Columns / Design Culture

What Artists Know

Wendy Richmond

I’m having a tough time in my studio. Since January 20, my inner critic has become more vocal than usual: “Your art is too personal, self-indulgent and, worse yet, irrelevant!” I am preoccupied with questions: Do I leave my current work behind to instead make art that is explicitly political? Or do I close the door (and my ears) and remain true to the art I have been making for decades? Which artist am I now? 

When I join friends to march and sign petitions and make phone calls in protest, I put these questions on hold and focus on what we’re doing. During a recent morning of group letter writing, we commiserated that many of our actions will be met with defeat. But we vowed to keep at it. 

Later, in my studio, as I got back to work on a series I’ve been struggling with, it occurred to me that staying committed in the face of repeated failure is nothing new to artists. Our standards are high because we set them ourselves. (Tell me, who is more demanding than you are of yourself?) Our efforts often fall short, but we keep working to achieve the small percentage that exceeds our expectations.

Ironically, our ability to tolerate failure makes us the perfect people to endure the long slog ahead of upholding our country’s values. It’s just one of the seemingly contradictory attributes that makes us uniquely qualified to keep fighting. 

Our ability to tolerate failure makes us the perfect people to endure the long slog ahead of upholding our country’s values.”

WE ARE GOOD AT WAITING
Along with being adept at failure, we are patient. We know that it can take months or years to receive a response to our work. We handle rejection, insults and judgments. We persevere. 

WE TRUST REFLECTION OVER REACTION
My first impulse after the inauguration was to alter my art and make it more political. I tried to commandeer work that I had started with a different intention and ended up flattening it into a superficial—and false—gesture. I threw it in the dumpster. 

But a few weeks have passed, and I realize that my work unavoidably will undergo change. My current project began two years ago, in response to a single person’s circumstance. It is about the body’s frailties and the desire to protect and be protected. I now see the series in a larger context, with layers of complexity to be mined. Every day, I learn that the personal is indeed political.

WE ARE INSPIRED BY THE PAST AND CREATE WORK FOR THE FUTURE
In her January 18, 2017, article in The Nation titled “What Art Under Trump?” author Margaret Atwood wrote: “Fifty years from now, what will be said about the art and writing of this era? The Great Depression was immortalized by John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath … Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible provided an apt metaphor for McCarthyism. … What sorts of novels, poems, films, television series, video games, paintings, music or graphic novels will adequately reflect America’s next decade?” 

Artists are not simply creators; we are also ambassadors of art, and we can convey its power to others. 

Artists are not simply creators; we are also ambassadors of art, and we can convey its power to others. ”

WE SEEK THE MEANING FROM THE AUDIENCE
We know that the most profound impact our art can deliver comes from our audience. Art that enables viewers and readers and listeners to bring their own authorship goes deeper and lasts longer. It also provides a more effective call to action than didactic sermonizing. 

On January 20, a group of activists known as Occupy Museums presented Artists Speak Out at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Approximately 32 artists, art groups and institutions gave short presentations, which were videotaped and posted on YouTube by videographer Owen Crowley. The speakers were eloquent and passionate. But for me, the most powerful presentation was not a speech, but an artwork: a musical composition by Tracie Morris and Vijay Iyer. Morris briefly introduced the piece as being “from a lovely musical … it’s about feeling better when you’re afraid, when fascists are at the door.”

Iyer’s piano rumbled behind Morris’s mesmerizing repetition of single words and short phrases: “Raindrops. Raindrops and whiskers. Girls in white, boys in white. Tied up with string… When the dogs bite. I simply remember. I simply remember.” 

Behind the piano, a huge window framed the Hudson River. This is a view that I treasure. It is one of my favorite things. As I listened, I recalled a quote by the artist Ai Weiwei, speaking of contemporary Beijing: “There are no places that you relate to, that you love to go … Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.” 

An artist’s practice is rooted in all of these attributes. They are our attributes, and they are needed now. We will read and hear, many times over, the pronouncement “Art is more important than ever.” But consider an even more powerful truth: artists are more important than ever. ca

©2017 W. Richmond 

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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