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A Serious Lack

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Issue: 10 Section: Arts Topics: visual arts

November 10, 2003

A Serious Lack

American Visual Artists and Imperialism

by Max Liboiron

None of the "Justice Project" finalists dealt with Bush's conception of justice.
I have to admit that the abundance of American flags bothered me when I first came to New York a few months ago. And the bumpers stickers saying 'God Bless Our Soldiers' didn't ease my mind much, either. But I breathed a sigh of relief whilst walking past the offices of the faculty of my fine arts program; on almost every door was an anti-war poster from the internet. Relieved, I set out to find what the American professional visual arts community was saying about the war. Things went downhill from there.

My search began in the hundred or so galleries in New York City's Chelsea district. No mention of the war anywhere. So I emailed four of the city's galleries known for more 'alternative' shows. No luck there. Was I frustrated? Not yet; almost all of the artists and art educators that I had come into contact with since moving to New York are very critical of Bush's foreign policy. I was sure that some Americans were making art about what was so passionately on their minds. Isn't that what art is?

I came across an outdated call for submissions from The Justice Project, "a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fighting injustice and to creating a more humane and just world".

The website's gallery features the young winners in video, animation, and graphic design medias. Featured are a pro-life animation clip, a lot of anti-gun and anti-nuclear graphics, clips that request the abolishment of the death penalty next to clips demanding that murderers are not let out of jail... And a graphic lamenting the lost American soldiers in the two recent (and continuing) wars. Whether or not there were entries that were critical of Bush's idea of 'justice' is impossible to know; if there were, they were not chosen as finalists by the Justice Project's jury.

My last hope resided in the recent Whitney Museum of American Art's show "The American Effect." The catalogue's forward by Maxwell Anderson was promising: "How those who question our policies and values perceive us is the most urgent question we face in a nation in search for security, and in this exhibition we look at artists to teach us something about ourselves that we cannot learn from isolated introspection." If the New York professional art world was silent on the war issue, at least one can depend on the international artistic community to speak out! Out of forty-seven artists from thirty countries, not one had a direct reference to the war in Afghanistan or Iraq. The gallery tour guide defended this lack by saying that the pieces were chosen before the war on Iraq started. But the situation remains ludicrous: a 'contemporary' exhibit claiming to represent the world's view of America fails utterly to represent the world's most current view of America.

I left feeling enraged at the apparent lack of concern, awareness, and critical thought on the war by American visual artists. When blatant opportunities arouse for commentary, the main issue was left out entirely. I ran to my studio to do something about that.

To be fair, not all American visual artists are skirting the issue; Susan Sontag spoke out against the war in Afghanistan the minute Bush proposed it. She was nearly stripped of her citizenship. There are surely artists in their backroom studios all around the world making art about the wars; the work just isn't easily accessible. And one can never forget the anti-war spoof posters on every faculty member's door; the internet is ultra-public and accessible. As far as the New York professional art world goes, I'll be the first to admit that it is more a business than a Art World, and the fear of losing one's job seems to be a greater issue than real justice projects or looking 'to artists to teach us something about ourselves.'


Two websites for anti-war posters: 1, 2

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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