The idea for BURNAWAY originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Please welcome Louise Shaw, this month’s curator of Our Front Porch, a series of guest reviews and topics for open discussion with you, our readers.
This summer in Creative Loafing, Felicia Feaster wrote about an exhibition at the CDC Museum, where I am curator. In her review of Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, organized by Art Works for Change in Oakland, California, she states: “[The exhibit] seems like a throwback—at least for Atlanta. It’s a show that recalls the days in the ’90s and early aughts when such issue-driven group shows popped up with regularity at venues like the Atlanta College of Art and Eyedrum.” A profound observation, indeed—particularly at a time when current events such as Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Atlanta are so deserving of artist commentaries.
Sadly, the issue-driven exhibit has been mostly missing-in-action from the current ecology of Atlanta’s cultural landscape. Considering the complex, tumultuous times we live in—whether viewed through a regional, national, or global lens—I continue to be perplexed by Atlanta’s arts institutions, arts organizers, and artists themselves: Why are we not engaged with the political, and why are we not more interested in using art to address profound social issues?
Art can be used as a catalyst for change and extended dialogue, but this is not a popular perspective these days in Atlanta. Thanks to the internet, it doesn’t take much work to learn that this is not the case elsewhere: by just subscribing to e-flux, anyone interested in contemporary art practices can be exposed daily to socially relevant projects, particularly emanating from outside the U.S. where perhaps the population is not as complacent as we are.
As one of the ghosts of Atlanta Art History Past, I can tell you it was not always the case. Back in the 1980s, Nexus Contemporary Art Center was just one of many local arts organizations that regularly explored issues of cultural identity, sexual politics, racism, and public history, among other topics. For example, Nexus gallery director Dan Talley curated a national show in 1989 titled The Subject is AIDS, which was one of the first exhibits mounted in the U.S. where the AIDS epidemic fueled the content of the art.
But let’s not be so presumptuous to think that the 1980s invented the contemporary art activist. The cultural revolution(s) of the 1960s and ’70s produced artists such as Hans Haacke, a visual critic of capitalism, and feminist artists such as Lynda Benglis and Nancy Spero, as well as empowered important collectives such as AFRICOBRA. Through the years, they have all been presented in Atlanta, often alongside our “local” artists.
The way I see it, the Atlanta art scene faces two issues: art institutions that rarely present issue-based projects and artists, even those pledging commitment to community, who are not particularly interested in exploring deeply compelling topics that impact our society. One equally fuels the other.
There are exceptions, of course. The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s current exhibition, Sex Drive, is not only devoted to the ever-popular theme of sex and sexuality, but also to sexual politics, particularly GBLT issues (click here for BURNAWAY’s review). On a regular basis, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art explores topics relevant to African American women, including the landmark 2009 exhibition, Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities. One of the most important, critically acclaimed exhibitions that originated in Atlanta during the past decade was the High Museum of Art’s 2008 Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968. These examples also share, I must add, a commitment to quality—visually compelling works that inform each other in the exhibit’s context. And it is the quality, as well as the content, that should inspire our artists.
By virtue of its volatility, the interesting age in which we live is demanding artistic responses. From the Halls of Wall Street to the Shores of Tripoli to the Streets of Athens, protest and change is all around us. One of last month’s headlines in the New York Times reads, “Greece’s Big Debt Drama Is a Muse for Its Artists.” The Occupy Wall Street movement was launched by Vancouver-based Adbusters, the “global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” In other words, the movement was started by activist artists.
Occupy Atlanta, camped in Woodruff Park, also known as Troy Davis Park, has set up a tent dedicated to the arts. There are plans for public art interventions and an art exhibit in solidarity with Task Force for the Homeless at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets. Local culture-jammer Evan Levy installed a stealth work of public art in front of the Homage to King sculpture by Barcelona artist Xavier Medina-Compeny at Freedom Parkway, coinciding with the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
I am not advocating that all art be political and that each artist be an activist. I am, however, challenging our cultural workers and producers to take a look around them, to be part of the global art scene, and to act as catalysts for ideas, discussion, and change.
Do artists have a responsibility to engage with social and political issues? What does it mean to be a cultural worker, whether you consider yourself an artist or not?
How can we measure the impact of socially relevant art? The phrase “art and social change” has many connotations. What does it mean in practice?
How can Atlanta insert itself into the international arts dialogue? How can we encourage more in-depth exhibitions, public art events, and performances that explore complex ideas? What are our responsibilities to be informed about global art activities and their intersection with current events?
Louise E. Shaw has been a cultural activist in Atlanta for over 30 years. From 1983 to 1998, she served as executive director of Nexus Contemporary Art Center (now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center). She has worked internationally on projects in Mexico, France, Norway, Ghana, Macedonia, and Albania, among other countries. Since 2002, she has served as Curator of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum (formerly the Global Health Odyssey Museum) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Please feel free to participate in the open comments underneath this article, or share it elsewhere and discuss informally with your friends. Talking in person counts!
For those who’d like to be a little more official, we are extending an open call for contributors to this month’s topic. Please read the following guidelines and email our editor at at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
After collecting feedback from last month’s experiment, we’ve decided to loosen up the rules for submission. BURNAWAY will publish at least one response, up to 1,000 words in length, at the end of the month. If we receive multiple noteworthy letters, we’ll consider publishing several at once. The deadline is Friday, November 18, 2011.
Please label all emails with “Our Front Porch” in the subject line. Submissions should address the issues mentioned by the current month’s guest curator. Responses should refer to specific examples, avoid tangents, and be honest but always constructive. If you’d prefer to address your thoughts to a particular person, feel free to begin this month’s letter with “Dear Louise Shaw.”
Our Front Porch is a series inviting guest contributors to share thoughts on local art for open discussion with you, our readers. Check BURNAWAY every Tuesday for new surprises!