We have a lot of social unrest and inequity in the world today; no one can deny that. People on all sides are calling for more conversation on the topic, whether they really mean it or not. But perhaps what we need is some more art in the mix. Art is unique in how it poses a lot of questions, but rarely answers any. It’s provocative in the sense of stirring things up. Essentially, it irritates the situation.
Too often we look at complex issues through simplified lenses. Social transgressions are long in tradition and far from being rectified. Sometimes the best part about art is that it makes things hard to define—symbolizing the complexity of real life. Instead of quick answers from prognosticators on TV, we need some deep thought and a sense of empathy on all sides.
Maya Lin is a great artist to look to in these situations. You already know her work. She designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. At the time of its opening, it stirred a lot of controversy. But now, it’s highly coveted. It posed some really deep questions we didn’t want to face at the time.
Edgar Heap of Birds is a Native American artist whose work spans thirty years. His public art works bring up the conversation of land usage and historical ownership.
Alredo Jaar is another artist who constantly questions how we view scenarios. Below of an excerpt of an article I wrote on him for ArtPulse Magazine. It deals with one of the most moving photographs of all time. As he shows, things are not always as they seem. The full article can be viewed here.
“…The photographer of focus in The Sound of Silence is South African Kevin Carter. In 1993, while covering the famine in Sudan, he snapped a picture that is hard to forget. A frail Sudanese toddler, appearing malnourished, is hunched over resting on her elbows. The child’s head is lowered as though nodding to sleep. Behind the child lurks a large, hooded vulture. It is just the two of them in the photo. The conclusion is easy to draw. It’s hard to look at, and it is hard to look away from it. The image won Carter a Pulitzer Prize. But after publication in the New York Times, it set off an avalanche of responses from readers concerned for the little girl. They wanted to know the plight of the child and why the self-serving photographer hadn’t helped the child instead of snapping a photo. Three months after winning his award, Carter committed suicide.
Like Shadows, the work is situated in a rectangular room (more like a big freestanding box), built by the artist. The side opposite the entrance is a brightly illuminated solid wall of white light. The entrance on the other side leads to a dark inner area where an eight-minute video displays white text highlighting moments in the life of the photographer.
To summarize: Carter was a pharmacy school dropout conscripted into the South African Defense Forces. He hated being in the service. At one time, he shielded a black waiter against soldiers and was subsequently beaten. He left the army, came back to the army and eventually began working in a camera repair shop. From there, he drifted into photojournalism, where he became known for exposing apartheid and taking risks. At the time of the photo in The Sound of Silence, Carter was sent to cover the famine in Sudan. After shooting dozens of images, he found the girl making her way to a feeding center. Once the vulture landed, he waited for the best photo.[i]
At this point the text stops and for a few short seconds the photo shows on the wall and then goes away as a flash of light fills the room. It’s a brief time in the span of the overall video. The photo in comparison to Carter’s life was much shorter. Following the image, more text reveals the remainder of the story, including how Carter had shooed the vulture from the child.
Indeed, Jaar knows what he’s doing. He is a seasoned veteran of the art world. He’s exhibited countless times and been showcased in some of the most prominent museums throughout the world. He’s a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow. He’s a professional, and he knows how to work an image. As Roberta Smith wrote in her review of The Sound of Silence, “In the end Mr. Jaar does exploit a sensational story, and in shaping it, he manipulates us. Except for its savvy presentation, the piece is like shooting fish in a barrel.”[ii] But as she also noted, he’s accomplishing more than just that. His works are seamlessly crafted with meticulous attention to detail. In doing so, they appear a little sterile in their presentation, almost corporate looking. But what he sometimes loses in grittiness, he makes up for in clarity and focus. Rarely do you notice the level of craft in his work (it’s never an issue). Instead, you take notice of the concept he’s expressing…”
[ii] Roberta Smith, “One Image of Agony Resonates in Two Lives,” The New York Times, April 14, 2009, accessed April 11, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/arts/design/15jaar.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.