Themed art exhibits and themed literary magazines generally make me uneasy unless I think I'm going to be able to experience the world differently, either by viewing them or by participating in them. Are they, on some level, transformative? An art show about polka dots, for example, could be all surface and dotty, or it could include the history of the name, fabrics made with dots, famous people who wear them and their biographies, and any political or social connotations, if such existed. Artists simply could be asked to submit work with dots or to submit well-rounded work that connects to these deeper themes. Interesting how deep this could go from such a light subject. In all cases, the curator makes the call. The curator, to make a book analogy, has the title, the covers, and selects the pages from the submissions. Submissions. Submit. Another reason to be uneasy. The artist is a contributor but not necessarily viewed as an individual. The curator/editor has the creative control and the overall vision. Which is great if you are the curator or the editor.
Or is it? With creative control comes responsibility for the outcome. A potential exhibit came up recently in Oakland. The Museum of Children's Art planned to show artwork from traumatized Palestinian children created in art therapy centers. Children's art. Did the children want to show this? If adults decide to show children's art, who has the creative control? What are they saying? Here, on the surface the statement is general and universal: war is bad, children suffer, look how children can work through trauma and express themselves through their art. Looking deeper, looking at MECA, the adult sponsor of the exhibit, you can't miss the pro-Palestinian statement when they gathered the work together (Israeli flags drawn on the military hardware, a few American flags on it as well). The museum was pressured to withdraw their intended exhibit. They were shocked, shocked to discover that the Middle East is a controversial topic. The curators surely weren't just using the art "to foster insight and understanding," (both are admirable) which is what their letter to the public implies. With such an explosive topic, it is naive to think that focusing on these children's use of art as an expressive medium was enough. The overall curatorial vision avoided the actual content. Suddenly, the cancellation of the exhibit became a political issue, as if it wasn't political up until this point.
The curators had a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility if they had chosen to proceed. The subject is large and complicated, with good guys and bad guys on both sides. They could have featured interactive activities, discussions, examinations of different cultures. Presenting hard topics is a hard task. These topics make people uncomfortable and they are confusing; the excuse for cancelling the exhibit was that the children wouldn't understand. That they would be frightened. The kids who are frightened live in our inner cities already and I don't see any exhibits of their work. Other children are frightened, too. In the "Plays & Politics" class I am taking currently, we were asked to write about our first political memory. Even though we are all different ages, half of the earliest memories were about war or worrying about being drafted and dying. War concerns many generations.
The museum could have shown that war affects all human beings by including work from Israeli children who have witnessed their own share of war as well. War is made by adults. Death doesn't choose sides.
These are children we are talking about. In this case, they were vulnerable children who were not making art to share with anyone; they were trying to work through their trauma, and their work was ostensibly going to be shown to demonstrate their feelings to the world. Artwork from adults is clearly a political statement. In an ideal world, perhaps, this show could have generated a thoughtful discussion rather than degenerate into the recent distracting, finger-pointing session about censorship. An exhibit is only as good as the vision that precedes it. With research, time, care, and planning, a themed show like this one could have been a transforming experience for everyone. Perhaps the discussion has just begun.