Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part I

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Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City for a few days. I arrived in the city on the day of the Women’s March, January 20, too late to see anything, let alone to participate in the march, but still early enough to have to get out of my taxi to walk to my hotel, since the blocks around 6th Avenue were still closed for traffic—a minor inconvenience. What the Women’s March represented, or sought to represent, as a way to challenge current political developments however set the tone for what was on my mind during my visit, so here is part one of some of my preliminary musings. (I also did two studio visits, with Simon Benjamin and Shoshanna Weinberger, who will be the subjects of forthcoming blog posts.)

One of my key interests, as a curator and art historian, is the role of art in society, and particularly the role of art in social change and times of crisis—a big question in the Caribbean context and, for all its contradictions and contentions, one of the driving forces in the development of art in the region. The question of what art can do, or must do, in times of crisis is sharply posed today. Throughout the world, worst-case scenarios are playing out, politically, socially and environmentally, and a lot of the things many of us have taken for granted are under active threat. This includes the viability of our political and governmental systems, social injustices and tensions that seem to be worsening, despite the social justice activism and changes of recent decades, and even the very sustainability of human life on this planet.

Historically, the worst of times have often produced compelling art, and have caused artists, cultural institutions, and others in the art world to reflect on the role of art in such moments. In the late 1930s, as dark clouds were gathering over Nazi Germany, Bertold Brecht wrote his poem To Those Who Follow in our Wake and asked: “What times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many misdeeds?” Brecht’s poem confronted artists with their social responsibilities and the capacity of art to question things and to raise consciousness when the times call for it. I am not suggesting that other artistic choices have no legitimacy, even in times of crisis, but whether art, as a form symbolic intervention, can make a real, tangible and positive intervention into the socio-political dynamics of its time is an important and urgent question. And I added the word “positive,” because we also have to be mindful of the dangers of propaganda, which can be mobilized to promote the mindless acceptance of detrimental political ideas, as is illustrated by the tragically effective propaganda machine of Nazi Germany.

1024px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe pitfalls and contradictions have been there from the moment art started asking social and political questions: the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, who was active during the turbulent times of the Counter-Reformation, for instance, has conventionally been represented as a subversive critical voice who heroically risked his personal welfare to lambast the Spanish Habsburg rule of Flanders. His Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-67) places the biblical story in the context of 16th century Flanders and was overpainted extensively, presumably after the artist’s death, to soften some of its more gruesome and specific details. It is generally accepted that the painting makes reference to the Grand Duke of Alba, a Spanish diplomat and general who was sent to Flanders to quell religious and political dissent with harsh repressive actions, a rule of terror which resulted in about 18,000 executions. Yet representatives of Habsburg rule in Flanders, such as Cardinal Granvelle, were also among Bruegel’s main patrons and the question arises of whether artists who benefit from the power hierarchies of their time, in terms of patronage, can also legitimately and effectively talk back to power.

This question is not unimportant today, since the proliferation of high-profile art fairs and spectacular record auction results has reinforced the role of art as a luxury commodity, to be acquired by “high net worth” and “ultra-high net worth” individuals in a market that is controlled by powerful brokers, dealers and benefitted from by a few lucky artists. The hype and celebrity cult that presently surround the art market is an integral part of the current cultural climate and, despite its aspirational qualities, seems to be symptomatic of a world in which the socio-economic divide is widening rather than shrinking. While this suggests that the art world is fiddling while Rome is burning, art is also more politicized than ever.

Many artists are making powerful statements, implied or explicit, about our troubled world; cultural institutions are politicized as never before, in various ways and for better and for worse; and the critical reception of art, from critics and general audiences, is equally politicized, instantaneous, and increasingly contentious (as the responses to the recent unveiling of the Obama portraits perfectly illustrate). And, because of social media and other live online resources, art and the debates that surround it travel faster and more widely than ever, worlds beyond what would have been the reach of the likes of Pieter Bruegel, when access to art was almost exclusively moderated by ownership and high social status. Ironically, thus, the political side of today’s art world is mediated by the same mechanisms of circulation that produce and sustain the art celebrities and art market hype, and the manner in which those two worlds interface and collide raises new questions about whether and how art can be a catalyst for meaningful social change in the current context.

Part II of this blog post can be found here.

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