“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.”
—Leonardo da Vinci
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.”
“Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality, but to those of another.”
Artists throughout the ages have served a critical need by bringing the deepest apprehensions, recurring nightmares, and anxieties of humankind to the surface, giving them visual expression. Just as Ai Weiwei recognized the tank man of Tiananmen Square as a historic emblem for a young Chinese generation’s desire for individualism—a desire that his art has come to represent—the Chinese government saw an opportunity to channel that desire into the assimilation of the capitalist free-market economy, while sustaining their heavy, authoritarian hand. While the recent horror of the Charlie Hebdo shooting prompted a mass protest in Paris, evoking France’s May 1968 protests and even the July Revolution of 1830, it did little to alter or even address the country’s inability to navigate racial and cultural issues over the last decade. Similarly, 9/11 not only secured George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, but also marked New York City, for having survived the destruction of the twin towers, as a beacon for innumerable young people disillusioned by their parents’ suburban lifestyles. Last month, while I was at the New Museum looking at Chris Ofili’s retrospective, I was reminded of his painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which, because of balls of elephant dung placed on and around the painted image (intended by the artist to be an African homage to fertility), was condemned by Rudolph Giuliani in the fall of 1999 when it was shown in the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
What I’ve come to realize is, just as art can be experienced as an aesthetic response, it can also stir the depths of our emotions. I was reminded, however, that artists, by virtue of their vocation, have a keen sense of contemporaneity of their work in that they see their art as a result of the art and culture that came before it. I was also taken by the artist Tal R, who in the last interview in the Rail, said, “One of the beautiful things about art is that it inspires us to leave behind our assumptions and expectations. Artists don’t leave the idea of the things on the table. Instead they leave behind the images that they have created.”
All of the preceding cases encourage the commonly held belief that freedom is indispensable to art, yet they also show that great art can be made under oppression. In the 32nd Social Research conference—The Fear of Art (co-sponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, in collaboration with the PEN American Center and the India China Institute at the New School)—the focus was the threat to freedom of expression under both totalitarian and democratic states. The two-day conference was divided into eight topics, which dealt with different aspects of censorship and banning: artists in prison, artists in exile, and more. Among the participants were Emily Braun, Holland Cotter, David Freedberg, Boris Groys, Agnes Gund, Carin Kuoni, Victor Navasky, Shirin Neshat, just to name a few, and Ai Weiwei who gave a keynote address via video. Though only some were able to attend all of the panels, there was a pervasive sense of solidarity among the panelists and the audience.
Lastly, while reading David Levi Strauss’s revelatory article on the relationship between Robert Duncan and Jess, and about Duncan’s generous use of his own death as a learning experience for a few close students, I have never felt so grateful to have time to explore why I am here in relation to my friends and colleagues who are asking the same question. With the recent passing of our friends—Jake Berthot, Jeff Davis, Christina Ryan—those feelings of solidarity and reflectiveness became even more urgent and poignant. As we were closing the March issue, this feeling seemed to be shared by those in the Rail office over the last few days, which I hope can sustain as long as we can help it.
Yours in solidarity,
P.S. Please join us for a panel discussion in collaboration with Hunter College on PAINTING, March 25 at 7:30 in the evening at the new Hunter Gallery at 205 Hudson Street. The conversation will be moderated by Carrie Moyer with panelists Alex Bacon, Greg Lindquist, Phyllis Tuchman, and Amei Wallach.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.