Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Art, OWS, and Indigenous People have in common

Speaking in Stone by Nora Valdez who describes her work as how "the dialogue between the artist and the stone becomes a conversation. The artist starts; the stone answers, asks for 
what it needs." Andre Institute: Brookline, NH
Photograph by J. Stimmell 9/10/10

We Americans have belittled art since our Puritan ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. As a result, it is probably not surprising that the United States has produced relatively few citizens who, in the words of art historian Robert Hughes, “draw sustenance from the high-wire acts of the artistic imagination”[1]

The problem seems to be that American culture has never understood the essence of art – and, by extension, you could argue – life itself.

We have always followed our Puritan ethic of valuing hard work but certainly not as an end to itself – otherwise, artists would get credit for the extremely hard work they do making art – but as a means to something else: higher status or making money.

Unfortunately, this attitude has now even spread to artists themselves. Check out this recent “Quote-of-the-Day” on my Google Home Page by American novelist, Mark Helprin: “Of course, you would have to be insane to hope your child grows up to be a playwright or poet. Given the odds, you would have to be quite cavalier about your children’s future.”

Nevertheless, despite these enormous obstacles, art quietly thrives, even in America, because it is so much more than a mere thing to be bought and sold like pork bellies on the commodities exchange.  As Hughes so acutely observes, Art discovers its true social use, not on the ideological [free market] plane, but by opening the passage from feeling to meaning…This impulse seems to be immortal.”[2]

Lewis Hyde has written the classic in the field, an illuminating book called “The Gift,[3]” searching for the core impetus that inspires the artist to create.  Utilizing a renaissance man’s breadth of knowledge, Hyde pulls together innumerable threads of disparate evidence, only to discover that the answer is simple and unequivocal: artists make art to create a meaningful exchange with others.

The underlying motivation of every artist is to not to produce a collectible to be bought or sold but the desire to produce a gift to be freely given and shared.

Hyde begins his book by noting that the first colonists almost immediately coined the word “Indian giver” to describe the Native American belief – so uncivilized and distasteful to the white man – that gifts should not be kept but returned or shared, or in any case, passed on.

“The opposite of  “Indian giver,” Hyde says, “would be something like ‘white man keeper’ (or maybe ‘capitalist’), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation… (or more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production).[4]

Later in the book, Hyde points out that the Peasants’ War in Europe during the Reformation involved the same “struggle between spirit and property” as the Native American’s fight with the Europeans: “a war against the marketing of formerly inalienable properties. Whereas before a man could fish in any stream and hunt in any forest, now he found there were individuals who claimed to be the owners of these commons.” [5]

And isn’t that what OWS is really all about:

A protest against corporations owning not only our public commons but our government; a protest against corporations marketing our formerly inalienable properties, including now even the water we drink, and increasing, the genes and cells, not just of plants and animals, but parts of ourselves; a protest against being discarded like last year’s model just because we happen to be poor, old, infirm, or even, heaven forbid, an artist.  

XXX (571 words)

[1] Robert Hughes from his book, The Shock of the New, quoted from Lewis Latham piece, Art and Money Exchange, posted on TomDispatch 3/15/10.
2 ibid
3 Lewis Hyde, The Gift. NYC: Vintage Books, 2007
4 ibid  pp 3-4
5 ibid p. 157

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