Liberatory Art and Authentic Collaboration
Review by Kai Barrow
Born at the tail end of the fifties and raised in Chicago by activist parents, I cannot recall a time when I was not politically engaged. A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building led by people of color in the 1960s and 1970s had a tremendous influence on my life. Often, the art of this period was produced collaboratively and intended to foment social change.(2)
One of my earliest memories recalls the “Wall of Respect” on 43rd Street. Painted in 1967 by members of the Organization of Black American Culture,(3) the mural was situated among barber shops, chicken shacks and liquor stores, fixtures in most urban ghettos. It was a testament to historical memory and visions of liberation. My grandmother had a beauty shop in the neighborhood and periodically, bored with the gossip and the smells of frying hair, my brother and I would run around the corner to watch the images of Malcolm and Harriet, Nina and Coltrane come to life. Music was always playing, sometimes live, and we were asked to suggest colors for different areas of the wall. Sometimes we even got to add a stroke of paint. The artists and winos hanging out on the corner would school us as we stood with other neighborhood children and adults fascinated by the process. They taught a history that did not grace the Chicago Board of Education’s curriculum. Later, after the mural was finished, it felt good to stand in front of it with my parents and receive a quarter for every person I recognized. I would get an extra nickel if I could share a little background information on the person’s life.
The “Wall of Respect” became for me a catalyst and reward for learning about myself. It helped affirm me in a society that indoctrinates us with racist images and myths backed up by institutional control. From tracking in public education to the police as an occupying army within our neighborhoods, people of color are forced to accept the ideology of white supremacy and the ruling class. In this sense, an art of resistance was critical to furthering a Black liberation agenda.
As I grew older and realized that “The Revolution” was not going to happen NOW, I began to think about what I can do to contribute to that process. As an organizer and artist (painter, installation, and performance art), I am constantly searching for ways that art can be used as a tool for liberation. That is, how can art facilitate a process of dialogue, discovery, healing, and transformation for the individual and the group? What are the purposes, potentials, and problems of a liberatory art?
Art on the Line, Essays by Artists About the Point Where Their Art & Activism Intersect, edited by Jack Hirschman and One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, by Miwon Kwon, examine art beyond the aesthetic and as a process of liberatory engagement. Where Hirschman’s anthology of essays and interviews impose a dictum to produce “revolutionary” art, Kwon raises critical questions about art as a collective artistic praxis in today’s urban communities.(4) They help us think about how anti-authoritarian art can reinvigorate our movements and help fashion an ethos of resistance and freedom. What is an anti-authoritarian art praxis? And how can anti-authoritarian art be useful in supporting liberation movements?
Art on the Line includes essays and interviews from an array of artists from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. The anthology grew out of a pamphlet series of the same name edited by Richard Schaaf and published by Curbstone Press in the early 1980s. Six pamphlets by Roque Dalton; Vladmir Mayakovsky; César Vallejo (two); George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde; and Jorge Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group were published in the series. Hirschman begins his anthology with this series, in which five of the six pieces pre-date 1970.
Art on the Line continues from the pamphlet series to include essays and interviews written (or transcribed) in the 1980s and 1990s. Here, Hirschman attempts to expand the “strands from an emerging multicultural (class, race, and gender) discourse in a time of rapid technological and ideological change.”(5) The collection examines art from a range of disciplines and includes Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ernesto Cardenal, Miranda Bergman, Amiri Baraka, Luis J. Rodríguez, Margaret Randall, Elizam Escobar, Susan Sherman/Kimiko Hahn/Gale Jackson, Richard Edmondson, Paul Laraque, James Scully, Arturo Arias, Csaba Polony/Etel Adnan, Ferruccio Brugnaro, Carol Tarlen, Martín Espada and Jack Hirschman.
A member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, Hirschman is a frequent contributor to Left Curve magazine and author of over 90 books of poetry. His politics thread throughout the anthology, from the authors that he includes to his introductory comments. In the introduction, written post-September 11th, Hirschman raises the question of relevancy: “Are these essays in fact of any use anymore? Aren’t they out-dated with the fall of the Soviet Union, the defeat of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua…” He maintains that they are not outdated. In fact, he states, “the need for ideas with respect to revolutionary collectivity, especially along the cultural front, is essential.”(6) Though Art on the Line is somewhat doctrinaire and doesn’t offer a lot in terms of “new” thinking or critique, hearing from individual artists about their political and artistic motivations makes it a worthwhile read.
Hirschman urges readers to pay particular attention to “Art is in Danger!,” from the first pamphlet series, referring to the piece as “among the most ‘grounding’ of the texts in relation to the tasks of revolutionaries today.”(7) In this work German artists George Grosz, John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde challenge the concept of art and artists that privileges art over the struggles of the people for food, jobs, and shelter. They urge artists to commit themselves to the workers in class struggle: “What could a worker do with art when—despite all the horror—art continues to project an ideal, untouchable world, when it continues to overlook the crimes of the owners and to mislead him with its bourgeois representation of the world as a peaceful and orderly place. An art that delivers him into the teeth of his oppressors, rather than one that agitates against those dogs.”(8)
The role of art/artists in serving a liberatory agenda frames Art on the Line and is a major question among revolutionary and/or activist artists today. Can political art be “good” art?(9) Mainstream institutions (museums, funders, publishers, etc) dictate a formalist approach to art—that it remain aloof from the concerns of everyday life. In the 1950s, the American school of Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock was prominent among the Abstract Expressionists) was upheld as the epitome of pure and free art. At the height of the Cold War, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) coordinated numerous international exhibitions exporting Abstract Expressionism.(10)
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Kenyan poet and playwright, elaborates on this theme in his essay, “Freedom of the Artist: People’s Artists Versus People’s Rulers.” Wa Thiong’o posits, “the arts are a form of knowledge about reality acquired through a pile of images.”(11) He maintains that these images are not neutral, but reflect the “angle of vision” of the artist, where internal and external factors such as the natural, spiritual, economic, political and social freedoms through which the artist operates color her interpretations.
Wa Thiong’o poses three questions for consideration in approaching the problem of the freedom of the artist:
These questions raise challenges for anti-authoritarian artists particularly in relation to strategies and visions that may seem contradictory to anarchist/anti-authoritarian politics (for example, nationalism and national liberation struggles by people of color). Can the art that emerges from the anti-authoritarian community be relevant in both content and process to people of color engaged in sovereignty struggles? What does an anti-authoritarian art look like that supports the liberation of oppressed communities?
Does the artist have the democratic right to speak without fear of imprisonment or death? Artists who receive state or corporate funding, status, fame and wealth, generally support the status quo. Those who aim to overthrow the entire system are censored through invisibility. Even those on the conservative left silence the artist that uses her work to raise contradictions or offer a differing analysis. Even if artists do not face death or imprisonment as a result of their work, the threat of losing or being denied funding, publishing and exhibition opportunities, can result in self-censorship.(14) This challenges anti-authoritarians to create self-sustaining institutions that allow artists to produce and distribute their work; develop an art that facilitates participatory processes, and maintain an openness to dissent.
If the artist is operating within a system that is predicated on hierarchy and domination, what is her responsibility in projecting alternative visions and values? For anarchist artists, this challenges the political framework of social realism—a style popular in the early twentieth century which portrayed the oppressed in themes of injustice and martyrdom.(15) Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and Diego Rivera, for example, used social realism to depict the struggles and magnificence of their people. In so doing, they inverted the dominant paradigm that portrayed people of color as inferior. But is portraying social ills alone an art of liberation?
Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican independentista, painter and former political prisoner, considers the visionary role of the artist in his essay, “Art of Liberation: A Vision of Freedom.” Escobar writes that “if art is to become a force for social change, it must take its strength from the politics of art, art’s own way of affecting both the world and the political-direct. But the politics of art will only happen if the power of the imagination is able to create a symbolic relationship between those who participate, the artwork and the concrete world, always understanding the work of art’s sovereignty (or relative autonomy) in relation to concrete reality.”(16) This approach calls on artists to prioritize the imagination in order to create a revolutionary dialogue or exchange; one that is absent of didacticism and that does not pretend to offer solutions, but instead provokes dialogue. Escobar challenges artists to liberate themselves from the “culture of fear, and the inferiority/superiority complex we have in our dealings at the political-direct level.”(17)
Gale Jackson, in her conversation with Kimiko Hahn and Susan Sherman, also addresses the power of the imagination in creating social change. “If you don’t liberate people’s hearts, you pass the civil rights bill one more time. The problems we face demand the fullest of our capabilities. Our imagination. Anger. These are the places that organizing and imagination absolutely must meet.”(18)
Excerpts from Sherman, Hahn and Jackson’s letters, discussions and taped conversations make up “Three Voices/Together: A Collage.” These women writers (poetry, playwriting, and storytelling) discuss the art-making process from a perspective most aligned with the “personal is political” ideology of feminism. Their dialogue spans a broad spectrum weaving together identity, origin, and politics. Sherman, Hahn and Jackson emphasize culture and expression as a vital part of the revolutionary process—ensuring the survival of oppressed peoples. “For most of us, maintaining our cultural identity has been a crucial, political act,” says Jackson.(19) The utilitarian quality of People’s Art—from the hymns and quilts of chattel slaves that conveyed escape plans to the folk tales passed down through generations to articulate societal values—can help maintain a continuum of resistance and provide meaning for those who have minimal power.(20)
Currently, many activist and/or revolutionary artists are foregoing the concept of the individual genius in favor of art as a process of collective engagement. Artists working with and in community has become a popular approach. Where Art on the Line explores theories of art as a political endeavor, Miwon Kwon, in One Place After Another examines the praxis of public and community-based art.
One Place After Another traces the history of site-specific art from the 1960s through the 1990s with particular attention to its social, political, and economic dimensions. In the United States, three distinct models are identified in the contemporary public art movement. The art-in-public-places model, characterized as modernist abstract sculptures; the art-as-public-spaces model, typified as design-driven urban sculptures such as street furniture, architectural constructions, and landscaped environments, and the art-in-the–public-interest model, distinguished for prioritizing social issues and political activism and/or for engaging community collaborations. These practices are commonly referred to as site-specific art.(21)
Kwon seeks to “reframe site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space.”(22) She challenges the notion of fixed sites, moving beyond the inherited conception of site-specificity as a grounded, singular event, and points to the works of artists such as Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green as innovative in their use of the site as complex and multiply located. Once designated to specific geographical and architectural settings, the site can now be as varied as a “billboard, an artistic genre, a disenfranchised community, an institutional framework, a magazine page, a social cause or a political debate. It can be literal, like a street corner, or virtual, like a theoretical concept.”(23)
One Place After Another is dense in postmodernist language and concepts, and a difficult read for those of us who are outside of the academy (Kwon is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles). The book is informed by urban theory, postmodernist criticism in art and architecture, and debates concerning identity politics and the public sphere. It could be a worthy enterprise for a study group as it raises a number of compelling questions for anti-authoritarian artists.
One Place After Another is particularly useful in its critical examination of the art-in the-public-interest model (which includes community-based art). Kwon lays out the arguments surrounding community-based art primarily through an exploration of the concept of community and an examination of the role the artist/art institution play in community-based art projects.
Art-in-the-public-interest, a term coined by the critic Arlene Raven, is defined as “…activist and communitarian in spirit; its modes of expression encompass a variety of traditional media, including painting and sculpture, as well as nontraditional media—”street art, guerrilla theater, video, page art, billboards, protest actions and demonstrations, oral histories, dances, environments, posters, murals.” Raven, in her description of the form, states that it “forges direct intersections with social justice issues, encourages community coalition-building in pursuit of social justice and attempts to garner greater institutional empowerment for artists to act as social agents. Artists engaged in such art aspire to reveal the plight and plead the case of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged and to embody what they view as humanitarian values.”(24)
Additionally, Raven and other proponents of art-in-the-public interest see this form as encouraging the involvement of artists in institutional decision-making, more representation by people of color, women and other oppressed groups, and demands that museums and funding agencies use their influence to change government policies on social issues.
One of the most widely recognized public art projects in the United States, the Chicago-based “Culture In Action,” used community-art to address social issues such as gang violence, HIV/AIDS, public housing, ecology, multicultural neighborhoods, labor and management relations and the accomplishments of women. Eight artists and community partnerships created projects as diverse as a storefront hydroponic garden, a paint chart and a new line of candy. Culture In Action aimed to push the boundaries of public art.(25)
The collaborative, socio-political approach to art-making perhaps resonates most with anti-authoritarian artists. However, cautionary voices raise concerns about community-based art, particularly in relation to its production of fixed notions of community, appropriation and exploitation. Further, artists using this method may unintentionally aid in the colonization of a community where the targeting of marginalized groups leads to community members becoming both subject and co-producer of their own appropriation in the name of self-affirmation.(26) Kwon’s inclusion of critiques around art-in-the-public interest/community-based art can be helpful in to us in our work.
Kwon states that even the term community, once defined as a collective body with similar interests, has become a “highly charged and extremely elastic political term.” Kwon points to the neo-conservative use of the term to conjure new forms of exclusionary policies in housing, health care, social services and education. “In its drive toward the greater privatization of public institutions and services and the decentralization of state authority, the right has appropriated the concept of the community as well. The dismantling of certain state-sponsored social and cultural programs that especially benefit the poor and the ill, for instance, are carried out now in the name of community activism and community self-determination.”(27)
Another concern around community-based art is its potential to diffuse rather than serve as a catalyst for social and economic change. According to Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, an artist who participated in “Culture In Action,” “There is a growing and disturbing similarity between initiatives such as community policing and community-based cultural programs. Both motivated at times by a paranoiac fear of a social upheaval.”(28)
Critic Grant Kester has argued that community-based art is a kind of “aesthetic evangelism,” comparing the functioning of community-based artists to nineteenth-century reformers and social workers. Kester states that the “prevailing logic of community-based art reproduces a reformist ideology that, like Victorian-era evangelism, envisions personal inner transformation and growth as the key to the amelioration of social problems such as poverty, crime, hopelessness, unemployment and violence.”(29)
Kester’s critique of community artists need to be qualified within the context of the central role institutions play in both delineating the identities of those involved in the community partnership as well as determining the collaborative relationship. Moreover, the artist, curator, institution and community group are in the process of negotiation. At the very least, their roles and actions should be understood in relation to one another.”(30)
Kwon proposes a “collective artistic praxis as a projective enterprise,” as opposed to community-based art.(31) Kwon’s analysis points to a vanguardism among community-based artists where the community is viewed as a blank slate through which the artist (or art institution) expresses his or her own agenda
“Community-based art,” she states, “is typically understood as a descriptive practice in which the community functions as a referential social entity. It is an other to the artist and the art world and its identity is understood to be immanent to itself, thus available to (self-) expression. The degree of success of an art project of this kind is measured in relation to the extent in which these (self-) expressions, as signifiers of community identity, affirm rather than question the notion of a coherent collective subject.”(32)
Kwon’s collective artistic praxis allows a process of collaboration within communities that takes into consideration the fluidity and unknown of both the art-making process and its outcomes. This critique challenges anti-authoritarian artists to recognize their role in authentic engagement with a community, as they work to realize a liberatory art.(33)
Although art is entertaining and pleasurable, it is not unthreatening. Authentic collaborative art expands a traditional organizing approach, helping people think critically and visualize alternatives. It is used to communicate and resist, and can produce tangible outcomes. Murals are used throughout the world to visualize resistance, instill pride and convey information. During the civil rights movement singing at meetings and during protest marches both calmed and invigorated the protestors. The “Women Take Back the Night” mass march to eradicate violence against women began as a community art project. In L.A., the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros collaborates with the Cornerstone Theater to develop skits about L.A. public transportation concerns. These skits are performed on the buses, which helps publicize and build support for the issues. Capoeira, originally a dance, grew into a martial art form that was used to rebel against plantation owners. Making art can be a catalyst for healing. It unifies us and reassures us of our humanity. It involves confronting fears and taking risks. It is an act of joy.