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Pretty isn't enough; art aims to fix earth: artists leave studios for ecological activism.

Artists leave studios for ecological activism

Artists are people, too. If we watch them closely they may tell us something about life on earth and, occasionally, beyond. Indeed, the careful observer will soon notice now artists are like the rest of us: In a crass, greedy decade like the 1980s, artists wiling to wallow in decadence had little trouble finding 15 minutes of fame, not to mention profit. Conversely, when the world turns grim, as it has done again, followers of a more robust, crusading muse return to the high ground.

From AIDS to ecology, art and activism are mingling again, raising hopes and raising questions.

Although artists by definition defy stereotyping, still the story of Jeam Michel Basquiat offers somber insight into American art's recent roller-coaster past. A Haitian-American, Basquiat was picked up by the trendsetters from the Brooklyn streets where, as "Samo," he specialized in graffiti. In 1980, at the outrsageous age of 19, he had his first major exhibition, in New York. The hype, frame and fortune ebbed and flowed. His art (depending on one's taste, of course) was as good or bad as thousands of others; but in any case, the art was less important than what he wore -- artistic chic -- and the naughty eye he gave photographers from the glossy magazines. He almost survived the decade: In 1988, he died of a heroin overdose at age 27.

In the 1980s, the filthy rich paid huge sums for great art like Van Gogh's, but they also paid handsome sums for trendy junk from the likes of an American in paris appropriately named Condo.

To justify these fun times, critics and gurus gave the goings-on a philosophical veneer. They called most of the past-modernism, a name that gives the game away: By pointing to what it came after, they were able to avoid confronting what it stood for. Its aficionados used obscure terms like "appropriation" and "deconstruction." Mostly it was media-derived, Hollywood-inspired, slick and shallow.

By the end of the '80s, postmodernism had collapsed on its own hollow center, had gone the way of the S&Ls. The art world paused for breath, began looking at new ideas, was shocked into confronting new issues. Douglas Crimp, credited with ushering in postmodernism when he organized an exhibition called "Pictures" in 1977, was editing books about AIDS a decade later.

"This is a period of more questioning, of slowing down, of doubt," said the head of Paris' Pompidou Center, a trendsetter, last year.

"While of course soem artists have always been active in political causes, what is new is the degree of organization that artists are bringing to their activism," writes Robin Cembalest in a recent issue of ARTnews.

"The issues five years ago were money and power," says the director of one alternative gallery. "The shows this year are more sociological -- how culture works, how values change." The ARTnews article explored the international scene, found that museums and artists are again invading political and social territory, awaking to the corruption of governments and society the got out ofhand while their artistic backs were turned.

There is, of course, an old debate about whether art should be about beauty or about changing the world; art as decoration or as catalyst. The activist artist's is, traditionally, the less traveled road and the less prosperous.

Patrons, from medieval church princes to today's corporations, are scarcely looking for performance artists agitating for collapse of the status quo. The art in your local bank is likely to be sophisticated and, espeically, innocuous. Many would say the same about the art in your local church.

At a New York symposium a few years ago, the prevailing view was that "artists react to political and social change, if at all, two years after the rest of society." This sent environmental artist Nancy Ungar into high dudgeon: "We are worthy barometers and we often begin praying before the storm hits." She mustered a surprising amount of history to show that artists are more often prophets than panderers.

But seeing the storm coming doesn't mean artists can prevent it. Ungar goes on: "The art that is seen and the movments that are thereby 'made' asre controlled by the commercial gallery system; the latter, in turn, responds to the purchases of wealthy corporations and collectors. It is a system that, by its nature, supports the status quo; and the status quo recognizes no ills."

Ungar was writing in Art and Artists, a small magazine published by the Foundation for the Community of Artists, late 1988. That particular issue had a supplement on "artists and the homeless." Not surprisingly, the magazine did not survive the 1980s, though we are now finding that the word it spread lives after it.

The environment is an obvious cause for artists, cosmic and down to earth in one broad stroke. Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison are two busy environmental artists. A couple of years ago, they visited Yugoslavia for the European Nature Heritage Fund to study the effects of pollution on one of Europe's last surviving oak forests. This is typical of their artwork for the past two decades, writes ARTnews's Cembalest, "analyzing an environmental problem, devising a solution, and recording the whole process in maps, photographs and poetic texts," and putting in all on exhibition in a New York gallery.

This is not what centuries of the evolution of art have taught us to expect. It is a more head-on apporach, no time for gilding the lily. Says a German curator, "The dividing lines between objects, sculptures, painting and new techniques are starting to disappear."

This new trend, now worldwide came trailing the Green movement in Europe, the ecological disasters revealed by the fall of the Iron Curtain, the ongoing bad news about our shrinking ozone layer and the Rio ecology conference. Artists responded with such groups as International Friends and Transformative Art, headquartered in Sedona, Ariz.

"There's been a spontaneous eruption globally," explained its director, David Floria. IFTA's focus is "work that goes beyond art for art's sake and really matters to people and the planet directly. ... Artists are hungry for meaning. In the last few decades, people have been feeling this emptiness of creative activity."

Folks (with the possible exception of Sen. Jesse Helms) don't associate art with the sewer system. When, however, a few years ago, Brooklyn needed a $400 million rehab of its sewage plant, $400,000 was set aside for art. Artists Christy Rupp and Ned Smyth created a mile-long fence called "Wave, Wall and Green," and wetlands -- yes, in Brooklyn -- because, says Rupp, "Wetlands are the most productive ecosystem on earth."

In Germany in 1982, artist-activist Joseph Beuys (he ran fro parliament as a Green in 1976, without success) conceived a work of art that called for the planting of 7,000 trees on the streets of Kassel. Said one of Beuys' collaborators: "This is not just a romantic, artistic thing. It's a symbol of the new cooperation among people with different backgrounds, idealogies, views of the world. We're working with scientists, ecological groups, theological groups -- it's a fantastic mixture."

Flora and fauna are dear to this new ethos. An early expression of it was Alan Sonfist's 1965 "Time Landscape" in overcrowded Manhattan, an 8,000-square-foot plot that sought -- and still seeks -- to re-create the vegetation that existed on the site in precolonial times. At first, even his fellow artists thought Sonfirst was crazy. Now, he is in demand worldwide.

"In this kind of performance art," says one artist, "you really go out in the community. It's educational, it's ceremonial, it's purifying. It links people who might not have gotten involved."

"Education, advocacy and activism," echoes IFTA's Floria. "Art is unique. It has a certain power, an interaction with our consciousness in a way that we might not even understand yet."

Englightenment is glowing in the most unlikely places. The New York Sanitation Department has had an artist in residence since 1978. Mierle Ukeles is presently working on "Flow City," a project to show citizens how garbage is processed. "people need to learn what is going on in these places," she says. "They've been invisitable in our society for many sick reasons."

While garbage is not new or asrt (in their more genteel way, Picasso, Braque and others used refuse), this is more serious. "Landfills are the artifacts of our generation," artist Nancy Holt told ARTnews. "By the end of the century, most of them will be closed. People in the future will look at all these mounds and identify them with us." Holt is working to turn a 57-acre New Jersey landfill into a work of art.

You can't frame such art and hang it on a wall. "This kind of art has no particular style," says Floria. "It's about intention and potential." It doesn't fit well into the system evolved by dealers, collectors, museums. Artists can take designs and photos inside and display them, as the highly self-promotional Christo does when he wraps acres of fabric around some public building near you, but some of the immediacy escapes on the way to the museum.

A transformation of our aesthetic sensibilities will not happen quickly, nor a change in the way our lives and art intersect. Still, there were not always museums, and at best they're a combersome, inefficient way of acquainting people with those vague qualities called beauty or uplift or even entertainment.

We are going through a bad period when pretty is not enough; when art is not even a good investment; when we are threatened by global troubles that not even the rich can insulate themselves against. So the art world is shuddering in reaction, and it remains to be seen what the final result will be.

The recent Venice Biennial, the daddy of all art world exhibitions, is proving to be -- perhaps not surprisingly -- a critical disaster. Wrote micheal Kimmelman in The New York Times, "The disappointment was palpable and widespread as was the sense ofexhaustion ... tired of the sort of conceptual, formally inept, self7-indulgent art that has become as ubiquitous, predictable and hollow an international style as the abstract expressionism of the 1960s."

This may be good news -- if you are planning a design for your local dump. But art is a willful floozy and nothing is guaranteed except that artists will continue making some kind of art because they can't stop.

And if much of the new work seems lacking in the cute or pretty or romantic gloss we have come to associate with art, we might recall the words of the late critic Anatole Broyard: "To go on writing or painting at all in the teeth of the present may be even more romantic than Wordsworth was."
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 22, 1993
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