Sculptures made with found objects can often be encountered in art museums around the world. There’s something really satisfying about literally turning people’s trash into art. Sue Webster and Tim Noble, however, have taken a different spin on found-object sculptures. While their sculptures—made from trash, dead animals, and discarded wood—are beautiful and interesting, what’s particularly cool about these sculptures are the shadows they cast on the wall behind them. These shadows are created using a spotlight that is carefully pointed so that it creates a precise shadow. Webster and Noble place every piece of debris deliberately and precisely, considering its distance from the wall, and its angle with the spotlight. Not only do these shadow sculptures “redefines how abstract forms can transform into figurative ones,” but they also seem to challenge the centrality of material goods in our world. By creating the shadow of human forms out of the very things that humans discard on a daily basis, Webster and Noble seem to suggest that, for lack of a better phrase, we are what we throw away.
In an essay for The Globe and Mail, novelist Russell Smith discusses the plight of artists in our internet-driven world. He argues that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet does not actually level the playing field when it comes to the popularity of art. Instead, he argues, the “blockbuster artistic product is dominating cultural consumption as at no other time in history.” What he means by this is that instead of the Internet allowing for the growth of small communities that value a variety of genres and and resulting in a “diverse cultural world in which the lesbian vampire novel would be just as widely discussed as the Prairie short story and the memoir in tweets,” the entertainment industry funnels their money into guaranteed hits. While I think in some ways Smith may be right, as can be seen by the millions of dollars spent on Blockbuster movies and the continuing lack of indie movies in mainstream cinemas, I think that Smith slightly underestimates the power of Internet communities. He laments the loss of TV shows and radio broadcasts that focus on books. He misses going on book tours. But instead of TV shows, we have blogs. We have twitter feeds. We have tumblr posts. We have podcasts. We have YouTube videos. We have Facebook, and email, and online newspapers, and vlogs, and online polls, and websites. While perhaps the Internet world looks different than the one Smith is used to, it doesn’t mean that this new world hasn’t opened doors or leveled the playing field in any way. Smith’s main concern, clearly, is money. What he is really concerned about is that unless you are a blockbuster artists, you aren’t making any money. Clearly that is an important issue that needs to be addressed. But I think that in many ways the Internet has created opportunities for new artists to get noticed in a way that they never could before. One of the benefits of the Internet is that there are very few barriers to access. Anyone with a public library, or coffee-shop, or internet-cafe nearby can have access to the Internet. (Of course this is not universal access, but I would argue that it is in many ways more accessible than television,radio, or even print media.) This has opened doors for artists everywhere to be noticed. The Internet has created “niche markets,” as Smith calls them. Anyone who has ever spent time on Tumblr, for example, can tell you that there are entire blogs devoted to books, or comics, or movies, or paintings that you have never heard of and may never want to experience. There are entire Internet communities built around particular kinds of art, and the Internet is an infinite collection of these communities. These Internet communities open doors for new artists, not close them.
Vanity Fair recently published a list of the “Six Greatest Living Artists.” This list was created after surveying 100 “art-worthies”—artists, professors, and curators. Gerhard Richter was at the top of the list. Followed by Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, and Ellsworth Kelly, respectively. Mark Stevens, a contributor to Vanity Fair, uses this list to create a “portrait of the art world.” He examines and explores what the selection of these artists means about our modern taste in art. While he is successful in discovering similarities between the artists and ultimately arguing that all artists share a focus on the “I,” his article, and this list, illuminates other characteristics of the art world. First of all, only one woman artist made it into the top six, and she is the youngest of the six. This suggests that historical barriers to women-artists are still only beginning to be dismantled, and that there still seems to be a trend of favoring male artists. While Stevens acknowledges the lack of women in his list, he does not acknowledge the lack of racial diversity. All six artists are white. Not only is the mere lack of racial diversity striking, and evidence for the remaining presence of exclusionary barriers in the art wold, but the fact that there is no acknowledgement of this fact is further evidence that we are farther away from breaking down these barriers than we should be. Stevens creates a portrait of art society, yes, but perhaps not in the way he was intending. Stevens creates a portrait of an exclusionary and insular society that puts old white men up on pedestals and barely even acknowledges that there are people being excluded.
As we have seen, art can do a lot of things. Art can help us think about things in different ways, it can delve deeply into the lives of people, it can make us feel intense sadness or anger. Art can call us to action. But art can also do something else, something that we enjoy very much but don’t always think about. Art can make us laugh. Paul Astor, in a interview in the Atlantic, describes one of his favorite passages of Samuel Beckett’s work and argues that laughter is essential to writing. Astor claims that laughter, and the power that literature has to make us laugh, has a cathartic, healing effect. He claims that Beckett ”worked on the pages of the-never-quite-finished Watt at night. He said he wrote the book to keep himself from going insane.” Laughter had a cathartic effect for Beckett, helping him to survive the German occupation during WWII. But it also has a cathartic effect on the readers. Astor claims that literature, even serious literature, should have comedic moments because it’s “the way we’re built as human beings, and often when we’re in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.”
Eddy De Azevedo collects trash and discarded objects on his walks with his dog. He then turns these into colorful art pieces. De Azevedo’s pieces are beautiful and bright, but they also bring to light the amount of pollution in the oceans. His works cover “20 kilometers of wandered beach and hundreds of pieces of debris. More than 600 lighters, 1000 bottle caps, 200 fishermen gloves, and 2000 plastic bottles make up some of his materials for these works.” De Azevedo impressively creates beauty from everyday objects, but also questions the sheer amount of waste that humans create and the way that this negatively impacts our environment.
We have seen a few different cases of street art, and it seems to be a particularly powerful way to bring a message directly to everyday people. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an illustrator/painter based in Brooklyn, uses street art in order to talk about the way that women are perceived and treated. Fazlalizadeh draws portraits of women and then accompanies them with captions that directly speak to offenders of harassment.This use of street art is particularly powerful in this case because it is addressing street-based harassment, therefore speaks directly to the public it references. Stop Telling Women To Smile ”takes women’s voices, and faces, and puts them in the street – creating a bold presence for women in an environment where they are so often made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.” Fazlalizadeh’s work creates a safer space for women, in a space that is so often unsafe, and creates a space where women can question and challenge the harassment that often seems commonplace. It creates a space where women can stand together in the face of harassment.
“Warpaint,” a collage of self-portraits created by Coco Layne, has been a hot topic in the Internet world these days. From Facebook, and Twitter, to Tumblr and Buzzfeed, it seems like a large portion of the Internet is discussing this series of photos that challenge conceptions of gender expression. In this piece, Layne particularly wants to clarify the distinction between gender presentation and gender identity, as well as the fact that this is a reflection of her own personal experience and not meant to represent the experience of all queer people everywhere. An article from the Huffington Post quotes Layne who claims she “ never felt like I was wearing a disguise at any time [throughout the project]. Although my physical appearance may fluctuate, there’s never any behavioral shift with me. ‘Warpaint’ comes from the perspective of a cisgendered queer woman of color, so it reflects my own unique experience and isn’t meant to speak for other queer people, although our experiences may intersect in some ways.” Furthermore, she claims “it’s important to open up this conversation about gender presentation because its often confused and read as gender identity…Gender presentation is not about sexual orientation at all! Playing around with gender expression is strictly an avenue to explore my identity as a queer person not my sexual identity.” While of course she does not speak for all queer people everywhere, it is clear from the popularity of this piece that many people identify with Layne’s experiences and appreciate that Layne is willing to explore something, in such a public forum, that is so difficult to talk about.