How is the art community responding to the events of 2020?
Written by Pete Armitage and edited by Sarah Martin
It’s quite remarkable how public perception of existing power structures has metamorphosed over the last decade. It’s almost impossible to exactly put our finger on what has changed, but even a brief perusal of international news headlines illuminates the dramatic upheaval taking place, and the discontent of many in Europe and beyond.
2020 alone thus far has been extraordinary; we’re out of our comfort zone and looking for answers. An appraisal of recent events yields a realisation that we are being forced to adapt; impelled into transformation by destruction.
In light of the pandemonium, let us contemplate how the art community might respond to the public’s growing distrust in the establishment.
Let’s look at the press coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement.
White people have an absolute responsibility to educate and inform themselves on the struggles of People of Colour. By ignoring blatant social problems because it’s more comfortable to do so, the privileged directly disempower those who suffer from oppression. What the events of late have illuminated is our collective responsibility to galvanise change, and this can be achieved by means of artistic creation alongside outright activism and action.
Tragic events such as the murder of George Floyd reiterate and confirm previous speculations of endemic social injustice. To eradicate institutional racism, we need to understand and address the root causes. Here are some relevant psychological concepts:
Essentialism simply describes the notion that every entity has a certain set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. This manifests in racist thinking ‘as the presumption that visible differences of skin colour or physiognomy indicate something significant about other characteristics like intelligence or temperament.’4
Research has demonstrated a pattern of individuals favouring their in-group members over out-group members, sometimes resulting in discrimination of the out-group5.
Indeed, the pandemic is also evidence of deeply entrenched and antiquated value systems that only serve to disempower society and its individuals, where the mass cultivation of animals for food ends up killing us as well. It’s a broken system which ought to be abolished.
And herein lies a quibble - these are rather abstract ideas that are gaining traction in public sentiment, yet remain somehow extrinsic to popular discourse. Such notions can be made flesh via artistic creation, the community responding by transmuting the immaterial to material.
It’s the art community’s responsibility to crystallise and distill impressionistic perceptions into digestible beauty.
Thanks to art the discussion of feminist theory for example can no longer be relegated as eccentric conjecture. Think Barbara Kruger, Peaches and Kiki Smith - creators who have spearheaded equality in their expressions and captured and propagated intuitive distrust in society’s prevailing values.
Radicalism is once again earning a seat at the table of mainstream rhetoric, alongside its kindred spirit disenchantment. Artists help us to realise the virtue of questioning our fundamental values - so often neglected in our commodified milieu.
Indeed, evidence of the public sentiment of distrust of the establishment is very clear. Every other weekend in Berlin the city is closed down for one protest or another. Opinion polls reveal a worrying growth of far-right support - people are looking for alternatives to centrism, since it’s been proven not to work.
It’s almost like the Trump administration is the last dance of the ‘old world.’ Their glaring incompetence is a distillation of how baby boomer thinking has had its day. We’re at the zenith of abandonment.
To quote American artist David ‘Lebo’ Le Batard, ‘I think the role of the artist is, is to take whatever it is they believe in and put it out there so the public can see it.’
Let us consider some historical events and the way artistic expression has influenced attitudes and initiated collective transmutation.
For example the Dada artists1 of the post WWI era. In a period of overwhelming sorrow, the movement postulated a rejection of the predominant aesthetic standards of the time, as well as some of the broader axioms of capitalism; logic and reason. Instead, it favoured the practice of intuition, silliness and nonsense as balsams to the grief and disillusionment that characterised the post-war years.
In the words of the legendary Marcel Duchamp, ‘...to all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.’2
The legacy of Situationist International also comes to mind, the movement perfectly capturing public discontent with the advanced capitalist system in the 1960s. Proponents such as Asger Jorn created provocative pieces questioning our material addictions and arguably mobilising components of the greater countercultural movement that characterised the period in the west.
And within the realm of music let us not forget the plight of composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, whose classical pieces proved too ornate and subversive for Stalin’s oppressive soviet vision, as detailed in the infamous Zhdanov Doctrine and the associated On Muradeli's Opera The Great Friendship decree of 1948.
Stalin and his fellow cultural ideologists knew all too well the infective capacity of artistic expression in inciting revolutionary thinking among the proletariat.
What exceptional beauty we can glean from the notion of a non-vocal piece evoking dissent in the ears of establishment.
An interesting observation which somewhat articulates the assertion that art is a flowerbed of novel innovation, predicting future events in its content, is its perpetual alignment with counterculture. Rarely are there resonant instances of expression that align with the dominant social order of the day.
We take for granted that great art is usually positioned in a countercultural realm, before it becomes the dish of the day within a frame of conformist rhetoric.
In conclusion, local music scenes understand the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis by the establishment and to have firsthand experience of the resulting fallout it’s local music scenes. For this reason the discussion as to the art community’s response to public sentiment is deeply fascinating as herein lies forecasts of the future.
As artists let us embody the timeless adage, ‘be the change you want to see’.
WE MUST MAKE AN EFFORT TO CALL OUT AND FIGHT INJUSTICE.
- Phillips, Anne (2010) What’s wrong with essentialism? Distinktion: Scandinavian journal of social theory, 11 (1). pp. 47-60. ISSN 1600-910X DOI: 10.1080/1600910X.2010.9672755
- Abbink K, Harris D (2019) In-group favouritism and out-group discrimination in naturally occurring groups. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0221616. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221616