In April 2012, Jacqueline Traides and Oliver Cronk performed a shocking piece in the window of Lush Cosmetics’ on Regent Street in London. Parts of this piece can be seen in the video above, where Traides performs as a “test subject” who undergoes torturous procedures at the hands of a “lab technician” (Cronk). This piece was part of Lush’s Fighting Animal Testing campaign, and its shocking nature really seemed to convince people to sign the petition to end cosmetics testing on animals. It is not often that we see artists, especially performance artists, working directly with specific social justice campaigns. Because of this, it is very hard to miss the message of the piece. While, like most performance art, the piece is nuanced, its hard to misunderstand the message when there are people standing with clipboards ready to have you sign their petition. In some ways this seems to make the piece more effective in accomplishing its purpose, but it also seems to somewhat diminish the aesthetic effect of the piece. Perhaps Traides, Cronk, and the Lush campaign are paving the way for a more precise connection between social justice and art, one that is obvious and straightforward, but what will that mean for the aesthetic value of the art that is created?
Cultural appropriation is something that I haven’t discussed a lot on this blog, but something that is constantly being discussed in the art world and in popular media (think Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) Essentially, cultural appropriation is the “taking of something produced by members of one culture by members of another” (Young 136). In musical works this often comes in the form of “content appropriation”—where the “cultural products” (such as musical forms, or way of dancing) are borrowed by the cultural outsiders. However, cultural appropriation can also be “subject appropriation”—where the cultural outsider makes the lives of the insiders the subject of their painting/story/film (136). This second kind of cultural appropriation is the one Jesse Hassenger touches on in his article “Can Movie Stars Play Authentic Blue-Collar Characters?” While this question is the title of the article, Hassenger does not really address it, focusing instead on reviewing three different movies. (As he is a movie critic, this is not surprising.) But his question makes me think about the kinds of cultural appropriation that are not usually addressed by the media. While there are many differences between the cultural appropriation in Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance and the cultural appropriation in Out of the Furnace (one of the movies Hassenger reviews), the main difference seems to be the kind of culture they are borrowing from. Miley Cyrus’s appropriation is distinct because of its racial component, while Casey Affleck and Christian Bale’s performance in Out of the Furnace is distinct because of the class differences between the actors and the people they are portraying. However, because both Affleck and Bale are actors, the line between authentic and in-authentic performance seems to be shakier than in Cyrus’s case. Acting is a medium that hinges on the ability to perform as someone distinct from yourself, so theoretically an actor should be able to authentically perform as anyone regardless of their culture. On the other hand, if either Affleck or Bale were performing in blackface cries of “inappropriate cultural appropriation!” would echo throughout media-land. (These cries, of course, would be completely justified, as blackface perpetuates harmful and historically damaging stereotypes about African Americans and is profoundly offensive to many people.) It seems clear that our culture makes a distinction between cultural appropriation that involves race and cultural appropriation that involves class, but is this an important distinction to make? By posing the question, Hassenger seems to think so, or at least he seems to think that we should be paying attention to cultural appropriation that involves class. But he also doesn’t really attempt to answer his own question, so maybe he doesn’t think it is worth answering? Cultural appropriation is an inherent part of our art-world, and is taking place in a variety of mediums in a variety of ways, and in itself, cultural appropriation is not morally wrong. However, whenever cultures mix, especially when there is already a hierarchical or even imperilalistic relationship between these cultures, it is easy to end up in morally ambiguous territory. Therefore, I believe it is important to consider the moral implications of all cases of cultural appropriation. Whether or not these moral implications help or hinder your enjoyment of the art, however, is completely up to you.
Man Bartlett, a “multidisciplinary” artist in New York takes an interesting approach to art in the age of the Internet. In a previous post, I discussed the opportunities the Internet has provided for artists to make a name for themselves, but another great thing about the Internet is the opportunity it provides for the creation and melding of new artistic mediums. Bartlett has stepped outside of the realm of traditional artworks and uses the Internet, and our huge variety of social media, to create dynamic and challenging artwork. What I think is most challenging about Bartlett’s work is the way that he challenges our traditional conceptions of “artwork” and the way that this in some ways dismantles a few of the barriers that come with our traditional conceptions of art. Not only does the use of the Internet make art more accessible, appealing and approachable to the the Internet-savvy generation, but the way Bartlett blurs the “line between art and everyday life” makes art even broader and more accessible to people from all walks of life.
In 2010, Wafaa Bilal had a message to share about the way Americans understood the Iraq war. He was responding to the way that the number of American casualties of the war was greatly publicized, but the much larger number of Iraqi casualties was largely ignored. In this 24-hour performance piece, Bilal literally transforms his body into a canvas, having his back tattooed with 5,000 red dots, representing American casualties, and 100,000 green dots that are only visible under ultraviolet light, representing Iraqi casualties. The painstaking process of being tattooed (which those of us who were not there at the time can get a glimpse of through this video,) the incessant buzzing of the tattoo machine, and the reading of the names of the dead, creates a moving, visceral, and uncomfortable sensation for the audience. Which is probably exactly what Bilal intends. This piece reminds us that that war effects all of us, and that war is written on our bodies. In the action of inscribing the names of the dead onto his own body, Bilal reminds us of the ways the dead are also inscribed onto our own bodies. “You feel that pain as much as I feel it,” he claims, according to this article from NPR. Bilal reminds us of the true cost of war, not only to the hundreds of thousands of people who die, and their families and loved ones, but also to those who are spectators to war, to those who insist war doesn’t effect them, to those who barely even know what is going on.
In the early 2000s, Playing For Change had a beautiful idea. Founded by Mark Johnson and and Whitney Kroenke, Playing For Change began with the idea that music “has the power to break down boundaries and to overcome distances between people.” This idea sparked Songs Around the World, in which street musicians around the world come together —through the use of recording and film equipment—to sing songs and spread their messages of joy and hope. Songs Around the World reminds us that, though we all come from many different cultures—and use different words, and eat different food, and wear different clothing—we can share a common language through music. This is a powerful message, and it also makes for wonderful music. At this point, Playing For Change has made many Songs Around the World videos, including the one above which features “musicians who have seen and overcome conflict and hatred with love and perseverance” (including Bono.) There is also this adorable video which features children from around the world. Recently, they have formed the Playing For Change Foundation, a non-profit which works to provide music education to children in communities all around the world. Playing For Change really seems to have understood the power of music, and the community it creates, and are using this power to create community across huge distances and giant barriers.
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.