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Betty Brown

EMPATHY, CONNECTION, COMMITMENT:
COMMUNITY BUILDING AS AN ART FORM
(part 1)





Joseph Beuys, “Felt
Suit,” sewn felt, 1971.
I open the "Living" section of the Los Angeles Times one Sunday morning in November 2001. The headline reads "Out of the Rubble Comes a Need to Connect." Yes, I think, and the terrorist attacks only magnified the already alienating nature of our late capitalist culture. Since long before September 11, we have been in desperate need of social structures that serve to connect rather than divide us. Community building art projects can function as precisely the integrative forces our culture needs. Such art expands the dominant cultural notion of art as private personal expression. The best of the genre stands the test of quality alongside the strongest art of our time.

Connective/community building art is still not valued by most mainstream curators and art writers, in spite of the fact that it has roots at least as deep and as much esteemed as Joseph Beuys’ post-World War II efforts. Southern California artists employing this paradigm have demonstrated that it is a significant practice, and should be more widely acknowledged as an important creative option for the new century.

In January 1991, art historian Suzi Gablik published an article in the New Art Examiner entitled "Toward an Ecological Self." She suggested that most of us work and structure meaning within a system of categories provided by society. The category of art, for most people, is determined by the "aesthetic, autonomous, and stylistic values of Modernism." Gablik argued that such values have led to the conviction that art must be a fundamentally private affair, predicated by a sense of individual separation. To this she proposed adding a new paradigm: art created by people who have moved beyond a concern for their personal welfare, who value the so-called feminine characteristics of caring and compassion, and who challenge us to see beyond strictly personal existence to intersubjective coexistence and community. Such art, it is suggested, can heal the societal scars that separate and alienate us. Unfortunately, as Gablik notes, "Art which heals rather than confronts has not been valued by our society."

Those words were written over a decade ago, but her lament is still valid today. In spite of more than two decades of what have been termed the "diverse voices of multiculturalism," there is still little acknowledgment of community building as a valid art form in mainstream art discourse. Indeed, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight recently published an essay entitled "What Exactly Can Art Heal?" In it he wrote that "faith in art's capacity to heal is peculiar," that it's a "positively Victorian. . .fiction" which he then compared to "investing in crystals or soliciting by telephone the psychic services of Miss Cleo." Knight concluded that art is "intrinsically. . .amoral." In other words, Knight was announcing that his concept of art was restricted to the "art for art's sake" tradition of Modernism.

Knight is hardly alone. Most prominent textbooks on art of the twentieth century focus on the hyper-individualistic art of Modernism while either completely ignoring or barely mentioning art that heals the ruptures of a wounded social fabric via connection and community.

After reading Knight's essay, I surveyed a sampling of textbooks on twentieth century art: H. H. Arnason's History of Modern Art, Michael Archer's Art Since 1960, Jonathan Fineberg's Art Since 1940, Hunter, Jacobus and Wheeler's Modern Art, and Edward Lucie-Smith's Movements in Art Since 1945. Hunter et al include absolutely no mention of community building as an art form or of the artists known for creating such work. Judy Chicago's Dinner Party is mentioned in three of the other texts (although Arnason discusses her under “Pattern and Decoration,” hardly a genre known for its community-building). The only community artist mentioned in all of the others is Tim Rollins, a New York-based artist who has developed a process of working with disadvantaged children, children he calls K.O.S. or Kids of Survival.


Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party" (detail),
mixed media, 36" x 46 1/2' each side.
© 1979 Judy Chicago. Photo: Donald Woodman.

Together, Rollins and the kids create abstract paintings in response to masterpiece novels from the Euroamerican tradition. Several observers have noted that the K.O.S. images, although produced with diverse groups of children, are remarkably similar stylistically, which brings some to ask if Rollins is working in community rather than with community--but it is not my intention here to critique (or defend) his process. Still, he is by far the most oft-cited artist working with the community building paradigm. And I have to ask if that is at least in part because he is a white male who is pedigreed by his history with New York conceptualism. Perhaps he functions as the token representative of a maverick art form in much the same way that Georgia O'Keeffe, known for her own connections with the New York avant-garde, was for decades the only woman artist mentioned in comparable texts. It makes me at least wonder if it will take as long for the model of community building art to make its way into the canon as it took for H.W. Janson to add women and artists of color to his popular basic survey, History of Art.

To say that community building art is virtually absent from art history textbooks is not to say that it is ignored by all art publications. Of course not. In the New Museum anthology Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art & Culture, Karen Fiss has an introductory essay entitled "When is Art not Enough? Art & Community." Fiss discusses artists who "share the conviction that art can precipitate political change when individuals or groups associated with the artworld collaborate with other communities." In words that seem to echo Gablik's, Fiss says that such artistic practices "offer alternatives to modernist programs that rely on a conception of art as an autonomous enterprise divorced from the social." She notes that such art addresses "the concerns of communities routinely deprived of dominant media exposure, as well as those of cultural producers who have been systematically excluded from the art-historical canon." Fiss goes on to discuss Rollins and K.O.S. She also discusses Joseph Beuys.



Joseph Beuys, “I Like America
and America Likes Me,”
performance, May, 1974.
Beuys is l'eminence grise of community building as an art form. In a 1980 interview, he remembered asking, during World War II, how he could "cooperate with people in a more meaningful way" and how he answered by developing an "enlarged understanding of art that has to do with the theory of social sculpture, the radical transformation of the world." From this came his concept of art as a "social tool," and what Thomas Messer calls Beuys' "idealistic, Schillerian faith in the ameliorative, restorative and healing powers of a broadened art range and a correspondingly invigorated art form." Beuys moved from traditional sculpture to sculpture in unprecedented materials like felt and fat; he passed through installations that included, among other things, a living coyote, and on to social sculpture in the form of teaching, particularly at the Free International University. In the end, he engaged in direct political action and, ultimately, founded the German Student Party.

Leslie Labowitz is an American artist who studied with Beuys in Germany. She brought his concept of art as a social tool to California in the 1970s, where she met and began collaborating with Suzanne Lacy. Lacy had studied with Judy Chicago in the Feminist Art Programs at Cal State Fresno, Cal Arts, and the Los Angeles Woman's Building. Writing of those experiences in the Summer, 1991 Art Journal, Lacy recalls that she and Labowitz "began to develop a political art that was participatory, egalitarian and reflective of both the personal and collective truth of women's experiences. We wanted art that made changes, either in its maker or its audience." Lacy lists seven concepts that the Southern California group of feminist artists were formulating in the 1970s. The first is: "Art is a potential link across differences. It can be constructed as a bridge among people, communities, even countries. . .As a result of seeing art as a bridge, collaboration became a highly valued attribute of the work process, and its practice was much more complex than the sharing of work by two equal partners. Collaboration was explored as a concept that explained communication, effort and exchange between two or more differing entities."


Suzanne Lacy and Leslie
Labowitz, “In Mourning and In Rage,”
performance, December, 1977.

In 1977, Lacy and Labowitz worked on a series of community art projects developed in response to the Hillside Strangler murder-rapes that had terrorized the city and virtually immobilized women. The last of these, In Mourning and In Rage, was a group performance staged on the steps in front of L.A. City Hall. Women donned tall dark costumes that enlarged them physically as well as psychologically in order to "take back the night" and thereby reclaim their personal power. According to art historian Moira Roth, "Each woman spoke briefly, addressing both the media's sensational coverage of the Hillside Strangler murders and, more generally, the nationwide outbursts of violence against women."

Lacy's process for community-building remains totally interactive. She selects a general topic or population with which to work, then develops wide-reaching personal networks to involve as many related individuals as possible. It is the participants--the community given voice through art--who develop the structure and visual form of the piece. For this reason, there has been little "stylistic consistency" in Lacy's oeuvre. Each community building project initiates and evolves its own shape. A group of immigrants share an immense and ethnically diverse dinner; a group of elderly women create a living quilt; a group of teens talk in parked cars.



Judith Baca, the Durango, Colorado
project, 2001. Done in collaboration with
artist Shan Wells and local teenagers.






John Malpede (l.) and Suzanne Lacy (second l.)
Photo: © Nic Paget-Clarke
In the same Art Journal essay, Lacy also discusses the work of Judith Baca: "According to the Los Angeles muralist Judy Baca, the Chicano art movimiento, whose work was tied to indigenous communities and often rooted in Mexican aesthetics, understood the relationship of self-expression and identity to power." Lacy points out that Baca's Chicano art was "rooted in activism and in a profound sense of community." Rather than producing her images in anguished isolation, Baca enlists communities in generating the images that represent them. From 1976-83 over four hundred disadvantaged teens came together across lines of race, class, ethnicity and geography to collaborate with scholars, oral historians, local artists and other community members to depict alternative histories of Los Angeles in the Great Wall. Today, Baca continues what she calls her "bridge work." She is currently completing a digitally developed mural conceived through online collaboration with groups of Native American and Chicano teens in Durango, Colorado.

When Los Angeles hosted the summer Olympics in 1984 Baca was among a group of artists each commissioned to do a mural on one of the major freeways here. Another artist who created work for the Olympics was John Malpede. Formerly a performance artist based In New York, Malpede was struck by the contrast between the wealthy and privileged who attended the Olympics events and the hundreds of homeless who were virtually "disappeared" by the media during the sports spectaculars. He decided to stay in Southern California, where he founded the Los Angeles Poverty Department, whose acronym L.A.P.D. is an ironic pun on the Los Angeles Police Department. Malpede works with the disenfranchised of Skid Row, teaching them performance and organizational skills, and helping them locate and develop artistic contexts in which to tell their stories and thereby self-represent.

Writing of Malpede and his performance work with the homeless, Suzi Gablik asserts, "Community, as it is being enacted here, is the ability to touch others in ways that matter to them--to give them a voice. . .Community is the starting point for new modes of relatedness, in which the paradigm of social conscience replaces that of the individual genius. . .[This is] art which speaks to the power of connectedness and establishes bonds, art that calls us into relationship."

At the end of her 1991 Art Journal article, Lacy raises a series of questions. Among them are: "What are the social and personal values expressed through an artist's work, and how are those values relevant to shaping culture? How do you integrate a broader public into the process of making, viewing, evaluating art? Is change intrinsic to the viewing of art? To its making? What is the nature of such change, and how can it be discussed? Can art change the world?"

I would answer that last question in the affirmative. Yes. Art can generate change and in the best cases also function aesthetically at the highest level. And, I would tell those like Mr. Knight that change can be healing. Lacy herself answered her questions thusly:

"There are other questions out there, and many sources. . .contribute to this thinking. In this decade multiple voices and histories are surfacing: we are in an astoundingly vital moment, one with a difficult charge. . .It is the task of all of us not to forget. Issues of feminist identity, ethnic cultures, ecology, community, and global consciousness are rooted in radical, spiritual, and theoretical practices. Out of the intricacies of their links to each other will grow a new and appropriate art: a game that matches its name." Her words have remarkable resonance today, as we respond to the rubble with increased need to connect.



In an upcoming issue Brown will address the impact of these social paradigms on current art in part 2.--Ed.