Pigeonholes is a collaborative inter-sectional column from the Arts & Culture and Science sections, exploring issues across academic boundaries. This week in the Pigeonholes column, the columnists investigate topics outside of their areas of interest.
When my editors suggested that this Pigeonholes column involve me exploring visual art, I had to confess to them that I wasn’t a big fan of the medium. I certainly used to be, but over the past few years, I’ve found a lot of visual art to be deeply boring.
I get the colours and the style, but it doesn’t do anything for me emotionally. I used to be transfixed by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, and I prided myself on ‘getting’ pointillism, but now, those paintings are just décor to me.
But I gave it a shot. I approached the subject with an open mind, and I found that there was a school of visual art that appealed to me: political art. It’s art that brings political struggle to life, elevating history from an academic exercise to a deeply felt human concern with real people at its centre.
Art that forces people with privilege to look at themselves, and art that gives marginalized people a platform — that was the kind of art that appealed to me. I paused, though, and questioned: which group of artists were making the most powerful art? Whose political art actually does the most work for dismantling oppression — the art of those with power or those without?
My history with art
I own a giant collection of postcards, enough to cover an entire wall or two. Some of my postcards contain photographs of cities across North America and Europe, and a couple have corny messages in German. However, most feature paintings from art museums or independent artists. My postcards contain much culture, history, art, and architecture — yet they’re all either from European or settler North American sources.
I picked up a few of the postcards in my collection during my two-year stint as an expat in Prague. During that time, I went to art museums and galleries at least once a month. I owe at least 70 per cent of my proficiency in the Czech language to different forms of art, gaining bits of vocabulary and syntax from museum handouts, culinary art, and movies like Milada.
Although Prague is no London or Paris when it comes to housing world-renowned European art, and my beloved French impressionists hardly ever made it to the National Gallery on Old Town Square or the Kampa Museum by the Vltava, I discovered a whole new world of art defined by the fight of two nations, the Czechs and the Slovaks, for freedom from an oppressive regime. I especially admired Kamil Lhoták and his witty yet tranquil and political paintings.
But then something happened. After returning from Prague, my parents and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the winter of 2018. To my terror, I couldn’t stop yawning, and it had nothing to do with running up the Rocky Steps.
I remember the museum had French and British impressionists — a whole lot of them — but I was bored out of my mind. The same thing happened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. a week later. I had just enough energy to snap a few pictures for my Instagram story, which I used religiously to document my museum adventures.
Even two years later, I had not regained my ability to look at a painting and actually feel it.
Relearning to love art
Cognitively, I can certainly appreciate the strategic choice of colours and placement of brush strokes, the composition of a painting, or the historical context behind it. But, somehow, the affective component was missing. I started to wonder if I can teach myself to feel art again.
A quick Google search revealed that the first step to learning or relearning to appreciate art is just looking at art.
My first instinct was to look at Italian Renaissance paintings. After all, for me, they are the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of art. Then, I realized that the art I learned about in school and saw in museums, which has largely affected my perception of art and its purpose, was mostly white and Western. Asian, African, Black, and Indigenous art — and, by extension, ways of being — were pushed to the sidelines. So this is where I started looking.
Through this exploration, I came to an important realization: visual art is more than just colours, shapes, and lines. Art is also political.
Art can raise important political questions and redraw the battle lines of whose histories we remember. But just as any oppressive struggle contains an oppressor and someone being oppressed, political art takes different forms as well depending on who makes it. I wondered which side could be more effective in building a more just world: the powerful reconciling with their history, or marginalized groups reclaiming their own stories? Or, perhaps, could they work together?
I was intrigued: maybe by thinking through these political questions, I would find that art is not so boring after all.
Dismantling systems of oppression with art
I first want to consider the side of artists who have historically held privilege because that is the side I’m from.
As someone whose ancestors massacred Czech and Slovak people in 1968 and oppressed them for decades, I would like to think that I’m past that abhorrent part of my heritage and that I can empathize with the sentiment that went into twentieth-century Czechoslovak art and even somewhat relate to it. But can I really?
Although we have no control over our ancestors’ actions, we have to be cognizant of systems of power and privilege, and work together to dismantle them. Being a white, cisgender settler who is not disabled, I’m aware of how both my identity and worldview are shaped by my privilege.
But can we dismantle those systems through art? One of my all-time favourite artists, Gerhard Richter, who is German, channels his feelings of shame and sorrow through powerful abstract art. Anti-oppressive art created by a member of an oppressor group that aims to reckon with their past or present may be powerful in some capacity. Such creations could potentially raise awareness among the oppressor group and amplify the voices of people who are unheard as long as they do not appropriate or exploit other people’s trauma.
However, one person’s guilt won’t dismantle racism or colonialism unless systemic change happens. I can create the most thoughtful, respectful, and sensitive piece referencing the Holodomor, but many Russians will respond by denying their colonial and genocidal past and present.
Further, white tears and public hand-wringing do more harm than good, as they centre the perpetrators instead of the victims. This is something to be aware of if one chooses to create anti-oppressive art from a place of privilege.
Indeed, if someone creates art about oppression and comes from a place of privilege, in the sense of not belonging to the oppressed group or not having that kind of first-hand experience with the oppression in question, their art may not resonate with the group affected by that oppression. It might not do justice to the full complexity of the systems of oppression that are in place, and it might centre the wrong people.
Highlighting marginalized artists
In contrast, art created by marginalized groups often speaks directly to those systems. The disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson coined the term ‘normate’: people for whom our society is built. Normates today are white, heterosexual, cisgender, upper-middle-class, Christian men. We know the type: a normate is young, athletic, educated, and married man who works a nine-to-five job but doesn’t have kids. Most of us aren’t normates.
Those whose bodies and minds strongly deviate from those of the normate might be used to being stared at by predominantly white, able-bodied people. Some anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-ableist art stares back at those gazers, Garland-Thomson contends in another paper.
For example, in “Artifact Piece,” James Luna reclaims the colonial gaze by deliberately putting his body on display. “The Scoop” by Kent Monkman highlights the horrors of the ’60s Scoop by mimicking the Western tradition of paintings of historical events that were usually commissioned by people in power.
Introducing art by Black or Indigenous artists and other racialized artists into the mainstream seems like a good idea on the surface. We can create art history and art theory courses that focus specifically on non-Eurocentric art, hold art festivals and exhibitions highlighting racialized artists, and include them in art curricula in primary and secondary schools. However, this line of inclusion may not be powerful enough if such art is taught in a context determined by colonial ideas of what art should look like and what purpose art should serve.
To effect meaningful change in the context of visual arts, we have to reconsider what art means to us. Art is not always a source of aesthetic pleasure. Art is political.
After spending some time reflecting on the underlying meaning of art, I am proud to say that I have relearned to love and appreciate it. But, this time, the affective component of art appreciation comes from contemplating its political and equity-seeking undertones.
As people with differing amounts of privilege, we are responsible for amplifying the voices of those who are less privileged. Rethinking our understanding of art and including more art by racialized creators is one way to do it.