above, Ben Shahn, Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-2

Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World

What are your symptoms: sleeplessness, anxiety, panic attacks, vague sense of fear, very specific fears, loss of appetite, uncontrollable sobbing, uncontrollable laughter? We all react differently, but are currently suffering from the same disease. We are deeply affected by world events in the depths of our psyche; the public becomes private. Artists, in a sense, reverse that process, and open up their private realms, their innermost thought processes, and put them on display for public scrutiny.

Bonfire of the Vanities_ 15th Century Florence

The public looks to artists, and artists look to each other, to help make sense of where the self collides with the culture. Culture is the articulation of a society’s values: art can posit, cross-examine, and tests these values to help us understand their true shapes, by finding their outer limits, their outlines.

In this issue we highlight a broad spectrum of artists from the region, and beyond, who, for the most part, have always made art that might serve as a candle to light our way in dark times. It may be that these times make such art even more relevant—we thirst more for work that strikes deeper chords. That does not mean that humor is absent from our survey, but humor is of course serious business.

We are not alone in seeking out an artistic response to political and cultural topics—the latest Whitney Biennial being the most prominent example. Reaction to that show serves as an example of another symptom of our cultural nervous condition. Is it the frayed nerves, the battered psyches, that have conspired to turn, what another year might be just a heated debate, into something that shreds the rules of civil discourse?

The reaction to the Dana Schutz painting, Open Casket, has divided an art culture that seems to all agree that racism is still with us and that it has caused the violent deaths of black lives across the country. Yet reasonable people have entertained the idea that the painting should be removed from the exhibition and even destroyed. I would like to think that both actions would be considered out of bounds in “normal” times. Such demands are something we have only seen in recent years on the far right side of the political spectrum. Even if these ideas were only put forward as a cynical act of self-promotion, it is now out in the world, being debated and taken seriously, as some are now debating other unthinkable proposals, like torture.

The Union of Maine Visual Artists is an arts advocacy group, so such rhetoric hits us hard. We expect, even encourage, artists to be provocative in a culture that values free speech. But that does not mean preaching to the choir, and provoking some hypothetical enemy, some ultra conservative straw man who is not likely to even be a part of the art audience. It means we provoke each other—to think and to act and react—even if it means touching a nerve. We give lip service to this value, so we need to follow through with this standard, even if we are offended and disturbed by an artwork. We share the belief that a fundamental standard of human rights is that it is not my right to curtail your rights; the right of an artist to create and the rights of an institution to display that creation.

The art audience is clearly divided on the merits of the painting, Open Casket. It is fair to question if the piece rises to the gravity of its subject, is it a good painting, and why is anyone, white or black, choosing to make a painting about this thorny subject? It has also raised the question of whether a white person can tell a black story. If we truly believe that we can only speak from our own experience, then much of the history of art and literature would be negated. But most disturbing are the ad hominem attacks on the artist and on the defenders of the artist; they seem a product of the times—more the result of overstressed emotion than the outcome of reasoned analysis.

If the critics of Schutz feel she is lacking in empathy, the irony is that these critics lack empathy for the artistic process. She has been accused of being motivated by “fun and profit,” yet the decision to paint this subject would have to have been the result of serious deliberation. The process of painting it would further subject this conception to scrutiny and self-doubt.

At a certain point in the creation of an artwork, the piece escapes the orbit of artistic control, the artist becomes collaborator, coaxing it into existence. Now complete, it is no longer Schutz’s painting, but ours, and it will take on a life beyond our moment. Does one person’s story belong to them or their group, once it is out in the world? We may look back in ten years and see the painting as part of a temporary phase of culture, a radical chic, re-defined by now unforeseen events. Or it may prove prescient, and speak to the future, and become part of a canon. We can debate this but we don’t get to decide on an outcome now; future perspective may shine light in regions, that are for us, still in shadow.

Editorial Board,

Jeffrey Ackerman, Al Crichton, Daniel Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon