Raymond Williams

Responding to crisis: Artists will do what artists do

Artists may not have a special responsibility to address bad times, but they tend to do it anyway

On Saturday night, I went to Disjecta’s annual art auction, and I even snagged an artwork. It was made by Colin Kippen, who takes discarded hard plastic packaging and uses it as a mold, into which he pours a mix of cement and perlite. This stuff captures the curves, grooves, dents and “decorative” flourishes on those abandoned plastic containers perfectly, and then Kippen paints them with pretty, seductive acrylics, and affixes the concrete to various objects. In this case, it was the business end of an old rusty shovel (without the handle).

The first time I noticed a lot of Portland artists using discarded objects in their artwork was in the late 1990s. Other artists in the 20th century had done the same, but these were the first artworks I’d seen that were explicitly about recycling or re-use—and not just about re-use. They were re-use. Around the same time, local architects seemed to focus on green designs, before that became a national trend. And a little later, Portland passed its recycling initiatives, without really much opposition. I think these things are related, and so I date our deep cultural acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability to that time.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Anyway, I was drawn to Kippen’s piece because it reminded me that the ubiquitous disposable plastic containers that surround us have all been “designed” by someone—actual care and consideration, even “art,” have gone into them. Kippen points out and then emphasizes their surprising beauty with his treatment of them. I could get into the political and social “meaning” of the piece I bought, but this column isn’t about that.

At the auction I was introduced to a woman who had been working in swing states for the Clinton campaign. She looked exhausted and shell-shocked (she wasn’t the only one, either), and we talked just a little about what it had been like out there. Then she asked me a question: What special responsibility do artists have at a time like this, she wanted to know. It was an actual question. People ask so few real questions these days—so often we ask a question just to give you our answer. Or as a rhetorical device, often dripping with sarcasm. This women wasn’t that kind of person.

I launched into a discourse on the various roles the arts play inside societies generally, not just in times like these. I started with consolation, because I thought someone working on behalf of the Clinton campaign probably needed that. Music, for example, can console us when we are sad and somehow move us to other emotions, without losing the sadness. I had just started in on how the arts can preserve our most important cultural values, help us generate a common meaning of what our society is like, even help us understand that we ARE a society, when the patient campaign worker was saved by the arrival of my wife. I was a long way from answering her very specific question. What can we rightly expect of our artists now?

Continues…

 
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