Do what you will with me. Jerome Washington, ink drawing, prisoner at Graterford Prison.
Artist as advocate
Sometimes, titles are proclamations. The 1984 exhibition entitled, Disdain for False Authorities, presenting Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) graduates Bo Bartlett, Vincent Desiderio, Richard Ranck, Tom Sarrantonio, and Robert Simon, is one. The title suggests an enigmatic manifesto declaring not only contempt for falsehood but by making falsehood a possibility in authority, holds any and all authority accountable to a standard of truth. Through an even subtler move, the proclamation creates a power shift transferring authority back to those governed – often powerless – motivating them off their knees to an independent civil right for both judging and choosing authority.
The exhibition, affecting both aesthetic and social ramifications upon the Philadelphia community, had particular resonance for me. At the time, I was in transition from social work to art with the most recent job in protective services working with Philadelphia families whose children had been physically, psychologically or sexually abused. It was an extreme job involving children both murdered and raped, demanding that I assess the situation, and then work intensely with the family should the child remain in the house. With some families, the assessments were obvious. A mother, whose five children drowned as babies in five earlier but separate, mysterious bathing episodes and then demonstrated to me how she disciplines her latest baby by yanking his blond hair until he cries, will in all likelihood, have another drowned baby. At other times, the situation wasn’t so clear. In my last family court hearing, I wasn’t sure about the safety of the child, and began my assessment hesitantly with, “Well…” Instead of allowing me to continue, the judge cut me off stating, “Good, then I will dismiss the case.” His returning glare told me he knew this was not my conclusion but more shockingly, it told me he was more concerned with how I spoke in his courtroom than the safety of a child. Authority reveals its falsehood through the injustice it imposes. I enrolled as a full time art student at PAFA and left social work behind me.
As most people in the PAFA community know, the five artists in the Disdain exhibition continued working as artists with certain independence. Recognizing the fortune of this, Bo Bartlett helped facilitate the development of the Bo Bartlett Center, a learning and exhibition center at the Columbus State University in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Outreach is a strong component of this center with six planned art programs involving the homeless, school age children, prisons, a pscyh program for art therapy, art for veterans with post stress trauma, and a program for the disabled.
More recently, Bo made another proclamation. This time, so subtle it could go unnoticed. In an interview with James McElhinney for the American Arts Quarterly, Bo states, “I can be in my studio all day, but in the morning for a couple of hours I can go work with the homeless, or with kids, or prisoners, or the disabled in the psych programs.” A seemingly simple statement and yet, is not. At a time when artists are challenged to stop making art in the tradition of studio art and are often encouraged to create “social practice art” in using causes, communities, institutions and people as elements of a participatory art, Bo’s statement is a re-affirmation that artists live civic mindly in and out of the studio. In fact, his statement suggests a powerful structure for social activism in art by developing parallel but inter-supporting voices; thus, avoiding the potential problems arising from social practice arts.
Social practice art has become increasingly popular with many MFA programs and art grants. It was also a strong element in a meeting I recently attended for developing prison art programs within a college in-prison curriculum. I was asked to join because the director heard a talk I gave at Vanderbilt University on prison art education. Although my talk impressed him – developing an authority of seeing through the practice of drawing from life – any PAFA alum in the audience would have been less impressed hearing it as common experience. In the curriculum meeting, I re-iterated the impact of seeing with authority developed from drawing from life, but was interrupted by a recent MFA graduate who suggested Duchamp would disagree and then continued to talk about the prison in typical graduate school jargon; not speaking of the prison as a place where individuals lived and existed, but addressing it as the “space;” adding words as “discourse,” “criticality,” “juxtaposed,” “liminal,” and so on. I was somewhat surprised having been asked to the meeting because the previous teachers who taught the prisoners were also recent MFA graduates of conceptual art. These previous teachers apparently insulted the prisoners with similar art-speak ignoring the prisoners’ wish to learn how to draw. I didn’t continue with the project and am not aware of the outcome. Prisoners on prison turf can be a hardy group, used to dealing with false authority and if necessary, can protect themselves from jargon-slinging artists intent on conceptually capturing them into a social practice art project. It is when hope of freedom or a better life is drawn into the conversation that prisoners are reduced to defenselessness.
The artist Gregory Sale did create a social art exhibition involving prisoners. “It’s more than black and white” was a three-month residency exhibition and installation at the Arizona State University Art Museum for the purpose of exploring “process-oriented context by literally bringing the studio into the museum.” The context explored was incarceration and the local notorious Tent City Prison headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Prisoners in handcuffs were transferred from the prison to the museum so they could paint black and white stripes on the museum walls as a way of including them into the dialogue. The museum served as a venue for visual exhibitions, multimedia performances and lectures. Prisoner art was not included into the discourse, but prisoners and the public were invited to write or draw upon the now painted striped museum walls. The public was taken on tours to the prison. This project was later part of a PAFA exhibition, entitled “here,” where Gregory Sale gave a lecture on his art exhibition.
I can’t help but wonder what issues arise from social practice defined as art.
As Duchamp demonstrated, art is a funny thing. An ordinary object can be re-located and redefined as “art” by an artist and through that redefinition, gain a different, higher value. So does it follow when a public forum of discussions, lectures and multi-media presentations – what in ordinary circumstances is referred to as a “conference” – is labeled as art and presented as such in a museum, that the status of the conference increases? Does it suggest a cloak of mystique that only an artist could create this conference, thus developing a strange exclusivity?
But art ensures its position by taking one step further than increased status. We all know that art is not expected to follow rules. It can’t. Art would be reduced to a formula, cancelling out the elements of creativity – elements bringing forth a degree of something new. And because it doesn’t follow external rules, art becomes an interesting state of creative sovereignty; self-governing, self-regulating and self-expressing. In this sovereign state, art is free to exist without accountability to anyone or anything. Of course, this is exciting. For artists creating art out of non-breathing, non-living objects, it isn’t an issue. However, for social practice artists whose work insists on involving humans and living creatures in social activism, questions of accountability arise.
Every public advocate has a code of responsibility clearly identifying who/what he or she is responsible. In the case of lawyers, social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers, their ultimate responsibility is to their client, patient, or student; taking an oath clarifying that responsibility and what happens if the oath is violated. When artists assume the advocate role of social change as an element of their art, to whom/what are they ultimately responsible: the general public; the art; the prisoners who, presumably, hope to see their lives altered by this exhibition; the reforms to a harsh prison (six years after the exhibition, Tent City Prison remains one of the worst prisons in US with Sheriff Arpaio running it as he always has); the museum; or the conceptualization defining the exhibition which may be more important than all the participants? How are rules of responsibility decided upon, enforced, and then reconciled with artistic freedom of expression?
In addition, what structure is there for protecting vulnerable groups from artists who may exploit these groups as a means to artistic success and money; particularly in lieu of the increasing museums exhibitions and grant money for social practice arts. Is the conceptualized theory taught in MFA programs adequate in giving artists in-the-field people skills to understand and navigate the very real interpersonal and systemic dynamics of social responsibility?
If the artist truly believes in social change why diffuse that goal with the label of art, exhibiting it in a museum, complicating it with a conflict of interest?
Hiding in plain sight – the artist’s strengths as an advocate
Most of the Philadelphia art community knows PAFA graduate, James Brantley, has been painting for many years. What may be less known is that he also spent years teaching at the Youth Study Center, a center for juvenile offenders, which he refers to in his bio as public service. This division between teaching and art suggests integrity in James’ understanding of responsibility; students are the primary responsibility while teaching, art is when painting. With this integrity, I can’t imagine James ever making a social practice exhibition out of his students by which they are transported to a museum in handcuffs. Instead, each aspect of his life affects the other; painting affects teaching and vice versa – falling mysteriously as a whole into visual metaphor of an entire living, thus allowing James’ paintings to resonate with compassion and empathy.
The word Bo uses for the Bo Bartlett Center’s various teaching programs is outreach. Reach is a strong word suggesting desire, touch, extending beyond the self to an indeterminable point that will be known through mutual understanding with another, a body of water with a surface not accepting the authority of a permanent mark – always moving and fluid. Bo seems to suggest this fluidity when he states in the interview for American Arts Quarterly that teaching a homeless person suddenly activates a participation in a different community that may have been previously unseen; social responsibility setting off chain reactions in many directions.
Teaching, and particularly teaching art which is more show-me than theory, has the potential for being less laden with value. It offers an experience of one person sharing skills and expertise with another person; sharing being the operational word rather than stating a specific right or wrong way. Less value-laden because teaching art does not imply a problem to be changed. This is the burden of social change activism. With its constant need to identify problems, social activism creates a power hierarchy between those changing the problems and those having the problem; between those who know best and those who do not, and so on. By not taking problem-identification as its point of origin, teaching art can avoid that power structure and become egalitarian. This is particularly so when it is understood that once the skills are acquired, the person can do whatever they want with those skills – like teaching a person to ride a bike with the knowledge that the rider can, ultimately, ride that bike anywhere.
Teaching art is not without its own peculiar values, thinking of Arthur DeCosta’s admonishment in life painting class, “Treacy Anne, you have just committed the greatest sin in the entire world.” Coming just from social work, I hear this as a heavy indictment and am relieved to hear that my greatest offense is modeling the nude in violet. When I repeat this story to prisoners in painting class, I imagine them getting comfort from the knowledge that someone else committed an offense far worse than they ever did. And in fact they do, because they experience acutely how contextual values define crime or sin. Likewise, Mr. DeCosta knows that if, with the skills he has given, I end up in the neighborhood of the Expressionists, so be it.
What I learned at PAFA is the phenomenology of seeing – the first person description of the basic structure of a given. Translated, this means in Jan Baltzel‘s still life class, I discover the basic structures of seeing are not the flower, vase, or cup; these are the given. Instead, the basic structures are light and shadow, near and far, textured and smooth; the various visual phenomena turning the world into fluid relationships. Likewise, in Bruce Samuelson’s class I discovered the changing phenomenal relationships when the given is a live model, thus providing the means to make seeing a more nonjudgmental experience.
The biggest discovery of art school, however, was the realization that until then, I was seeing the world through a conceptual filter of rules defining objects of the world. Accepting these rules made it unnecessary to actually look at the world if, in fact, I ever even notice I wasn’t looking at the world. Consequently, art school became reclaiming independent visual authority.
Strange things happened when I teach prisoners to draw from life using skills learned at PAFA. At first, the guards are concerned with the individualistic style of teaching art; instead, wanting a one-size-fits-all approach. They wonder why the prisoners can’t draw from photographs instead of the still life materials I bring. Then, the guards are concerned with prisoners drawing from life, seeing this drawing as tantamount to developing an escape plan. It was when the guards threw away all my students’ drawings (destroying drawings from life; not drawings of the smiling big-bosom women prisoners copied from Playboy magazines) that I understood how totally subversive is PAFA’s curriculum – the very anti-authoritarianism of asking people to see the world on their own.
Prison yard light poles marking time, James Bennett, prisoner at Five Points Prison
But an artist doesn’t stop at independent seeing. This independence becomes the basis of crafting visual metaphor, the strength of which is suggested by the 20th century philosopher, Georg Gadamer, who states, “A stunted tree in itself does not convey misery, but a drawing of that tree can.” The power of an artist is precisely this visual metaphor rooted in studio practice (be it room, field or street), crafted through tools learned from a school like PAFA that, ultimately, leaves the rhetoric of theory to others. Joseph Campbell tells a story of an inter-religious conference of both Western and Eastern religions. A Western theologian asks a Buddhist monk, “What is the theology of Buddhism?” What is the theory behind it? The Buddhist monk thinks for a couple of seconds and then answers, “We don’t have a theology. We dance.”
Art has been asked to defend itself for almost 2400 years; ever since Socrates degraded the artists as copyists. More recently, traditional arts of painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and the making of visual things have been challenged as superfluous. Perhaps artists, feeling the need to demonstrate social concerns, have appropriated social work, social science, and social philosophy to justify their existence. But art has always been strong in encompassing the elements of living – pain, happiness, sorrow, misery, joy, injustice; embracing life through the mysterious dimension of visual metaphor and creating a place where the soul can make sense of, but cannot be destroyed by those elements. What false authority dares to say there is no social responsibility in that?
For additional thoughts on art and social activism posted in the Broad Street Review, see Making art out of other people’s problems