Friday, July 20, 2012

Just Ruminating: Art to Change the World

I have been casually commenting lately that I will be turning twenty-five for the second time. Now, I don't mind that I am approaching my Golden birthday (no pun intended, although I do like puns), but somehow, breaking it down like that gives it a different spin. When I look at my attitude towards artmaking then and compare it to today I see that I have set aside certain ideas (perhaps they are ideals) and although I still pursue them, albeit very quietly, they were once front and center, banging on the drum when I was in my twenties. Primarily, the belief that art can and should change the world. 

I used to believe that if I make my work and get it out there, I would reach someone. Or lots of someones. And change their views. I tried to make work that showed other human beings of different races, cultures, and genders who often misunderstood one another, but who shared the sameness of daily life and emotions. It seems that I now approach this idea sideways, from the teaching side. I work with individuals and try to be a guide, not a director. Did reality, experience, or the turn of the millennium make me forget what I was doing or make me more pessimistic? Perhaps the demands and obligations of daily life and raising a family, the dents of life and loss, were what changed me. But just thinking about how I looked at the world in my twenties gives me more energetic optimism, so I guess that's good, and I think I'll continue to look back through that filter, and that one filter only.

Jed Perl, my favorite art critic, who writes for The New Republic, wrote an article about art, the art of persuasion, and the desire to change the world in his April 19th review, "Avant-Garde Persuasions." In his opening paragraph he says, "Some shocked, some charmed, some threatened, some cajoled, some instructed.…Always they insisted that forms, feelings, and attitudes which the public initially found at best alien were in fact inevitable."

Perhaps he's saying that the artists felt they had only one way to proceed, their way, and while  no one understood it yet, if they were persuasive enough, the public would eventually understand. The avant garde here echoes the author, William Gibson's quote, "The future is already here—it is just not evenly distributed." Artists have some sense of the future, although I am not sure any could or would want to claim to be at all clairvoyant. (The term itself, meaning "clear vision," is a wonderful image.) The artist may not know, probably does not know, but the artist is compelled, driven, and must proceed with his/her vision, which does feel inevitable. In an article based on an NPR interview, author Maurice Sendak says exactly this when talking about his book Where the Wild Things Are, "…I didn't set out to break any new ideas. I was just doing what was only in my head."

Perl also makes a distinction between an artist with a vision and a "careerist," someone who works very hard at self-promotion. The artist has more of the "missionary zeal" about her/him, with the same kinds of strong feelings as any religious believer, while the careerist will do anything to get noticed.

What kinds of zeal and beliefs are we talking about? Wanting to change how we see and interact with the world, to appreciate and not take anything for granted might be some. Perl writes about the Victorian aesthetics and the Arts & Crafts movement: "…how a distinctive style of decoration…became the model for a new focus on everyday life as transcendent experience." A "transcendent experience" sounds religious, like a prayer for every daily action, an uplifting. The aesthetes wanted to make basic objects that contributed to everyday rituals and that would be appreciated for their beauty.

Beauty draws us in. But there must be more under the surface. Regarding the Steins and van Gogh Perl writes, "…formalism had to be affective—not a rejection of the world but a new kind of engagement with the world." The "engagement" with the world should be a way to give it meaning, help us to understand it, absorb it, and challenge our assumptions about it.

When we are young we have many assumptions. We may have large goals and assume we can achieve them, but we may not know how to do this. Perl writes about the exuberance of van Gogh and and that "This is very much a young man's art—not surprisingly, since he had hardly begun painting in earnest in his late twenties…."A "young man's art" because of its initial optimism, perhaps? Because he wanted to persuade people of his feelings, "He persuades us that nature really does feel the way it feels to him." Oh, and we do want to do this, badly! We are trying to connect to other humans in this way, the way we know how, through our art.

Perl writes, "Before everything else, they had had to master their own doubts."  The concept of mastering one's own doubts assumes that one has these doubts from the beginning. In reality, I think the artist holds the doubt as well as its opposite in her Art Bin: the doubt that her work is worth anything, as well as the feeling that everyone else can go take a flying leap….The microscope is aimed at herself even while she is wearing blinders. Back and forth we go between these opposing thoughts: I'm saying nothing new/I've got great things to share and I'll persuade you, too.

I find it energizing to remember that I wanted art to make a difference in the world, to make the world somehow better by making it. Looking backwards, just a little and very specifically to one spot in time is helping me to bring my ideals back into consciousness, to remind me of my responsibilities as an artist, and to continue forward.


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