Is there an inherent value in or purpose to art? Ask a dozen persons and you’ll probably get a dozen answers. Yet, behind all of them, I sense a need to express something creatively, be it feelings or emotions, thoughts, opinions, or beliefs. And it doesn’t matter what the vehicle is—film, play, sonata, painting, dance, photograph, novel, poem, etc. In The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) refers to “producing art as a fulfillment of the biological necessity for self-expression.” He contends that, like poets and philosophers, artists convey in concrete form “their notions of reality…they deal with the verities of time and space, life and death, and the heights of exaltation as well as the depths of despair.”
Some people see art as a series of successive innovations, each movement building on or surpassing the preceding one as new techniques, perspectives, and materials are applied. Yet we are still drawn to those much earlier works for what they capture, what they teach us about the past, and how they move us. Others contend that the role of art is to support us in becoming better human beings, individually and collectively. How does it do that? How do artists go about it? What kind of art deeply informs and inspires us, changes our minds and hearts, influences us to act? Does it boil down to the fact that Content Matters, the title of an exhibit at Marin MOCA? The juror of that show, San Francisco gallerist Jack Fisher, states, “Art can help us understand and make sense of the world around us.”
A recent first-time visit to Transmission Gallery in Oakland, California, prompted these questions. As a friend and I walked through two different solo exhibits, we were struck by the disparate approaches taken by the artists to present particular unpleasant realities that are part of history and of current times. If you’re put off by the images, political stance, or subject matter, before clicking off, pause for a moment to consider why. If you can, stay with me until the end of the post.
Artist Mac Mechem identifies as a social realist. The Russian Connection, his show at Transmission Gallery, reflects his stand on the caprices and phenomena of the present U.S. administration, climate concerns, and social crisis. He says, “I believe that art can be a tool for promoting cultural awareness and expediting social change.” In “Planting the Flag,” Mechem alludes to the ongoing carnage of pachyderms: last year alone, more than 20,000 elephants were slaughtered “to feed China’s insatiable hunger for carved ivory.” “Drive By” references gang shooting in the Fresno area of California, where the boys have “shot up the wrong address, which happens more times than not in our community.” For anyone who follows the news, the third image below, “The Russian Connection,” speaks for itself. Mechem would undoubtedly agree with Rothko that “[a]rt is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does.”
Beauty and Terror, an exhibit of unusual art by Robin Bernstein, offers another approach. While Mechem employs satire and humor in his paintings “to lampoon and ridicule the vices, follies, and shortcomings of contemporary society,” Bernstein presents unexpected images—such as flowers and cherubs—that belie the heinous events to which they call attention. The bright colors and innocent figures invite viewers to take a closer look, whereas they might otherwise shy away in a reaction of distress. Her work is highly textural because of the technique she uses. She chanced upon it while preparing a group of schoolchildren for a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, and learning about the spiritual practices and “yarn paintings” of the Huichol Indians. At a distance, I’d never have guessed how she constructs the “portraits,” but upon stepping in to examine the details, I was amazed to see the painstaking labor involved in forming patches of color like brushstrokes of paint. Each work, which takes between 4 and 6 months, is composed of thousands of tiny cut pieces of string (most of which is vintage and originated in Europe) that Bernstein presses into a bed of wax on a flat piece of wood cut in a variety of shapes.
Bernstein memorializes horrific acts of violence and terror perpetrated not only during the Holocaust but also on children by religious authorities. The quote under the title of her show reveals her objective: Dwell on the past, lose an eye. Forget the past, lose both. It strikes me as a version of a statement attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. She says, “In general, I have long held the belief that the role of the artist is to reflect back truth to society.”
Descriptions accompany the pieces so we’re not left wondering exactly what they’re communicating, unless we know world history well and recognize the place names, faces, and dates.
“The Ponary Riflemen” and the Ypatingas Burys (special security force) in Lithuania executed more than 70,000 Jews, 10,000 Polish intellectuals, academics, and resistance fighters, and 2,000 Soviet POWs. Before being shot, the men, women, and children were forced to strip. Their bodies were buried in huge pits previously excavated by the Soviets to store fuel. The remains were burned, ground up, and mixed with sand to cover up the crime. Prior to World War II, Ponary (Paneriai) was a picturesque village and forestland outside of Vilnius. People enjoyed picnics, skiing, and other outdoor activities there. The enlarged wildflowers bordering “The Ponary Riflemen” are found in that area.
The information for “Vel d’Hiv” reports that at 4 am on July 16, 1942, the French police rounded up and arrested 13,152 Jews in Paris. They were told “to bring one blanket, one sweater, a pair of shoes and two shirts.” Some 6,000 were transported to a transit camp and on to Auschwitz the next day, while 7,000 remained at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a professional bicycle racing arena one block from the Eiffel Tower. During a period of 5 days, they remained there without water, food or sanitary facilities. Then the adults were removed, leaving behind children aged 16 and younger. More than 3,000 of them were sent via rail cattle cars to their death in Auschwitz, the youngest only 18 months old.
On the left in the triptych below is Oliver O’Grady from Stockton, California, who confessed to raping and molesting at least 25 children. He was arrested for possessing pornography of kids as young as 2 years old. Aware of O’Grady’s crimes since 1976, Bishop Roger Mahoney simply transferred him to a new parish after each report of his crimes. In the middle is Saint Athanasius, the 20th bishop of Alexandria, a 4th-century theologian considered both charismatic and highly intelligent. However, allegations were made against him for defiling an altar, rigging his own election, selling Church grain that had been meant to feed the poor for his own personal gain, and violence and murder to suppress dissent. On the right is Bishop Roger Vangheluwe. He admitted to abusing his nephews for 15 years, beginning when one of them was only 5 years old. Because the statute of limitations expired, he was never charged. Instead, he lives on a generous pension in West Flanders.
Although most of the pieces refer to barbaric acts, Bernstein points out that, in the midst of all the brutality, there are also glimmers of goodheartedness. “Lorenzo’s Primo” is an instance. Lorenzo Perrone was a modest Italian brickmason. At Auschwitz, he saved the life of Italian Jewish chemist and writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) by secretly and at great risk bringing him a piece of bread and soup daily for 5 months. After surviving the war, Levi found Perrone and attempted to extend him kindness in turn, but was unsuccessful in rescuing him from tuberculosis and alcoholism. Levi said, “His humanity was pure and uncontaminated. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I, myself, was a man.” Bernstein suggests that “in the face of great injustice, do what you can. Find your Primo.”
Bernstein also includes a piece that reminds us that it’s possible to live in harmony with other people, whatever their ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion. “Lamination” overlays traditional symbols of Islam and Judaism, recalling times when diverse communities lived safely with each other.
These two exhibits at Transmission Gallery, so different in approach, prompted lots of questions: How does the artist deal with working on disturbing images, details, remembrances? How do they live, day in and day out, with the feelings that cannot be called uplifting? Do they get depleted and need a breather before diving back in again? Does creating such work help to vent frustration in a constructive way, to express how devastating a situation was or is? Is the fact that these happenings must not be denied keep artists going, especially since, much to our dismay, negatives from the past seem to keep repeating themselves today?
Bernstein says that, after she immerses herself in research on a place, event, or person, “I’m a wreck. I’m in tears. But the minute I start pressing string into the wax, I start to heal myself after living with this horror. Then I can tell the story and share it without sobbing.”
Whether or not we’re attracted to artwork, whether we would want it in our home, seems irrelevant here. What seems more important about some art is that it elicits our empathy, stimulates our mind, even propels us into positive action. But what if artwork stirs us up in a way that makes us cringe and want to walk away because we feel helpless and ineffectual? Or what if it agitates us to the point that we explode in rage? And what if exposing gore and intensifying shock have the opposite effect? What if an artist’s sensitivity and sincere intentions inexplicably backfire?
After displaying photographs he took of dead birds filled with plastic, environmental photographer and activist Chris Jordan found that people responded to them with despondency. He told a documentary filmmaker, “It broke my heart because I wanted the images to be inspiring. It made them feel trauma and despair.” Jordan believes that our world needs a radical change and that an artist can bring a strong personal and emotional component to this effort. After the dispirited comments he received, he gradually worked through his own trauma about the devastation he’d witnessed and was able to come up with another philosophy to guide him, one that leads to hope rather than panic:
What if facing the dark realities of our world, instead of being an experience of pain, anxiety, overwhelm, and hopelessness, could be a doorway into a place of beauty, connectedness, and healing?
[to view his 11-minute TED talk: “Turning powerful stats into art”]
Questions and Comments:
Do you understand art as a powerful tool to express and elicit empathy? If so, how do you respond to disturbing or confrontational images?
Do shocking images jolt you out of complacency and into action or do they result in the opposite? Have we so overplayed “shock me if you can” that people have become inured —shut down and numb—to such images and no longer react? Is art that leaves you feeling calm and reflective rather than agitated more effective? Do you find beautiful images with an important message more inviting; do they speak to you more readily? Does either approach spur you into action?
Do you gain insights from art that references historical events?
Sylvie Beresford Todd, a character in Kate Atkinson’s novel A God in Ruins, comments, “The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not be the truth itself.” What does that mean to you?