‘Social Activist Art’ is *New*, You Say???

drawingA recent New York Times article reminded me that, no matter how I might classify myself as anything but an activist, I have always been one, of a sort. It’s true that I’ve always assiduously avoided conversation, let alone physical action, tied to politics, religion, social policy and pretty much any ‘hot topic’ you can name unless I sensed I was in the safest possible environment to do so–generally, amid a comfy flock of like-minded partisans. The article is chronicling the US uprising of a relatively new breed of American artists and their support systems dedicated to, as the title bluntly states, social activism; the author gives appropriate reference, of course, to the practice being a long-standing one in other parts of the world, but shares the view that it’s still rather fresh and new here on American turf.

I’ll grant that the forms and formats may well have changed, and that there might be a larger collective sense among those who would embrace this title of being dedicated to the purpose more specifically than others, but I will step right out on my own tiny soapbox now and assert that, insofar as art is seen as a form of communication–and this might well include virtually all art except that created and performed in private and without any wish or expectation than anyone other than its maker will know it exists–it is inherently activist. The decision to create something I intend to be art and allow it to be known to others says a whole lot of things about me, the subject of my work, and my general worldview, and if I am allowing others to experience these in the art, assumes that they will respond through and with their own worldviews to it, effectively in a social interaction, whether we converse directly about it somehow or those who have interacted with my art turn around and respond to it in the continuation of their lives.

Who knew I was such a rabble-rouser? But truthfully, even by making those ‘meaningless’ little doodles that don’t turn into full-blown drawings or paintings, I am making something of a statement, am I not? I scribble, therefore I am. By doodling, I am not only using my energy to do that rather than anything else, I am also creating a portal through which my thoughts can emerge; if they turn, via this scrawling, into a concrete idea it may lead to the completion of an artwork expressing it more openly. This, in turn, suggests that I have a thing or two to say and I’m willing for others to hear it, see it, feel it–to interpret it and respond to it, even. I never think of myself as daring, but I think it’s fair to say that letting my inmost thoughts and imaginings be seen and analyzed by others through their own filters is at least a little brazen, if not occasionally foolhardy.

One of my late mentors, Lawry Gold, wrestled with the supposed divide between art and function, and he was anything but shy about being an outspoken activist, albeit a very kindhearted and generous one. He was a boldly countercultural person in a great many ways, and yet he seemed to me to reach the peak of his own overt rebelliousness when he began working on a body of art that was deliberately and unabashedly functional (beautifully art-covered, distinctively designed tables, lamps, clocks and the like) for sale through his gallery agents. This was something I know he enjoyed at least a little as cheery cheekiness to tweak artist snobs who were apparently so benighted they couldn’t accept the marriage of form and function thus, or so rich they could afford to sit around waiting for other equally rich people to buy their non-functional work, no matter what the state of the economy. Besides that these were among his most gorgeous and sophisticated works, to me they spoke of the recognition that art, besides taking so many different forms, speaks to us in many different ways, and that breadth and depth has great value.

At the same time, my friend never stopped making ‘non-functional’ art, because he of all people also had a tremendous desire to communicate, whether it was by visual storytelling in his often humorous, whimsically imaginative artworks or by making a more specific point with his illustrative and symbolic works. And he never hesitated to engage in the discourse that followed anyone’s viewing of his work. He and I had a joint exhibition of our artwork once, and as I was curating and installing the show I objected to one of his pieces that he wanted included, thinking it was not in keeping with all of the others we had selected, and he patiently steered me toward a clearer understanding that it was indeed very well suited; even though I never liked that piece as much as the others, I found that it carried an important part of the ‘conversation’ made up by the whole of the exhibition, and in fact that one interaction changed the way I curated many an exhibition of others’ work in the years that followed.

Ultimately, I see in the creation of art–of any form–an act that if it isn’t in open defiance of the social norms, allows or even invites the examination of and discourse on them. So even though much art is not made, like Lawry’s, to function in an obviously practical way, it all serves a purpose; ‘merely’ being beautiful or compelling may be purpose enough in adding layers of pleasure or relief or catharsis, but many works go far beyond that in opening new vistas to our contemplation, influencing our beliefs and even challenging us to change our behavior. All art is potentially advertisement or propaganda, for good or ill. And if that isn’t social activism, I think my encyclopedia needs some new illustrations.

digital illustration from drawings

Is all art crowd-sourced?

2 thoughts on “‘Social Activist Art’ is *New*, You Say???

  1. I found your blog because I was looking for any info on my old PLU professor, Lawry Gold. In searching his name, your writings popped up. He made such a huge impact on my life: I am an art teacher because of his suggestion. I also went to Findhorn with him back in ’87.
    I can’t seem to find much info on him, see his artwork, or find out how he passed away, or when. It’s so sad to know I can’t contact him, to let him know how much I’ve loved teaching art for 28 years, and how much I valued.his frienship and guidance. I love what I do, and I discovered teaching because of him.

    • Dear FOL (Friend of Lawry)!

      Lawry had a huge impact on so many, in such a brief life. I’m glad for you (and them) that you’ve been sharing the gifts of his wisdom, passion, and humor with 28 years’ worth of students. I wish like anything that I had had the gift for teaching like he did (and you have), but as his influence and guidance helped me survive my 17 years of it with far better grace than I could’ve managed on my own, am grateful for more than just the dear friendship of someone who lived life so deeply and well.

      You probably knew, as many did, that Lawry had a congenital heart defect and had had valve replacements, if I remember right, twice in his younger years. When I’d been working at PLU for a number of years and learned just how invaluable Lawry was as a mentor (and secular rabbi!), he conned—oops, persuaded—me first to teach design in his stead when he was either on sabbatical or at Findhorn (I ended up teaching that course almost continuously until I left PLU) and then, when it was time to replace yet another worn-out heart valve, to teach his painting class.

      We certainly talked about the prognosis when he was headed to surgery. He’d already outlived all the other males in the family who’d had the heart defect. But as you’d guess, he was too busy counseling the rest of us to be calm and positive to let on whether he was particularly worried when he headed off to the hospital. The procedure did, in fact, go smoothly…but while in recovery, he had a stroke, and though he came back from it enough through hard PT and determination to return to PLU part time for a short while afterward, he was seriously physically limited, suffering from distinct partial paralysis of the affected side. More significantly, he saw in himself a profound cognitive loss, and while it didn’t diminish his intellect in ways that affected his teaching or interactions noticeably, it frustrated and depressed him and did steal his ease of art-making and invention. His sharp wit remained intact, and his (ironically, perhaps) enormously warm heart as well, but after a couple of semesters the challenges of post-stroke work were too wearying and he left PLU on a disability retirement. It wasn’t very long after that when Lawry had another medical emergency and he died, ultimately, of the ongoing complications of that stroke.

      You’ll be glad—and not surprised—to know that there were a couple of wonderful, Lawry-style gatherings to remember him after he died. There was a lovely Lawry-reunion of his students, colleagues, family, and other friends that was held in the little auditorium at Ingram 100 that December, with lots of storytelling and outpourings of love, grief, and silliness. And a similar, but much smaller, one at David Seal’s house where DS cracked open Lawry’s single-malt collection in a shared benediction of Lawry’s non-academic life. 🙂

      I know there are many others besides us out and about in the world who remain as powerfully influenced by and grateful to Lawry as you and I are. Long may his spirit run rampant in the universe!

      Thank you for taking the time to send this lovely note of yours and bring back so many wonderful memories and inspirations. I’m glad to know you’re carrying the Lawry torch forward so beautifully.


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