Friday, October 07, 2005

The "Demise of Democracy?"

Yesterday morning, Bush, I sat and looked through over four hundred slides submitted by more than one hundred and fifty artists, as the sole juror for an exhibition that opens next month at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA.) The show is called "The Demise of Democracy?"--a subject, as you know, that is always on my mind. It was, as you yourself so often like to say, "hard work." (As an aside, my daughter's rock band has adopted this favorite phrase of yours as the title of one of their songs!) Hard, because only sixty of the over four hundred works could be included. Hard, because there was so much good work, so much outrage. Hard, because as the juror, I had to be the excluder as well as the includer. Quite a responsibility, to so many artists of good heart and good intention. I have been turned down often enough myself to know how much it can hurt.

I'm not sure that you would have enjoyed the job, Bush. There were any number of not-too-flattering images of your good self. But I didn't want this to be primarily or exclusively about Bush-bashing. Well, not all of it, anyway: the attack on democracy has a much wider and more dangerous base than just one president. (I don't consider myself a Bush-basher, by the way. In case you were wondering.) I also didn't want it to be primarily about your Iraq war--though that couldn't help but figure in the deal. It, too, reflects some aspects of democracy: we need to think more deeply about the quasi-coercive imposition of democracy in a country where it seems doubtful that people are ready for it--our version of it, anyway. About the questionable democracy involved in the recruitment of our servicemen and women, the the unequal price they're called upon to pay. About the notable absence of democratic process in the way the war began. On the positive side, I wanted the show to address the subversion of democratic ideals in the economic world, in the fields of race and social class, in questions of poverty and privilege.

On the aesthetic side, I didn't want the show to worry too much about techical skills, or about the "quality" of work in conventional gallery terms. I was looking primarily for pertinence to the theme and effective use of medium: is this image really about the "demise of democracy"? Is there a sense of history here? Of critical judgment? Of discernment? But also, of course, of passion, conviction, authenticity. I wanted it not to be about subtlety (although that, too, was welcome.) I responded, for this show, to the fast read, the accuracy and precision of the artist's observation and the appropriateness of the medium. I also responded particularly to work that made me laugh out loud, because that, for me, is an immediate truth response.

Bottom line, though, I was sorry to have to say no to a lot of excellent work, some pertinent, some (as Jon Stewart would say, with a shrug and a grin,) "not so much." At one point, I had the urge to include EVERYTHING, pell mell, and have it hung salon-style, higgledy-piggledy, to fill the gallery walls. That, believe me, would have made quite a statement about the sheer number of working artists who are passionately questioning the status of democracy in the United States today.

In the end, I just did what I could, given the enormity of the task. Made some mistakes, for sure. Offended some. Hurt others (sorry!) And put together what--given the quality of this submission pool--will turn out to be a lively show. You're warmly invited to stop by and see it, Bush, if you happen to be out here in California looking for votes. Oh, and tell your friends to come. With apologies for the mix of metaphors, it does get a bit incestuous, preaching to the choir!

2 comments: said...

Thanks for you thoughtful account of how you chose the artwork for "The Demise of Democracy" exhibition. My painting was one of the works selected, and until I read your statement I was a little uncomfortable with the tag of anything I do being called political. I envy people who have a burning message to convey in their art. For me my art is not a wepon but more of a medicine that helps me feel connected in a better way to the world. In the last few years the imagry in my paintings has become disturbing, and political through osmosis. We are all being forced to choose a side. I hope that this exhibition, like your blog, can effect some change, so I can go back to happier colors. Thanks for the exhibition, and for the good medicine you seem to be making.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the response, Lou. What you have to say about your painting is almost exactly what I'd say about my blog!