Jewish World Review July 21, 2005/ 14 Tammuz,
The medium is the message
Washington, a company town, produces politics. Santa Fe, though
the state capital, produces art. With a permanent population of only 65,000,
the city counts more than 150 art galleries. Over the past few days, the art
population has ballooned as the city hosts its sixth international
contemporary art fair, drawing exhibits from Asia, Europe and Latin America
as well as the United States.
International art fairs are big business, but the best ones are
about more than money. They introduce young artists to wider audiences and
offer something the politicians can't.
Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of
Art in New York City, gave a lecture in Santa Fe emphasizing his favorite
theme, why art and art museums matter. "Why should we care?" he asks of an
audience of patrons who care, and care passionately. Art, he insists,
getting no argument, "is mankind's awe-inspiring ability, time and again, to
surpass itself. What this means is that no matter how bleak the times we may
live in, we cannot wholly despair of the human condition."
Art is often the canary in the coal mine, the first to die when
poison gas seeps through a blackened environment when evil comes to power.
Hitler and Stalin persecuted modern artists, silenced them or sent them into
exile; they represented the creative independent spirit that would not,
could not, conform. Such warfare on artists echoes in our own day. Mr.
Montebello recalls how the world was shocked when the Taliban destroyed the
monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, six months before
Fine art, whether ancient or modern, expresses human aspiration
and individual freedom and threatens those who seek absolute power. It works
within traditions while at the same time challenging tradition. Art can be
the lens that opens the eyes of men and women oppressed by tyrants.
China, though oppressing human rights and chilling the human
spirit, has nevertheless decentralized the arts, perhaps setting the stage
for loosening government control. The government's motives are not driven by
democratic idealism, but to exploit the market. But it's possible that this
change may be a beacon of light, freeing the artistic impulse, particularly
in the performing arts.
"Performing companies now have to find the market," Li Dongwen,
minister-counselor for cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy in
Washington, tells The New York Times. While international dealers were
bringing their art wares to Santa Fe as a way of broadening their markets,
Chinese officials and "managers" of art charged with overseeing the changed
government policy attended workshops at the Kennedy Center in Washington to
learn how to create a cadre of donors, organize budgets, develop electronic
ticketing systems and write mission statements.
Art, like architecture, is the reflection of who we are, and
we're presently suffering an "anything goes" culture. It takes time to sort
the wheat from the chaff, original brilliance from glib trendiness. The
cliché that "art is anything you can get away with," attributed variously to
Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan, echoes the idea that "the medium is the
message." Art and politics are linked in contemporary society.
Whether "Rove, Rove, Rove," or "art, art, art," we're the
spectators participating in the projected image. To put it all together, we
naturally go to the Bard, and his marvelous dialogue between Hamlet and the
Queen in their search to find out what had gone wrong in Denmark:
Hamlet: Do you see nothing there?
Queen: Nothing at all; yet all that is, I see.
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