Here is part II of my conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part I can be found here.
Veerle Poupeye:- You were born and raised at a time when Guyana was entering a period of political and ideological radicalism, which significantly impacted the course of the country itself but which were also connected to and influenced developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. What was your position towards/in these early developments, as a young man, and how did this influence your work and general outlook at that time?
Errol Ross Brewster:- Oppositional elements in Guyana’s long struggle for free and fair elections, understood the duplicitous nature of the State’s stance on the international stage with regard to liberation struggles. Leaping forward many, many years, more than a generation in fact, so that the foregoing statement could be better understood, I draw your attention to the leading Guyanese, and Caribbean intellectuals and political activist, whose collective response to the South African Government’s announcement of its intention to confer, posthumously, on President Burnham a high honour for his generous contributions to their liberation struggles was to object. South Africa was made to withdraw their intention to confer this honour under pressure from this group. Charity begins at home and the President was much less than charitable, warning of his “sharper steel,” with dissent in his own country. He could not at the same time be a champion of liberation struggles.
“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime that
hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa, in sub-human bondage,
has been toppled, totally downstroyed…well, EVERYWHERE IS WAR!”, such as that
galvanised our understanding of the world. The Guyana government, were not
enthused about Rasta messaging. But Count Ossie, and the Mystic Revelation of
Rastafari were shown the royal treatment because it suited their duplicitous
international objectives to appear to be compatible with progressives. It was
the time of the Non-Aligned Conference and CARIFESTA. As youngsters, we were
not fooled, we understood that President Burnham was not the North Star of
solidarity with international liberation struggles. Marley was!
I was of a mind that the visual signification which art afforded was to be used for social transformation. “The Abdication” is one such work. It characterises the crab in a barrel mentality which was at the heart of the fight for scarce resources on the political plane, so the Parliament building is in the background. And in the foreground is the extent to which this abdication of civility and good communal sense would make itself felt. Even the old and poor were not safe! This government had let fall in on itself the home for the aged and indigent – they met it as a grand Colonial mansion which had stood for decades and let it literally fall in on itself of neglect. Any of this is sounding familiar? Does a certain political culture seem to be at work here? Might it be prudent to warn about it?
I thought so, and so the work I made was not what people wished to put on their walls. They’re not in the National Gallery of Guyana collection, despite having being bought by Dr Williams years earlier. And they did not match people’s drapes, nor did they match with the draping of consciousness that people had to engage in to preserve their livelihood in that time. You did not have, actively, to oppose the government to be targeted. You could lose your job for who you associated with; For not attending events at which numbers, drawn from the ranks of teachers and civil servants, were required to. Increasingly, the Garden City became over run by garbage. People fell through the cracks and bedraggled beggars appeared everywhere. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception attracted beggars by day and prostitutes by night. They could not be ignored. School children became active in anti-government protest and some took to purposeful vandalism.
I am very pleased to be able to publish this photo essay by Errol Ross Brewster, as a first post on his work. It will be followed by a two-part interview with him (click here for part I).
“BEWARE THE PROMISE TODAY” is a photo essay about the demise in Guyana, in the early 1970s, of the very first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846, and the impact on the Guyanese people – in particular the poor and vulnerable, of a peculiar political culture that arose in that time and has continually plagued the country until now.
It is offered as symbolic caution, and a reminder of how the placing of party politics (the paramountcy of the Party was a much touted doctrine of the ruling party at that time) above country led to ruin then, and could likely, without extreme vigilance, now and in the future, rob the country of its new found wealth. Included is a George Lamming quote, succinctly summing up the tone of the country in the period in which these photographs were made.
They were made in the early 1980s, on B&W film and solarised in the processing to lend them an air of menace, which was a hallmark of the time. One was much later computer manipulated to introduce colour for a different emotional impact. Very few of them have seen the light of day in the four decades since they were made.
The country, at the time, was in a very oppressive mode under a government so paranoid about its legitimacy (of which it had none) that it could not tolerate free speech. Journalists and photographers were routinely harassed and worked under seriously threatening circumstances. I was banned from the national archives; arrested and hauled off to the police station on occasions; suffered equipment seizures; intimidated by police and party thugs on the streets. And it grew so dire I had to have a body guard while photographing protests and disturbances in the city.
But I was lucky: Father Darke wasn’t. He was an elderly, expatriate, Jesuit priest, who was a photojournalist for the Catholic Standard newspaper and he was killed by party thugs in broad daylight as he covered a protest in front of the Magistrate Court in this same period. This is also the period in which Dr Walter Rodney was assassinated.
Errol Ross Brewster Sunrise, Florida October 2019
A society partially impoverished by the burden of supporting an unnecessary and alarmingly high ratio of military persons to civilians (an increase of 800 % over ten years) is what Guyana had become by the 1970s.
Compounding the problem was the government’s equally alarming lack of vision. The absence of foresight that attended the demise of an infrastructural support on which the poor and vulnerable depended did not “build.” Its impact was to “destroy.” It disregarded the historically significant value of the first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846
Trains propelled America to the status of an economic superpower in the world. The placing of the country’s interests over personal political interests could not in a poor underdeveloped country have driven the choice to scrap them.
It’s fashionable now to regard industry as the engine of growth. We seem not to realise that the fuel for that engine is culture – the very way we are. The adulteration of that fuel gave rise to a lack of regard for history and our engine sputtered and stalled.
The wheels of our economy ground to a halt under the arrogance of blaring sirens announcing the arrival of backwardness, and a dangerous political culture which evolved into a tradition is today still proudly on display.
That absence of vision left and continues to leave strewn in the way forward the carnage of vehicular accidents on the pot-holed roadways, and innumerable other hardships rippling throughout wide swaths of society, with the poor feeling the brunt of that abdication of good sense in favour of relatively small personal benefit.
Impacting people, not as a glancing blow or a side swipe,
but full on, and leaving in its wake a trail of overgrown societal failures.
A persistence of that abdication kept people locked in a disadvantaged state
with such empty sloganeering as “Make the Small Man a Real Man” spewed ad-nauseam in the faces of broken people lying paralysed by poverty on city pavements
and literally sinking into the dark depression of the grave
after the exhaustion of endless protest for bread and water,
and even more prayer.
Prayers to try to stave off the normalisation of that which in an earlier generation, characterised by Martin Carter in poetry as “…the terror and the time” would have been taboo.
People felt that spiritually, they needed to be bathed anew. And George Lamming would in time come to describe the tone in the country thus: “Today we meet in a dangerous land, and at its most dangerous of times. The danger may be that supreme authority, the supervising conscience of the nation, has ceased to be answerable to any moral law, has ceased to recognise or respect any minimum requirement of ordinary human decency.”[i]
It was a struggle just to face the dawn and make the day’s catch,
or to reap the riches of labour in the field where was planted what felt like it could be the last batch.
Guyanese faced this daunting struggle with an astonishing spirit of determination to overcome, and with a high degree of innovativeness. Should they, with this experience of leaders putting their personal interests, and that of their party above country, trust their new found wealth to this same culture of governance which gave rise to a regrettable decision to run the very first trains in all of South America into ruin?
Beware the Promise Today!
Errol Ross Brewster is a Caribbean artist living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multi-media imaging practice, he has participated in multiple exhibitions, regional and international – in various editions of CARIFESTA; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo traveling exhibition, 2000; the International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s Sidewalks of the Americas Artistic Installation, 2018.
The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.
If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.
The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).
Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.
The Independence Generation
The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery (1986) has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambitions and sometimes naïve idealism. The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad. The three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California, and Barrington Watson, who had attended the Royal Academy in London and several continental European academies. Their choices illustrate that England was no longer the obligatory overseas study destination, as it had been for the previous generation. Each returned home with new ideas about art – high Modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic in the case of Watson – and an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which actively challenged the more limited outlook of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scales that transcended the “living room format” preferred by the nationalist school, and a new critical attitude.
Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh, who were more securely middle class than most of their predecessors, presented themselves emphatically as professionals and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. Along with the art collector and engineer-builder A.D. Scott, they founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 as the first professional artists association in Jamaica. Watson was in 1962 appointed Director of Studies of the Jamaican School of Art and Craft (JSAC) which he, in a move that reflected his commitment to “high art” ideals, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system. This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.
Predictably, there was animosity between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. They were the first to openly challenge Edna Manley’s dominance. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were” (Waugh 1987, 136) and:
The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach. (137)
It could certainly be argued that the nationalist intelligentsia’s missionary zeal to promote local talent replicated the colonial notion of the child-like native whose potential had to be awakened and nurtured. Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.
The introduction of high Modernist ideas represented a departure from the populist beginnings of modern Jamaican art and this resulted in what could be construed as a more elitist and “foreign” kind of art. Yet this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain than their predecessors and took the initiative to be involved in public art projects, to be visible in the local media and to establish new galleries. […]
[The artists of the CJAA generation] wanted “proper” spaces and display methods that matched the high Modernist “white cube” gallery concept (O’Doherty 1986). In 1964, the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply known as the Gallery, which was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica. The Gallery mainly showed the work of its directors but also of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to promote his own work. When the CJAA folded in 1974, A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided affordable housing for some artists.[…]
While self-promotion was a factor in their public initiatives, the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:
[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum (Gloudon 1964).
The CJAA artists were thus not interested in “art for art sake” but wished to produce art that played an active, productive role in Jamaican society. […]
Eugene Hyde is the only major Jamaican artist of his generation who studied entirely in the USA and who did not have an exclusive fine arts training: he had studied advertising design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and then obtained a scholarship to pursue an MFA in painting and graphic design at the Los Angeles Art Institute. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 but after failing to obtain a teaching position at UWI or the JSAC, he left again for the USA, to do further studies in advertising and architectural ceramics. He finally found a job at a Jamaican advertising firm in 1961 and permanently returned to the island. (Smith McCrea 1984)
Hyde’s inaugural Jamaican solo exhibition, which was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1963, is widely credited as the first local exhibition of abstract art although the works he showed were essentially figurative and perhaps best described as “abstracted expressionism”. Hyde’s work was sometimes excessively influenced by the Italian-American painter Rico Lebrun, an exponent of the “New Imagist” stream in Modernist Western painting which focused on the human figure, represented in an abstracted, expressionistically distorted manner to represent the anxieties of modern existence (Smith-McCrae 1984).
Hyde’s solo exhibition included three mural-size multi-figure paintings, Colonization I, Colonization II and The Lynch Mob, but the entire exhibition, which also included etches and drawings, had an expansive, dramatic quality. This sense of scale and the gestural, abstract expressionist technique of Hyde’s paintings – or, as Eker regretted, his preoccupation with the act of painting itself – was regarded as “American” by some local observers and their responses reveal a deep distrust of the emerging US-American influence in Jamaican culture. The fact that Hyde was primarily trained as a graphic designer was also invoked to suggest that the work lacked “deep” content. Eker denounced “the hectoring tone of the show. It was as though the artist – who, significantly, is also an advertising executive – were shouting ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ and when I listened, I found that they had very little to tell me” (1963, 12). The American critic [and Haitian self-taught art promoter] Selden Rodman, in his travel book on the Caribbean, also located Hyde’s work outside of Jamaican culture and summarily dismissed it as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue” (1968, 35). Despite these misgivings, Hyde became influential in the local art community and the ownership of the works in his 1984 retrospective indicate that he was supported by the professional class of his generation.
Hyde’s work challenged local artistic conventions [of the nationalist school] but, as with Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, is better understood in terms of its relationship with the rest of Jamaican art than in terms of any irredeemable difference. While he was certainly concerned with the act of painting (and drawing) in its own right, Hyde was no true formalist and many of his works make socio-political statements, as the titles of his early murals well illustrate. Like his nationalist predecessors and contemporaries such as Parboosingh, Hyde was preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and the challenges of building a modern, independent society but his perspective was more pessimistic. Hyde’s political works, far from being empty rhetorical gestures, represented Jamaica as a wounded, blighted society, disabled by its past and present traumas. Works such as Future Problems (1962), an ink on paper portrait of a poor young man, prophetically captured the discontent among the youth as the main source of social tension in Jamaica.
Not all of Hyde’s early works were political, however, and he also produced abstract, formalist paintings. He obviously preferred to apply the formal explorations of high Modernism to Jamaican subject matter, however, and this resulted in his extended series of Sunflowers, Spathodias and Crotons of the late 1960s to early 1970s. These highly abstracted explorations of the Jamaican vegetation were, with their bold designs and intense colors, as celebratory as Albert Huie’s light-infused landscapes (although his Sunflowers, inevitably, also referenced van Gogh’s more morbid use of this floral theme.)
Here is part two of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved
Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).
Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.
Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).
The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185). The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.
Part I of this blog post can be found here. Below now follows part II.
But let me return to my reflections on my New York City trip. My first full day was spent in the world of Outsider Art, a world which has always both attracted and troubled me—attracted, because it provides exposure and validation for extraordinary art that would otherwise remain invisible and marginalized; troubled, because of the lack of self-reflexivity in the usually well-meaning patronage that surrounds it, which is often overly missionary, purist, and “from the top down,” and thus re-inscribes and even fetishizes the very same marginalization it claims to challenge (and I am using the term Outsider Art as a catch-all for what has been variously called Folk, Self-Taught, Intuitive and Outsider Art or Art Brut—examining the issues arising from these concepts and terms is something for another blog post).
My day started at the Anne Hill BlanchardUncommon Artists lectures at the American Folk Art Museum, which three presentations on self-taught art from the Caribbean: with Barbara Paca speaking on the Antiguan painter Frank Walter; Nancy Josephson on the Haitian “drapo” or Vodou flag tradition; and Jamaica’s own Jacqueline Bishop on the Jamaican painter Kemel Rankine. The three lectures were supposed to have been followed by a demonstration by Sane Mae Dunkley, an outstanding exponent of the rag-mat tradition in Jamaica, but she had passed away unexpectedly just before New Year. At the request of Jacqueline Bishop (who, I should disclose, is a friend), I presented a short tribute to Sane Mae Dunkley and placed her work in the contexts of popular fibre art and recyclage traditions in the Caribbean.
It was my first visit since the American Folk Art Museum returned to its earlier Lincoln Square facility, in a building it shares with other organizations. I had the opportunity to look around for a bit before the lectures started and I must say that the rather dreary, institutional look of the present galleries does no justice to that museum’s amazing collections and exhibitions. I sure miss the days when this museum was in its own, purpose-designed building on 53rd Street, adjoining MoMA, which was a pleasure to visit, although this location proved to be financially unsustainable (and the building, which was of architectural interest, has now been demolished to make way for MoMA’s latest expansion—a fable of the art world in its own right, but well).
Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose work was featured at the inaugural Antigua Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is certainly a very interesting artist, who should be better known in the Caribbean, and Barbara Paca, a NYC based art historian and landscape architect (yes, she combines both professions), must be credited for her relentless work in bringing his work and life to international attention. I would however have liked to see more critical reflection on how which Walter, who was black, positioned himself as a descendant of the plantocracy who privileged his European, German roots over his African ones, and how he is now in turn similarly positioned in the emerging narratives about his life and work. I was also concerned about the manner in which his work is now mobilized to raise awareness about mental illness, since this seems rather reductive and may skew the interpretation of his work as symptomatic of certain pathologies.
Nancy Josephson, an American artist who is herself a Vodou devotee, provided insights into the individual styles and techniques used by various drapo makers, which usefully challenged the notion that there is no innovation or originality in such art forms. Her discussion was however essentially descriptive and, again, lacked the contextualization, criticality and self-reflexivity that would have made the analysis truly useful. Jacqueline Bishop, finally, placed the work of Kemel Rankine, a St-Elizabeth-based sign painter who also produces figurative work, in the context of Jamaican visual culture and folklore.
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.
The 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.