Art, Marriage Equality, Confederate Flag

For a long time I’ve believed that art relates to everything. No area of thought is irrelevant to thinking about art.

Recent events have brought me to thinking about how thinking about art could be a useful model for considering how things change, and how that change can be uncomfortable for those not accustomed to dealing with change.

I began my involvement in art at a particularly interesting time—the late 60s and early 70s. Being an admirer of folks who could really draw, such as Ingres and Degas, I somehow muddled my way through the changes in “art” from the Impressionists, through the Abstract Expressionists and to the strange stuff in Artforum like the fabric polygons of Richard Tuttle, neon pieces by Keith Sonnier and conceptual works by Mel Bochner. How I managed to so quickly accept these changes I don’t know, but change was in the air back then.

In his essay for the exhibition catalog Stella Since 1970, Philip Leider refers to Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in discussing the progress of painting that leads to Frank Stella’s work: “Kuhn distinguishes four stages in this process: normal science, anomaly, crisis and paradigm conflict.” I understand that philosophers of science might disagree with Kuhn, but Leider makes good use of the theory in his essay.

Leider quotes Kuhn:

The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy, and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.

 Leider himself continues: “With Pollock and his generation abstract painting became no longer an anomaly, but a competing paradigm.” Further along he says, “Those artists who have been persuaded of the difference between Pollock’s paintings and simple badness are at the same time persuaded that painting itself is something different from that which they once thought it was.” He concludes the section of the essay by saying, “In choosing abstract art we choose to acknowledge what it is to live in the twentieth century, as those who chose Masaccio chose to acknowledge what it was to live in the Renaissance.”

I thought of this essay, which I haven’t looked at for maybe 30 years, because of recent discussions of events. For example, for a long time I’ve wondered at those who have been stuck on the paradigm that “marriage” could only be between a man and a woman. I think most of those folks have some kind of religious tradition that hinders their ability to conceive of another model. It seems that they cannot see a difference between the perceived “sanctity” of religious marriage and the straightforward conferring of certain rights under civil marriage. It is that conferring of rights that the Supreme Court decided was protected by the Constitution. Sanctification is still in the province of the religious community.

Because my thinking has been broadened by encountering and accepting things like two steel blocks in a 5,000 sq. ft. space (Richard Serra at Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1975) as an interesting art proposition, I can easily see that “marriage,” like “art” can be a term that is malleable. On the other hand there were lots of folks wondering where the “art” was when they entered the Serra installation.

Then there’s the Confederate battle flag. Is it a symbol of “southern heritage” or a “symbol of racism?” This makes me think of a graffiti incident in southeast Portland years ago. There were some flowers spray painted on a retaining wall with the question: “Art or vandalism?” And I thought BOTH! If you made it, you want to display your art. If it is your wall, you want vandals to leave it alone. The question is what takes precedence? Similarly, the Confederate flag.

The Confederate battle flag can be both a symbol of “southern heritage” AND a “symbol of racism.” Yes, it relates to southern history, but especially after it was raised over the capitol in South Carolina in 1961 in protest during the civil rights movement, it became overtly an in-your-face symbol of racism. Note that it is the “battle flag” and not the national flag, so there is an intent to “battle.” The question is what takes precedence? For those who truly want to celebrate southern heritage (I will accept their sincerity), they can do so in a museum—with a display about the past—which would involve an intentional pilgrimage. And then the flag would not wave a slap in the face to those who have felt racial oppression. How a flag is displayed can very much affect its meaning.

At the time I was learning the basics of art, I was also a supporter of Robert Kennedy in 1968. I remember this from one of his speeches:

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

This works in art and life. Think “why not?” first.