For the last month or two, I've found myself thinking about what it means to be defiant in one's art. The word defiance can be defined as "a daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force"; "proud and determined opposition"; "disobedience" and "rebelliousness." In a sense, it's about not trusting the powers-that-be to tell us what kind of art to create or to love. (For fans of etymology: Latin, fi from fidareand de-, a prefix that negates). I also understand that it's about going ahead and doing something in spite of existing conditions and circumstances.
Naturally, pondering defiance led me to identify artists who exemplify it. There are too many to name here, but instantly I thought of Frida Kahlo and Judy Chicago, among lots of other women artists who defied what the establishment prescribed for and expected of women in general as well as people of color.
What prompted this exploration is a character in a novel I read after I returned from Poland and other recent destinations. I was sorting through some old clippings and notes at my desk, when I came across one about a book I'd intended to get from the library for quite a number of years: The Polish Woman: A Novel, by Eva Mekler. The "coincidence" of this title was not lost on me, nor that the main character, Karolina, is an artist.
While the narrative focuses on fictionalized events that occurred during and after the Holocaust, a couple of pages on Karolina's experience in an art world that didn't support her interests caught my attention. As she explains to Rosalind, another character, "it turned out bad" because her sculptures are representational, plus she works in stone, which she admits is unusual. Clearly, she loves creating sculpture, just as so many of us love creating with paints, textiles, cameras, clay, metal, paper, and other materials.
It is hard work, a kind of labor, to break down stone, to tame it. You are tired and dirty and there is dust on face and in hair, even in shoes like you have come out of a mine. But from all this smashing and pounding, you have a beautiful thing, and if you are good, you have touched something true. It is ironic to make something delicate by breaking stone, no? And after, touching what you have made...[it] is like body hunger that has become...satisfied.
What happened to Karolina in the post-war art world of Communist Poland was disheartening. It was something too many of us know well, even in democratic societies and good economic times. She had worked passionately for two years on three small pieces, "Variations on a theme by Rodin," which she conceived of "as a kind of anti-Kiss commentary on the Rodin sculpture she'd adored as an adolescent and had come to resent with the fury of a disillusioned romantic." The pieces depict a male and female nude desperately attempting to embrace, but successively moving farther away from each other until, in the last sculpture, their fingers hardly touch. Unfortunately, her efforts were not received well. She explains to Rosalind, "In the end I was told I have skill, but not imagination. My work, they said, was conventional and romantic." A friend had even taken her aside and suggested she try a different medium, such as clay or papier-mâché. She was hurt and furious:
Art has to be political to please...Soon anything is art only if it is...defiant....Empty canvas is art; a marble ball tied in middle with black string is art. Glue nails and rope together and people praise it as sculpture about repression...Perhaps I should tie myself naked to a hammer and sickle....
Yes, there is important defiance in certain kinds of political art, such as the murals of Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Picasso's "Guernica," and much feminist art. I think of Ai Weiwei, who has been clubbed in the head and imprisoned for flouting the Chinese government's authoritarianism. But art can be defiant in other ways as well.
Creating or performing art can represent ultimate resistance in the face of severe deprivation and terror. At the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II, sick and starving Jewish prisoners performed Verdi's "Requiem" in spite of the appalling degradation they were suffering. Although they had only a single smuggled score, they sang the famous oratorio 16 times, including once before senior SS officials from Berlin and an International Red Cross delegation. This Mass for the dead was transformed from what the Nazis thought of as the prisoners' meek submission to their fate into an act of defiance and even therapy. Rafael Schächter, the conductor, told the chorus: "We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them." He had to reconstitute the group three times as members were transported to Auschwitz. Their performances symbolized challenge to the authorities that had imprisoned them and demonstrated courage to confront the worst of humankind. For the prisoners, singing Verdi's "Requiem" was an affirmation of life. As theatre and opera director Peter Sellars has said, "During the worst times a lot of the best art is made."
Here's yet another take on what is defiant art or a defiant artist. If the art world clamors for figurative or representational art, yet you love to work in an abstract style and continue to do so--or vice versa--then you're defiant in your art. If the art world is fascinated by grit and violence but you prefer peace and beauty, then you're defiant in your aesthetics.
I remember reading that Richard Diebenkorn went back and forth between abstract and figurative styles, always to the dismay of the art critics, who favored one or the other. He defied all of them and painted what he wanted to paint when he wanted to paint it. The Impressionists were excoriated for making what were deemed "unfinished" paintings, but they did not cave in and go back to the precise and realistic details of classical work. Simply to be an artist can be an act of defiance in a world that values what it considers practical, useful, and financially desirable.
Our art can be defiant in what we want to express emotionally. In "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair," painted after her divorce from artist Diego Rivera, her unfaithful husband, Frida Kahlo asserts her independence as a woman and as an artist. She breaks with the traditional Mexican hair and clothing styles of her previous self-portraits that Rivera favored by cutting off her long flowing hair and wearing his typical garb instead. To make things absolutely clear, she also writes onto the canvas the following lyric of a Mexican song: "Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don't love you anymore."
For the rest of us, the lyric could be reworded to reflect a too common fact: "Look, if I loved your art, it was because of your concepts and politics. Now that your art is not au courantin the market, I don't love it anymore."
It takes guts to be an artist in the face of all kinds of opposition, authorities, and obstacles. Sometimes it's not an outside force against which artists are defiant, but an internal situation over which they have little or no control. They don't give up despite the physical or mental hand that they've been dealt. I can't help but think of the many visual artists and writers who never asked for mental illness to dog their steps.
Vincent van Gogh is a perfect example. In June 1889, he painted "Starry Night," one of his most iconic images, at a time when he resided in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. He had voluntarily entered and accepted the restrictions of confinement. Initially, he was allowed to draw and paint only within the walls of the institution. Even when permitted to go outside, he was supervised. And he alternated between periods of stability and crises of distress. Yet he produced astonishing work that countless thousands line up to view. Vincent van Gogh defied what he didn't seem able to overcome by continuing to challenge himself as an artist and evolve his unique style. Yes, eventually, he succumbed to his demons and committed suicide, but that doesn't negate all the years of defiance.
Questions and Comments:
What do you consider defiant art?
Which artists represent defiance for you?
How are you a defiant artist?
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