By Resident Artist, Kristine Moore
By Resident Artist, Kristine Moore
There is nothing like art to wake us. Art has the power to get under the skin, splinter nails and moisten brows. Hang a urinal on the wall and get a rise (No pun intended). Draw a comic the Prophet and get blasted out of this life. Paint a portrait using multiple perspectives and challenge convention. Art is noise. Art is a thumb in the nose of static notions.
Art and revolution are long-time companions. Militant art directs movements by giving people motivational images, reflecting their thoughts and capturing possibilities: You could be her; this could be you. We need art to energize us. The United Farmworkers Union employed an iconic eagle as their emblem; the Black Panther Party and Mao’s China used art to manipulate, agitate and propagate a message (not necessary in that order).
It was Honoré Daumier, who in the late 18th century glorified the masses of the “Third-class Carriage” even while giving us a peek into the lifestyles of the first-class passengers. I relish neither classification, because poverty is the domain of those who do not own their destinies. Calling attention to disparities is the domain of artists. Take Goya’s criticisms of public figures through allegory and blatant representation of government atrocities, which led to public outrage. Likewise, satirical political cartoons have been the voice of dissent since the American Revolution.
Art also has unintentional consequences. Take the writer Nicolai Gogol, whose most famous, and nearly seditious work, Dead Souls, foreshadowed the fall of the monarchy and led to political strife when it was published in 1842. In fact, Gogol, a nobleman, believed in the crown and serfdom—he did not expect Dead Souls to be interpreted as criticism of the state. For Gogol, he was simply depicting Russian life. Ironically, he was unable to “correct” his book though he tried, twice, to create a second volume; in frustration, Gogol committed suicide by starvation, proving we cannot control Art.
Rebecca Solnit assures us that artists have a place, poets have a place—and protests have a place. Without art, she implies, we succumb to dichotic thinking, viewing the world and everything in it as binary opposites, rather than complicated, nuanced situations that we have the power to impact.
Art is no trivial matter. It is skillful, thoughtful, daring and courageous work that must be done. Whether imagery or words, film or created objects, performance or free association—these are the pillars of a thriving society. Art is not merely the purview of advertisers and marketers. Art belongs to us.
Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.
Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.
For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.
Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.
Charity begins at home. Sometimes Trump seems to be saying just that. Perhaps freedom from hunger is the freedom we all need. When our people are starving, roving the streets looking for shelter, chronically unemployed, then it is at last time for a movement. It’s what prompted the revolutions of the 19th century and it’s what drove the 1960s Civil Rights activism. We are no more impervious to ills of imposed poverty than to the desire to feed and shelter our families. The people have spoken, and beneath the rhetoric of hate, misogyny and bigotry, are the very real concerns of people who have witnessed a steady decline in resources, opportunities and wages, as well as the intangibles: loss of pride, purpose and dignity. Unlike the bulk of Trump’s electorate, I don’t draw the boundary along a color line. I see that in San Francisco, the disenfranchised, displaced and working poor are blacks, averaging salaries of $24,000 a year. These communities, long-time residents of this thriving metropolis, are in need of jobs, resources, supermarkets and hope. Maybe we will see change.
That said, this is not the time to go to sleep. We need to remain watchful, vigilant and engaged. Trump’s policies need to provide for all of us, not just White Americans, who are feeling the pain that historically, only Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans and countless other minority groups have experienced. It’s the same pain. The pain is momentarily evenly distributed among those of the working class and working poor: groups, which are increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Let us look upon the lessons of history and see that we are our brother’s keeper. We’re in it together. Four years, or less: Who knows? But if we get more jobs, better paying jobs, I’m okay with prosperity.
In the meantime, let’s practice agape, friends. I’m talking about love. Kindness is contagious.
Did art start with illuminated manuscripts or Goya’s political satire? Was it in the eyes, as the ancient Sumerians perceived? The eyes lead us to the soul, the immortal part of identity. It must have started in the Garden, all that seeing. Then, of course, someone wanted to make it better or easier, more authentic, transparent or enduring. Another held up her hand to the world and said, “Leave me to my room.” In all this, necessity, the great mother of Art, gives birth again and again, each time prescribing the same ritual of painful elation, the same bloody mess. And, we make more. We see more. We see too much.
In the same way that print and digital images in media are normal for us, in fact these images are especially expected by the modern viewer, the early experimenters of photography laid the foundation for an entire way of seeing and viewing.
During the mid 19th century, on the eve of that revolution, the nascent form of realism and idealism took form in paper photography. Charles Nègre and Henri Le Secq ran the streets of Paris taking pictures of the poor and desolate. Needing expediency and portability of the imagery they wanted to show the world, Nègre and Le Secq moved from Daguerreotyping to printing, for the first time, on paper, using salt. Such ingenuity could only be the product of constraints and demands: a new need for immediacy.
Today we cannot live without our cameras and devices to document our dinner salads and cats. Some of us are looking beyond our plates and pets to the timeless measures of humanity. It’s a cycle. Culture invents itself through our own narcissism and gets inverted the moment the container is too small for the masses. Without the Grand Narratives, exclusion is forbidden. We wish to see ourselves again and again, and preferably, forever. Don’t laugh! It’s in our nature.
But what of imagination? When the completion of a thing, a work, a compulsion burned out in form from within into the world, made manifest for the world to see, a spell descends.
It is said that humans are the inventors of the animal world—the king of kings. Crows and ravens make objects of beauty, juxtaposing our discard with stolen and indigenous artifacts. It’s as if there is not enough art in nature for these black birds. We, no less than the crow, must also continue to integrate, overcome and pacify our environment. We do it with art. That is why we object to broken windows, discarded people—anything that reminds us that we are not in charge. Disorder corrupts the notion of control. We like our boxes neat. The first thing that is denied the poor is art, cut out like a vital organ, and grafted into the institutions of the affluent.
But give us a song, a poem, a wall or a canvas, and in that opening we will pour our souls, in blood or colors, out as if we could pay our fare in creation. The great artists of our time and before have known this. They have not kowtowed to the influence of means, driven by the force within, the powerful Beast that must be silenced if the earth will continue to spin on her great axis. This can be said of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sohei Nishino, Frida Kahlo, Marguerite Duras, Leo Tolstoy, Ai Weiwei, YSL, Nina Simone, Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Misty Copeland, Alvin Ailey, …truly, there is no room in this essay to name them all. When we awaken to this reality, it is easy to see that art drives civilization forward. It is the fuel and the engine; the fire and the wood.
Of course, I may be wrong.
Lavish or sumptuous, grotesque or fearsome, our creations exist side by side with all else.
Art defies norms and invents them. Art sculpts us into de-centered objects—eyes that register; bodies that undo. In our hands, art is the uncontrollable daemon, willing us to bend and succumb to the subconscious. There is Si Lewen attempting to remove his own hand or Vincent van Gogh dismembering himself because he cannot rendezvous with his siren, Art herself.
Art is in our blood. Denied, Art demands blood.
We could argue that when the first caveman dipped his palm into crushed flowers and marked the cave wall, his inner Beast must have stood back to take in the scene, momentarily pacified by simplicity of the act. Saying nothing, yet standing with total attention, the Beast within glanced repeatedly at the marks dancing in the light of the fire, and later, the sunrise, observing the flickering of light on the print, playing in the oblique luminescence. The primal Beast took note, also, that now that the mark was a daily presence, a thing of contemplation, an object of nuance in its unchanging state, they should come to be friends. Thus, the first art lay siege to a soul, conquering the interior Beast and the imagination in one stroke—all with a lone handprint on the wall.
Art is often viewed in commercial societies (those engaged in gathering, hoarding and consuming resources) such as ours as superfluous, an indulgence of the affluent, a whim of the bored. This I strongly disavow. Art is more for the poor masses, we mere proletariat, than for any wealthy individual—a collector, say. We are the products of millennia of seeing and creating. In our hands imitation is a form of life. We long to leave our marks on the planet, even as we see only the tiniest remnants and fragments of former civilizations and our own productivity over-saturates the Internet with more than we can manage, blinding us to ourselves.
We have become anonymous in our own quest for immortality if only because we are now one of billions where once there were few in number to be counted. Still, art drives us. We bathe ourselves in whatever beauty we can find, curating our lives from the replication of someone else’s vision, conveniently mounting it all on the walls of our gallery homes. And still, art is a friend, reminding us of the past.
From her special place, the red eyes of Hundertwasser’s “Blind Venus Inside Babel” look at me whenever I work. I wonder what the artist meant by those eyes and her flowing skirts full of worlds, peopled with spirits and planets so vast that the ruffles of it extend beyond the edge of the canvas. It’s as if she is the mother of the world and the brightest light originates in her navel, above which the Black Woman, confident of her place in the universe, looks out across the expanse of our world, forever. The red orbs of her eyes, mirrors to the sanguine nature of man, empty and invite, over and over. Around her neck hangs a crest, an ornament, which given the history intimated in her skirt, is unnecessary, and yet, she is regal in her simplicity, swaying on the page to the music of time, oblivious to her immortality. She is here to stay, this Black Woman, watching over me.
I refuse to live in fear. I’m told about the many frightening things ahead for us because of Trump’s status as president elect. A woman stopped me on the street to give me a stack of her fliers about the new face of fascism. (Until recently the same fliers had Obama’s face on them.) Everywhere I hear alarming news—increased suicides, hate crimes, bigotry. To all of these worries and stresses I say, “I refuse to live in fear.” Elections, public and free, are not worth dying for.
Unfortunately, bigotry has been a very common circumstance throughout my life and professional career. The bigots emboldened to come out of the closet were never invisible to me. And, the problems we face are bigger than openly racist leaders—for many people that has been the reality all along.
Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable to imagine hope packaged in the incendiary language with which Trump ran his campaign. Perhaps it makes us angry to be ruled by people with less education, less polish and less manners than ourselves. On the surface, this seems to be true. We want to ask ourselves how much could we have in common with rural Virginians and Appalachian Whites whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and have never yet ceased to fly the losing flag. Upon a closer more careful examination, we see the same conditions exist for them today as they did nearly 200 years ago when they lost the Civil War in part because they were starving then too. I often wonder whether their ancestors, many of whom did not hold a single bonded man, woman or child, ate any better than their predecessors do today. Given the evidence that African Americans, who ate poorly, died young and served as free labor in the South embodied the wealth of their slavers, it’s clear that jobs for poor, White Americans have always been scarce.
Nothing has changed.
Art in her many forms are necessary for the human spirit to prevail. The transcendence of survival, fear and necessity, even when all are depicted, is the very act of overcoming the hopelessness of mortality, humanity’s primal fear.
Of the many medicines of this world, art heals. The embrace of art can purge toxins from the body and psyche, lifting off the weight of darkness, the heaviness of loss and the anxiety of despair. It gives us space in the world, whether self-defined, or etched into the mind’s eye through the gaze.
Just as witnessing pain and violence leave marks that we dutifully label trauma, art illuminates the surface and reveals the interior in unique ways that are impossible to measure, yet fully possesses unmistakable corrective powers.