We’re finally closing out 2016 and I know am not alone in saying this:
Last month I saw this Sam Durant looming over one of the LACMA galleries as diners were eating al fresco in the courtyard enjoying wine at Ray’s and Stark Bar.
Around the same time my Instagram feed was flooded with Basel pictures, including Durant’s popular “End White Supremacy” sign in front of Blum & Poe’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach. Meanwhile, at LACMA I wondered how many people would actually look up and see this. The sign at LACMA, which is part of Durant’s lightbox series, spoke to my mental state over the past 6 months because I’ve been tired since June. The primaries wiped me out, the election delivered an emotional blow, the countless deaths of artists, musicians and the personal loss of loved ones weighed heavy on my heart, so when I saw this piece I sighed. As I was typing this my phone was buzzing with text messages about Debbie Reynolds passing away one day after her daughter died. I’m tired and dammit, I’m tired of being tired.
So I completely connected to this piece, emotionally connecting to its resonance just as I imagine all of those people doing it for the gram, snapping pictures of that fire orange sign in front of Blum & Poe’s booth at Art Basel.
The Basel sign, conspicuously placed at the entrance to the hall was a curious one. I imagine that some folks, eager to assuage some guilt over being part of the grossly indulgent social caste system of Art Basel would direct their gaze upon that flaming refrain and nod their head in agreement—and then quickly went about their business. We make those compromises daily. Both of these works by Durant tap into emotions that you can immediately experience in a fleeting moment, but then you’re free to go about your lives without consequence, whether you’re an influencer in Miami Beach or merely stopping by Ray’s & Stark Bar for a glass of Prosecco. But for me, part of my appreciation for art stems from my desire to investigate my emotional response, and when I took a closer look into this particular series of work by Durant, I quickly felt the fatigue that has plagued me for much of 2016. Why is appropriation in creative spaces an accepted practice in some circles and maligned in others?
Durant’s Lightbox series originated from photographs of civil rights protest signs in the 1960s. With cropped slogans that were blown up and affixed to fluorescent neon lightboxes that resemble convenience store signs, they are meant to quickly grab your attention without capturing it for long. For me, the slogans without context (in spite of attribution) felt incomplete. When looking at sketches of the original photos that Durant cropped, I ended up searching for the original photos. This one from Washington in 1963 stayed with me.
This capture of a man smoking a pipe has an intent gaze at the viewer that’s so powerful, even Wafarers can’t conceal it. The photo humanizes and transforms the message contained in the sign. This man is tired of waiting yet is prepared to move forward. The photos taken during the Civil Rights movement played a critical role in delivering the messages contained in speeches and acts of civil disobedience. In the absence of photos, the written word can be manipulated, with interpretation falling into the subjective clutches of the reader. One can easily look back on some of the poignant images of 2016 to humanize devastating news or acts of protest that we have emotionally distanced ourselves from. I think of that injured baby boy in Syria, or the black woman in a sundress standing defiantly against a line of armed guardsmen.
When the face of humanity is erased from the slogan, the history is erased as well, and so is the potency of its call to action. Can we reasonably expect action and ultimately change when the individuals who originally fought for it with their lives and livelihoods are obfuscated? A recontextualized image can certainly take on new meaning and imbue that image with new life, but what happens when we do this at the expense of the original one? I’m thinking beyond a simple attribution and legal/economic aspects of copyright here. I am spaeaking to the art world’s acceptance of political and intellectual challenges when they come from certain individuals over others. Why does a piece like this quickly become canon, embraced by galleries and museums while artists of color with similar messages get swept up in debates about identity politics?
“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that “patience” is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
This quote by John Lewis is from his speech for the March on Washington in 1963. He ended up deleting this portion. His original speech was seen as too revolutionary, overtly critical and politiciczed and he was encouraged Civil Rights leaders to deliver a more concilliatory, gracious speech. While the messages were identical in both versions, the tone was radically different. I preferred Lewis’s original. You can see the story behind both speeches here: http://billmoyers.com/content/two-versions-of-john-lewis-speech/
In many ways this Lightbox series and Lewis’s speech boil down to compromise; on what is palatable to the masses and comfortable to consume. An abstracted protest sign dressed to shock is an accepted commodity in the art world by an artist who is accepted in its club, yet the original photographer and subject of the photo are erased from resonance and impact. A museum or gallery can place Durant’s work with certainty that it will get attention without the heavy lifting of self-reflection or asking anything further of the viewer (for example, “what are YOU doing to end white supremacy?”) The abstracted presentation provides the viewer with a healthy buffer from context and ultimately, action. Similarly, Lewis’s 1963 speech revision continued to keep him in good stead with MLK and A. Philip Randolph— all in the name of teamwork and moving an agenda forward.
In one sense without seeing this piece I would not have set down a path to learn about this one aspect of the march on Washington that gives me food for thought as I approach 2017. Yes, I’m still tired, but I’m moving forward, there’s much more work to do. In 2016 I was inspired by countless demonstrations of artists engaging us in thought, dialog and action with their work. The artist super PAC “For Freedoms” immediately comes to mind, in addition to the performances and programming by Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. Art will continue to play a critical role in coping with and articulating our visceral response to the issues in the world today. I just hope that the collective art world endeavors to rally around more than appropriated slogans devoid of important context cues.