Art in an Emergency
Art in an emergency is the subtitle of Olivia Laing's new book 'Funny Weather'. And aren't we in one now? The book was discussed in the book section of our weekend newspaper, where the published fragment, a quote from David Wojnarowicz in the context of AIDS, ‘if silence equals death, then art equals language equals life,’ caught my eye. I see my painting as communication, a visual language. I always struggle with words if I have to write a statement and let that be what’s important for artists these days, being able to talk/write about their practice, as if critics and curators have all forgotten Hopper ('if I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint'). In my statement here I wrote 'I rage against injustices with my brushes. I believe that activist art can foster dialogue, that it can make us aware, that it can empower us as individuals. I suppose that I aim to provide a visual social critique, to render a record of what is going on, believing that art can expose what it means exactly to be a fleshed human being in the world today.'
Laing is adamant about the political, activist role art can play in people’s lives. How? Because `paintings can conjure feeling,’ artworks that take you deeply into the reality of another person’s life are offering itself to the viewer’s emphatic capabilities. Laing thus believes in art as a creative, active and generous cultural force through which thinking happens and through which social justice can happen. Ethics arise from that, justice arises from that. Hence art is essential in civilisation. She talks about ‘reparative reading’ (of a work of art, literature or visual art), where at the core of the reparative lies the desire, the motivation, the drive to make something that ‘gives’ to somebody else that you don’t know and that you’re not going to meet. Here she refers to artist David Wojnarowicz again, who said ‘I want to make something that speaks to someone who feels like I do. I want to makes something that communicates after I’m gone.’ In a world that doesn’t nourish or sustain you, art can function as a collage of nourishment. That’s why art is essential in a culture for everyone to have access to, and it's a stringent point now that culture is suffering badly during the covid crisis everywhere.
The book isn’t available in my country (yet), but I’ll be getting a copy as soon as it does. I feel Laing is giving me the words to speak about my art, which I consider to be socially engaged for exactly the reasons she mentions. Maybe I am less optimistic as to the impact art can have for change, but I certainly agree that it has the potential, the (latent) force to touch people, to open the viewer’s world to other people’s experiences, their suffering, their issues, to other ways of thinking, to other ways of being in the world with each other.
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