Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ask Maddox

In a comment on the post on the Lucy Lippard lecture, someone remarked that she didn’t really answer the questions asked from the floor. I'd agree, although it's not that uncommon in a talk like this and it seemed exacerbated by the fact that it was hard to hear the questions. But one question asked that night seemed pretty easy to answer, so I might as well try.

A woman asked if activist art was the same as political art, whether activist art is always political and vice versa. After trying to determine what the questioner said, and then making a self-deprecating comment (refreshing but not that clarifying) about sometimes being sloppy by using these words interchangeably, I didn’t hear Lippard give what should have been a pretty easy answer. At least it seems that way to me, once you start from Lippard’s own formulation of public art, community art, activist art. Political art seems one more in the series. I would define it as art that addresses political or social issues, but does not necessarily seek to bring about social change, which would be the defining characteristic of activist art. Activist art would probably always be political, but political art would not necessarily be activist. Political art includes work that goes for of commentary but remains disengaged from solving the problems. With all of these types of art, different artists and different art works will involve combinations of the categories. Activist art might or might not involve the community. Community art can easily have no activist agenda. Political art might take a public form (e.g., politically-oriented stencil art in a public place).

It was interesting to think about examples of each form in Nashville. Public art we have plenty of – Musica is a pure example, no political content, purely the product of a single artist’s vision, no community involvement. Community art – the dragon in Fannie Mae Dees Park. Political art – say Abby Whisenant’s photos from antiwar protests in DC and a whole range of people who comment on social issues like sexism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, militarism. But now try to come up with a good example of activist art. Something that really seems engaged in changing policy or people’s behavior. That’s a lot harder. Greg Schlanger’s installation at the Tennessee Arts Commission on mountaintop removal mining fits, as did the work Shaun Slifer and Ally Reeves made before they graduated and left town. But I’m not sure there’s much else I can point to with confidence that fits within this framework.

Many of the artists Lippard showed as examples of activist art were working in a medium that you can call performance art – people doing things in public, the artist staging events and encounters. Well, there is very little performance art occurring in Nashville. Heather Spriggs-Thompson has done a number of performance pieces. Tom Thayer’s students did this puppet-based show that clearly had a performance dimension (as I recall the PR on it rejects the phrase performance art). Lippard made a pretty good case that activist art has to get out of the gallery, but maybe this lack of performance-based work does reflect the development level of the local community. We are just getting used to the idea of art in galleries that challenges us more, and artists may not yet have the sense that the gallery could be exhausted for some purposes.

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