Can Art Save the World? Or Is That Too Much to Ask?

The United States is experiencing a moment of extreme tension in which fear and anger are high and false narratives pervade the collective consciousness; culture and the arts have an instrumental role in changing those narratives. That was the potent message conveyed by the opening speaker at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Venice last week.

The American lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson kicked off the annual forum for cultural discussion, held since 2015, which is organized by the Democracy & Culture Foundation and features panels of experts on important disciplines in conversation with journalists from The New York Times. This year’s event opened on June 5 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and was then held at the 18th-century Palazzo Diedo, the headquarters of Berggruen Arts & Culture, a nonprofit foundation established by the billionaire collector and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen. Its theme: Imperfect Beauty.

Other topics of debate included the downturn in the art market and potential threats posed to creativity by artificial intelligence.

The opening speaker, Stevenson, sounded alarms around the state of democracy, just five months from the U.S. presidential elections.

“In the United States, I don’t think we’re free,” he said.

Stevenson said the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. He also contended that U.S. courts were no longer delivering justice. This was, he said, because a false narrative introduced to justify “the great evil of slavery”— that “Black people are not as good as white people,” and that they are “less capable, less worthy, less human” — had given rise to “an ideology of white supremacy” that “beat back the rule of law.”

In this fractious climate, arts and culture could help achieve social justice and lift up “the peace quotient,” he said. “Art has the power to be big and bold.”

Stevenson — the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., and author of the best-selling book “Just Mercy,” — noted that his organization in 2018 had opened the Legacy Museum focusing on racial injustice. One of the displays consisted of 800 jars of soil taken from lynching sites across the United States and labeled with the name of the victim and the date of the hanging.

“I do not believe we should be defined by the worst things we are,” he said. “I believe that the greatest art institutions are the art institutions that increase the justice quotient.”

While Stevenson placed the onus on the artistic community to help cure injustice and societal ills, artists present disagreed with the notion that art could change the world. What speakers did acknowledge, however, was that museums could serve as better sounding boards and forums for public and political debate, reflecting and embracing the rapidly evolving societies that they served.

This view was expressed by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, director and chief executive of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, which was founded by the “Star Wars” director George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson. The museum, still under construction, is dedicated to the art of storytelling and has collections that include paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi and Norman Rockwell, comic books and political posters, and “Star Wars” memorabilia.

Jackson-Dumont made clear that in the current climate “we cannot be a museum and be partisan. We actually don’t have the privilege of that.”

At the same time, “the very act of building a museum is a political act,” she said, noting that every museum she ever worked for had a “point of view” that didn’t necessarily align with hers or the public’s. And nowadays, she added, museums could no longer simply be “purveyors of information.”

“We actually can be the place where discourse happens, where the dialogue about these issues surfaces,” she said. Museums are “safer places to do that” than other places in the world, where such discourse would be “extremely dangerous.”

“If we can elevate museums as a location for that kind of dialogue, I think we have a major future,” she said. “But if we stay rooted in just being the purveyors of information, I think we’re going to die.”

One artist whose art is consistently fused with social and political themes — race, slavery, migration and man’s destruction of animals and the environment — is John Akomfrah, who this year is representing Britain at the Venice Biennale with a series of film installations.

In a subsequent panel, Akomfrah dismissed the romantic notion that art and culture had revolutionary powers. “Art does a lot of things,” he said. “One thing it doesn’t do is change the world. It can, at its best, change people” and potentially “change narratives.”

He said that in the rapidly evolving contemporary art world, artists were no longer just making painting and sculpture. Rather, they were creating work that was destined not to end up in a museum collection, but to “exist in a space of the museum without walls.”

He said they were producing writings, performances and interventions that took the form of protest, and museums had to make space for these creations.

“Not everything is going to be tangible and collectible,” he said. “Not everything will allow for the commodification of itself. We have to make the museum feel sufficiently porous so that things can come in that don’t necessarily want to belong.”

These creations could be “one-off partnerships or engagements, and then they go. They’re transient. They don’t want to be collected.”

The conference took place against the backdrop of tremors in the international auction world. In May, the closely watched marquee sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips in New York were down 22 percent from May 2023. Christie’s suffered a hacking attack right before the auctions, and canceled its June evening sales in London of 20th- and 21st-century art. Sotheby’s confirmed that it was making dozens of layoffs in London.

Speaking in a panel on the subject, the art market economist Magnus Resch, who teaches at the Yale School of Management, said the market’s underlying problem was that the number of buyers had remained “fairly stable” in the last 10 years, even though there were now twice as many millionaires around the world. The issue was “converting the newly rich” into active buyers.

His co-panelist, Thaddaeus Ropac, founder of one of the world’s leading international galleries, downplayed recent developments.

“The art market is a very small part of the art world,” he said, adding that it had taken on exaggerated importance in the media and in the public eye, and “our job is to bring it back where it belongs.”

“I feel very relaxed about the situation right now, because it’s something we could have almost wished for,” he said. “It feels like a soft landing.”

Another hotly debated topic of discussion in Venice was artificial intelligence. Speakers were asked if they welcomed or feared its important role in creativity.

“I’m exactly in the middle,” said Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of the Acute Art digital platform, who previously ran the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and curated the Venice Art Biennale in 2009. He explained that artists were “interested in things that go beyond themselves,” and that A.I. was currently contributing to “hybrid forms of creativity.”

Freya Salway, a panelist who heads the Google Arts and Culture Lab, said that for two years Google worked with the choreographer Wayne McGregor to create an A.I. tool for him. McGregor fed his 20-year body of work into the tool to have a more active dialogue with that work and still uses the tool, she said.

The choreographer inputs a movement into the machine, and the machine extends that movement — without mimicking past ones by McGregor, she explained. The dance, in other words, is a co-creation between human and machine.

It all depends “how we as humans are going to use the tools,” she said. “You can create really meaningful and exciting forms of expression.”

Marcello Dantas, artistic director of the SFER IK Museion in Tulum, Mexico, said his institution had put out an open call for artists to develop an A.I. work that would be a platform for speaking with another species. The winning artist would win $100,000, and four others would get artist residencies.

One project over the last six months has involved observing bats and recording their language with the aim of deciphering and understanding it. “We now know the words that bats use for yes and no,” he said. “This is a landmark.”

“If you’re able to speak to a bat, this is a question that is quintessential to us: What will you say? What doors will it open?” Dantas asked.

One of the final speakers of the three-day conference was the Irish-born painter Sean Scully. He was asked to define the role of art and the artist.

“The artist is the person who offers what could be,” he said. “Can art change traffic conditions in big cities? No. Can art fix cars? No. Can art cure cancer? No. But art shows what is possible. Its job is to improve the human condition.”

“This is what it is to be an artist,” he said. “You’re a dreamer.”

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