What is art good for?

We’re in an age where everything seems to be quantifiable, whether it’s page views or Facebook likes or Twitter shares or how many people showed up for an event.* Or at least there are a lot of people and organizations out there that feel the need to quantify what we produce, what impact we’re having. This is not a bad thing necessarily, especially not when it comes to social campaigns or advocacy projects.

So is it elitist to want art to exist on a plane that’s different from the “quantifiable”? I’m not even speaking about the art for art’s sake idea – for art can indeed be a tool for social activism – but also from the standpoint of personal connection and exposure.

Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972). Faces and Phases installed at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012. (Photo: © Anders Sune Berg)

Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972). Faces and Phases installed at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012. (Photo: © Anders Sune Berg)

Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to lectures, exhibits, and cultural exploration and it made me realize something. Aside from enjoying what I’m seeing and being inspired by different perspectives, I’m continuously learning about the world around me. It’s the comment that makes me think about something in a different way, or a series of photographs that evokes someone else’s state of mind, or a film that reveals to me that there’s a subculture within a subculture within another culture that I didn’t even know about.

And I think that’s one aspect of how art can connect us to what’s outside ourselves, and sometimes even make us realize what we never thought of as being inside ourselves.

Several weeks ago, I went to a panel on the “New Civil Rights Agenda” at the New School. One of the speakers, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, was talking about empowering people and inspiring movements. She said that people want to feel good about something they’re doing, and enjoy themselves. “Art, music, culture – it connects you to things. People want to feel special, be connected to something, and be joyous.” She’s looking at art, music and culture not just as a way to make an impact on people, but with an acknowledgement that when people are enjoying themselves, they’re more excited to be a part of a movement and working towards something.

A few days later, I visited the Brooklyn Museum for a talk by Zanele Muholi and Stacy An Chin on “States of Visual Activism.” And I was reminded of a few things about art and media that I knew but weren’t foremost on my mind when thinking about what art is for. That art is not just for the audience to learn. Art, in its many forms, is an outlet for people to express their feelings (sometimes just for expression, and sometimes for others’ to be hit by those feelings).

And art, even more importantly, is for communities and individuals to WITNESS themselves. Zanele Muholi, who captures the dignity and beauty of the LGBTI community in South Africa, expressed that “[the kids] need to consume our history – they need to be fed our realities.”

Standing in the exhibit, in front of a wall of striking portraits of black queer and transgender individuals, I was struck by the confidence and power in the faces and body language, especially knowing that their very existence stands up against violence and persecution where they live. As Chin noted in the talk, “It’s amazing to stand against the wall and see all that black swagger.” If done respectfully, art can bring dignity to people.

And while it’s powerful to me, can you imagine how much more so it is for others in that community? For kids in that reality to see and feel that power?   As the museum’s website notes, Muholi’s work proposes “that LGBTQI struggles across artificial global divides, constructed classes, and related barriers are at once completely different, and achingly the same.”

This is where art can have so much strength.

*As evidenced in the proliferation of article/blog post titles that are designed melodramatically to pander to the click (such as this one, although it wasn’t for the click, but more the emotion).

– Karen Cirillo

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  1. Pingback: Is raising awareness enough? Two more factors of impact | docuphile

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