Newseum was another place where social justice struggles were vividly depicted. Hundreds of historic moments captured on film in this collection include the Kent State massacre, a confrontation between Jewish settlers and Israeli security forces, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Art as activism. So, back to the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Have you ever heard of the Guerilla Girls? These artists, performers and activists call attention to social inequities in the arts, especially racism and sexism, through posters, buttons, and public protests conducted while wearing gorilla masks. They deliver their message with disarming humor but also pointed anger and satire. Take, for example, this t-shirt entitled “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” which lists the following “advantages” (these are just excerpts - it’s a long list):

• Working without the pressure of success
• Not having to be in shows with men
• Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs
• Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty
• Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine
• Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood
• Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius

Or this poster commentary on racist and sexist exclusion in the art world, which is entitled “3 white women, 1 woman of color and no men of color - out of 71 artists?” Directed to chief curator Margit Rowell of the Museum of Modern Art, it reads,

“Dear Margit,

We’re thrilled that you have managed to redefine the still life to exclude women and artists of color from the practice. Guerilla Girls thinks you should change the show’s title from ‘Objects of desire: The modern still life’ to ‘The objects of MOMA’s desire are still white males.’ Lotso luck, Guerilla Girls.”

Viewing their work in this gallery made me want to laugh (I did, out loud, several times), cry, and got me really, really mad, all at the same time. The list of actions they have taken in their 25 years of existence is incredible. Here is their website, in case you want to learn more.

There is so much to say about art and social justice, and I am just touching on these rich and complex issues. An excellent book delving into this topic is Art and politics now: Cultural activism in a time of crisis by art critic (and Seattle resident!) Susan Noyes Platt and available for purchase on her website. The book covers topics including racism, immigration reform, environmental crises, and opposition to war and examines the various ways that individual artists, collectives, curators and exhibitions participate in social commentary and political activism. For now I will just say that I was moved by my brief tour of social justice in the arts while in Washington, DC - saddened and angered by the deep inequities persisting in the art world, but also struck by the power of art to illuminate stories and issues of social justice. Many have written about the importance of engaging affect when doing work on oppression and privilege; art has the power bypass rationalization and higher cognitive functioning to deliver a deeply affective experience and show us the truth.

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