Monday, November 9, 2009

ART AND ACTIVISM: With or Without Food

Journalist Kevin Carter (born South Africa, 1961) took this picture of a starving child,attended by a vulture, in Sudan, 1993. The image brought Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for photography, April 1994. In July of that year, Mr. Carter committed suicide.

Post-modern artists 1960-1990s, often struggled to deconstruct the art system, including the museums, and connoisseurship, but this has not been their only political target.
This image was incorporated into a multi-media art installation by artist Alfredo Jaar, (born Chile, 1956) entitled, "The Songs of Silence," 2006.
He asks, "How can art effect political change?"a question entertained by many of his predecessors such as Moholy-Nagy and Aby Warburg and, of course, Nietzsche.

We already know how political change can effect art (viz Stalin, Hitler and U.S. senators Joe McCarthy and Jesse Helms). Postmodernism is underscored with a concern for presence, often referred to as the absent presence, and the reconciliation of opposites. In the photo, above, the strength lies in what is missing and between the circumstances and forces that have caused the
child's dilemma.

1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon, as protest against the violence in his country. On November 2, 1965, a devout young Quaker, Norman Morrison, made his testimony against that war in self-immolation near the Pentagon in Washington,DC.

Historically, Quaker testimony includes an empathetic
decision to take the place of the persecuted or join them in their suffering, and typically this has been prison, persecution, and even exile. Mr.Carter's death suggests a similar approach to human suffering but also a cry of helplessness in the face of inhumane economic and political strife.

Will his photograph effect political change in Sudan?

Consider 4 artists from the Civil War in Spain, 1936-39:

Federico Garacia Lorca (Spain, 1898-1936) poet and dramatist, assassinated by Loyalists (Fascist) August 19, 1936. Long a colleague of Surrealist avant-garde artists like Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, and an outspoken liberal, he argued that "Great art depends on a a vivid awareness of death, connections with a nation's soil, and an acknowledgement of the limitations of reason."

The recent film, "Little Ashes," (directed by Paul Morrison) give us as good picture about the inter-related lives of the three avant-garde artists, Dali, Bunuel and Garcia-Lorca.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
On April 26, 1937, bombing planes from the Germany Luftwaffe's Condor Legion and Italy's Aviaziona Legionaria carried out the first aerial attack on a civilian population in the Basque town of Guernica. The attack was staged for Monday, a market day, when larger than usual numbers would be gathered in the town. Estimates show that about 1600 people were killed. Hitler thought it a fine opportunity to demonstrate the concept of blitzkrieg and Picasso responded with the painting, below.

Salvador Dali, The Sublime Moment, 1938
The painting is really less puzzling than one thinks at first glance.

By 1938, the Civil War between the right-wing fascist Loyalists and Republican armies (allied in some ways with the USSR) had all but destroyed Spain . The land and its people suffered enormously. Of course, the economy was in ruins, not to return to pre-war levels until 1951. And for decades, a deep split remained between people loyal to one side or the other. Ernest Hemingway describes some of the action in his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

So,Dali's "landscape" is barren and his foreground, a still life of sorts, reflects the prevailing conditions. The church, depicted here as a fish, has been cast aside. Communication (the telephone) is strained, filled with resentment and suspicion. A razor blade suggests a means to suicide. A lone snail feels comfortable, searching a distorted, angry spoon. And two, possibly three fried eggs lie forgotten.

In the history of art, the term"moment" is much discussed, be it visionary, crucial, inspired or sublime, as a victorious point of clarity and creativity.. Surely, Dali's title is purposely cynical and ironic.

Robert Motherwell (Aberdeen, WA, 1915-1991) Elegy to the Spanish Republic No 70, 1961
Motherwell, among America's strongest abstract-expressionists, presents this canvas, which he said was inspired by the events of the Civil War and by the writing of Garcia-Lorca and Marxian art and cultural critic, Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978).

The colors are white and black, radiance and mourning, their entanglement as a metaphor for the experience of living.

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