By Inge Klaps
Consider the 1960s. An unpopular war, the Civil Rights Movement, rise of American consumerism, and sexual revolution gave incredible oxygen to the art world. More and more diverse artists voiced these social anxieties at a time when a culture of sweeping artistic innovation was formed: experiments became movements (pop art, minimalism, conceptual art), new forms of expression were invented (performance art, land art, happenings) and photography was lifted into the artistic realm.
Fast forward to 2019. Political and economic polarization, social and environmental activism, and rising international tensions incite once again a moral urgency that increasingly refocuses art to politics. In 2017, superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist underscored this: “If there was ever a time that the world needed artists, it is now. We need their radical ideas, visions, and perspectives in society.” And this is exactly what is happening. Just as the 2018 mid-term elections culminated in historical voter turnout and candidate diversity, artists from New York to L.A. and everywhere in between create socially-engaged work, expanding the horizon of the artistic landscape. Just like the people, artists are ignited.
But before we go there, I hear you think: “Don’t we already have enough opinions?” and “Is there really a need for art when these ‘bigger’ issues are at stake?” The answer is a resounding yes. Art has the potential to make a visceral, more impactful, connection to social issues than any news headline does. This is not optimistic art speech but the actual subject of the emerging field of neuroaesthetics. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Nancy L. Etcoff, Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, explains the neurological processes behind the phrase ‘being moved by art’: “While the person’s focus is directed at a specific external stimulus (the artwork), the default mode network, which is normally active when attention is not directed at a stimulus, and consists of ‘mind wandering’ and involves thoughts about the self, memory, and future, is also activated. In other words, art arouses an extremely complex whole-brain response that brings into play many usually disparate aspects of the mind.”
The stimulation of more wholesome thought can be especially helpful today, given the extreme and unproductive reactionary spectrum where we find ourselves: from radical ‘wokeness’ to skeptical apathy. As politically engaged art is often highly research-based, it is ultimately informative about the social issues it exposes. It offers multifaceted perspectives and diversifies the viewer’s opinion past established categorical thinking. This fosters an environment for grounded, sensible conversation rather than angry, blind protest. Furthermore, imperative to its nature is the activist conviction that every viewer is worth informing because everyone has a vote and choice to consume, click, or like.
As such, it is heartening to see Nashville’s artists, gallerists and curators taking on this social role, exhibiting evocative work throughout the year. This is especially meaningful in a Southern state like Tennessee, where political polarization and some of the country’s biggest social challenges are greatly felt. What follows is a flashback to several exhibitions that responded in very diverse ways to issues central to American life today, pushing the extent of art’s communicative qualities in all directions.
A notable way to kick off 2019 was Hate is What We Need by Ward Schumaker at Zeitgeist Gallery (January 5th – February 23rd). Schumaker’s Trump Papers is a series of 37” x 25” pamphlets reporting on the status quo with news bites, numerical facts, and presidential quotes. If there was ever a case of ‘What you see is what you get,’ this is it. The artist does not elaborate on his work, literally letting the raw material speak for itself. This candid directness signifies how we are past the point of making statements. In order words: let’s talk less and do something.
Equally outspoken, The Rymer Gallery presented Disarmed (January 30th – March 23rd). This group exhibition with local and national artists explored the tensions surrounding guns, gun violence, and gun politics in our country. The exhibit also formed a backdrop for an extensive program of in-house events that encouraged community debate, a hands-on approach rarely seen in a for-profit gallery. One such event was the book launch of ‘Dying of Whiteness’ by Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl, Professor and Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. Through a series of interviews, Dr. Metzl reveals how right-wing backlash policies, including pro-gun laws, are detrimental to the people who support it. Bringing such a testimony to the gallery, The Rymer Gallery created an immediate experience that weaved together art and practice.
A darker, more disquieting form of social commentary was voiced by up-and-coming artist Ashley Doggett. Her September exhibit at David Lusk Gallery titled Kept Inside: His Vices unapologetically portrayed the painful truth of white supremacy and its legacy. Accepting the artist’s role as a historian, Doggett creates provocative and explicit imagery of historical slave narratives with chains, tears, and blood. Regardless of the aggressive nature of the subject matter, her imagery is not violent. You see the result of oppression: portraits of hurt but hauntingly composed subjects with titles such as ‘Disgraced’, ‘Abuse’, and ‘Beaten’. Connecting the past to the present, her figures are covered with a transparent substance, staining and weighing them down – an invisible hold that has not yet been completely released.
The Frist Art Museum presented socially engaged programs throughout the year. In the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, visitors enjoyed the escapist experience of Claudio Parmiggiani’s large installations. In the Conte Community Arts Gallery, Murals of North Nashville Now currently offers perspective on the social realities in North Nashville, a traditionally African American neighborhood. Two historical blockbusters, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing and Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s, drew parallels with contemporary politics. Conceived as a monographic exhibit, Politics of Seeingcovered Lange’s prolific career from her time as a portrait photographer in San Francisco to her documents of Japanese-American internment camps in the 1940s. However, while walking through the galleries, the viewer was easily drawn into a more holistic theme in which powerful narratives transcend their situational time and place. It was awe-inspiring to see analogy with today – the continuous flaws: wealth inequality, mistreatment of immigrants, racial discrimination. Perhaps, through our contemporary eyes and in a far less romantic way, Dorothea Lange’s photography answers the same question as Edward Steichen’s groundbreaking photography exhibition The Family of Man (1955): what is universal?
With Monsters & Myths, the Frist Art Museum brought to Nashville the most canonical art movement that responded to the immoral politics of early 20th-century Europe. A prolific generation of artists such as Dali, Masson, Miro, and Ernst visualized and processed the trauma of war, dictatorship, and fascist threat by escaping into the irrational. They aimed to overthrow these destructive false rationales by means of free association, dreams, and Freudian psychoanalytic theory. The ultimate goal of surrealism is to set people free of categorical thinking, and so it went on to become an international visual movement connected to political change. The final part of the exhibit was dedicated to the many artist-immigrants who found asylum in the U.S and who greatly influenced some of America’s darlings: Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Finally, now on view at 21c Museum Hotel through August 2020 is Fragile Figures: Beings and Time, an exhibition illuminating the range and complexity of human emotions while revealing intersections between vulnerability and power in contemporary portraiture. While the exhibit could be more focused when tackling such an ambitious theme, there is a wealth of effective work on display by politically-active artists from all over the globe. One such example is ‘The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk)’ by Titus Kaphar, a portrait series displaying the layered faces of incarcerated African-American men who all share the name of the artist’s father. They serve simultaneously as individual renderings, a community portrait, and a composite image of blurred identity – much like institutional bias obfuscates the real identities of these men. Equally enticing formal qualities are to be found in Pierre Gonnord’s photographs which mimic the chiaroscuro and classic portraiture pose used by Old Masters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt and El Greco. Gonnord’s subjects, however, are not the noble but the marginalized. At 21c, the artist presents homeless urban youth as pristine, undone from any category, and solely human. Last, ‘S.O.S. World’ by environmental activist Marco Veronese shows a skull superimposed with the map of a world surrounded by black silicon dots. Drawing attention to the human inflicted problem of petroleum production and how this affects the cycle of life, the artist urges a call for action.
It would be naïve to think these exhibitions will change policy or rectify social injustices. In fact, their results are not even really measurable. As they inform and galvanize us through explicit subject matter, community programs, emotional resonance, historical references or the formal artistic process, this work is of foremost importance because it contributes to the fostering of a new general attitude: a mindful and maybe even selfless one, where critical people are proactive in their immediate surroundings. It is about planting a seed in the belly of society rather than changing political discourse on top.
The restless zeitgeist of crucial political times is – once again – giving incredible oxygen to the art world. Like a tidal wave that leaves nothing untouched, it engages artists, institutions, audiences, art forms, and subjects of all kinds. Not New York, not L.A., but a peripheral art scene like Nashville is the ultimate proof of that. We should ask ourselves, do we live in a (art) historical moment? Are we on the pathway for experimentation we cannot yet envision? Will the current decade be described as a critical one in the same way we think of the 1960s today?
Inge Klaps was born and raised in Belgium and earned an MA in Art History at KU Leuven. Since 2015, she lives and works in Nashville.