In the April 1982 issue (vol. 1, number 1) of the UMVA Newsletter, there are excerpts from a conversation with the artist Christo, best known for his monumental installations, such as Running Fence, or the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. His use of fabric to cover or hide ubiquitous landmarks most certainly generated controversy. Was it art, or expensive vandalism, or some form of political statement?
Christo says, “[m]y work is very related to the very long tradition of the use of fabric and of hiding.” He goes on to say, “[p]eople think I do things because I like to insult. ‘Don’t touch that because it’s too beautiful.’ It is very unfair to say that wrapping or using the fabric in some form is insulting the space.”
Having to spend a lot of time with government officials, city planners, and the like, kept Christo on the defensive. He was more concerned (and still is) about his art and its beauty, and not how the public or government bodies viewed it. Yet his work was from time to time looked upon as political. He later states, “[m]y projects tend to encapsulate a great amount of different values.” Was he accepting the fact that the viewer will always form their own opinions?
Political overtones can and do creep into an artist’s work and can do so quite by accident. While the artist understands the basic meaning of their work, the viewer can take away something completely different. What they see ain’t necessarily what they get!
Those of us who make art don’t want to be pigeon-holed or labeled. Many artists simply want the freedom to express whatever they feel at the time. They want the ability to shape shift, to go down a path that is unknown and see where it might lead. But of course, there are others who define what they do from a specific viewpoint and create work based on personal ideology. These artists strongly believe that what they do will make some sort of difference in this world. This is debatable.
Art in and of itself doesn’t change much in this world. It functions on a subliminal basis at best and what the viewer might take away from it (if anything) becomes intimate and personal.
In the December/January 1989/1990 issue of the UMVA Newsletter, a letter by Wendy Kindred takes issue with Natasha Mayers. Mayers makes a plea to artists, asking them to play a larger role in social/political change. She asks them to work with the marginalized of society, those in prisons, the homeless, people with intellectual disabilities, and so forth. Mayers saw art as something needing to move beyond the aesthetic, to confront society’s problems. Wendy Kindred in her letter refutes the idea by saying, “the process by which politics, or anything else, informs art is obscure and indirect. I cannot provoke it deliberately. The best I can do is catch it in the act.”
And catch it in the act we can. It leaks in or out of us, and we have no control as to how others see the final product.
While sifting through old UMVA newsletters, we found a personal letter from Lynne Harwood to Pat Owen, dated July 6, 1990. It was in reference to a painting that Pat exhibited in a UMVA show in Ogunquit. The piece was called Justice. It had to do with very personal issues at the time and in no way did Pat see it as a political statement. Yet Harwood saw something completely different, and wrote, “It seems to be about more than a hurricane, because of the man-made looking machine; it could be about political injustice as well.” Well, looking at the work 30 years later (we document everything!) it does appear to have political overtones, and I can see Lynne Harwood’s point, but does this change the work itself?
Ahh, the gates of perception creak open again!
There appears to be a stronger social focus in the arts today, maybe it’s because so much lands in our inbox on a daily basis. This deluge becomes inescapable and instead of quietly filtering its way into the work, many of us go with a full frontal assault.
Recently, an artist here in Ireland received a large monetary grant for an “artwork” best described as a social study. The artist interviewed young offenders in juvenile lock-ups, made tape recordings of their stories and exhibited the results as “sound art.” This work stretched itself from the broad confines of what we now call art and into the realm of journalism. I’m sure this individual meant well by interviewing young incarcerated people, but what I understand from the artist’s bio, is that the artist was looking at the project as an outsider and from a newsworthy perspective.
Making strong political statements in our work is part exploration, part growth, and is also about the emergence of the self, if you will. It is essential that the individual is not lost, or as Wendy Kindred said back in 1990, “I paint out of what I am, which is difficult enough to do. I certainly cannot paint out of what I am not. And I am not the product of the experience of others.”
The political conditions in the world today are as dangerous as the tenuous climate situation. Many artists feel compelled to make work that expresses these fears. Historically the artist has always vigorously commented on society in some way or other. The Futurist movement of the early 20th century was a response to the old guard: look out, we’re coming for you, the machine age is here! The Futurists formed as a group to express modernity and youth. Today, we seem to be in isolation, behind the digital screen. Art and politics can make strange bedfellows. But there are stranger things in this world and opposites have a tendency to attract each other and be fruitful.
In an article in the Fall issue of the UMVA Newsletter 1990, Judy Sobol states,
“the making of art is inherently a courageous act and therefore the artist is accustomed to being out there—ahead of the others— showing things we would rather not see.”
That courageous act, the one we search for within ourselves, can be dangerous to expose. But it is essential to our being as artists, it shapes our work, it becomes our body politic.
Tony and Pat Owen live and create in the West of Ireland.
Image at top: Pat Owen, Justice, acrylic on canvas, 1990