As in Part 1: The Year in Health, and in Part 2: The Year in Climate, I want to write about something that I don’t typically write about but is so important. Since so many of us have been locked behind computer screens, what has become of our appreciation and creation of beauty? And what can we learn from where we are at? If we believe the news, we will be tempted to be largely pessimistic. Summarizing the way and the why things are the way they are, and suggesting some manageable approaches going forward, is daunting. It is so complex, and the scope of such an endeavour makes reductive oversimplification seem inevitable. But let’s try, because at a time often reserved for resolutions, having some rules of thumb based on values will provide some baseline from which we might approach some environmental challenges. And perhaps we will see some aspects of life that, while not entirely optimistic, might be appreciated as offering some foundation for thriving. This is where such a summary might be useful: it can offer a baseline for thriving.

In the following, let me break up this summary and reflection into many parts to make it more manageable. Perhaps we can underscore some common values that buttress rules of thumb that, while contestable, may provide some way forward toward ways of thriving rather than away from it. This section will summarize, illustrate with three examples, and then reflect. In advance, let me ask your forgiveness for using some examples that are local to me. Since it is such a large task, this article will be broken up into parts.

Part 2 – The Year in Art

The world of art includes particular pieces that are important, not just in art history, but in expressing a spirit at work in humanity. Picking among all the work of art and events is a challenge. In the three examples below, art can deal with global events, and express a community spirit, and challenge false ideals.

Baan Norg Collaborative Arts and Culture, The Ritual of Things, 2022.

Photo: Photo Nicholas Wefers

Ruangrupa, the collective behind Documenta 15, identified the Indonesian word “nongkrong” as one of the qunquiennial’s guiding principles. It means “hanging out together,” but as Minh Nguyen wrote in Art in America, their approach was more about self-organizing and resource sharing than it was classic art world nepotism. There were many ways and many places to hang out in Kassel this summer, but one of the most prominent, iconic, and—importantly—easy to find was a graffitied skate ramp by Baan Norg Collaborative Arts and Culture, titled The Ritual of Things. You didn’t need to be a skater to sit around the ramp’s periphery and ogle or giggle as the brave and/or foolish kickflipped and/or fumbled. But as with most Documenta 15 works, the project’s most intriguing aspect was not on view and in fact took place outside the European Union. The Thai collective gathered donated used skateboards in Kassel, then took them back to Nong Pho, where they invited skaters to ride to the region’s dairy farms, combining skating lessons with agricultural ones. The group hoped to empower the younger generation to get involved in sustainable agriculture that honors the locals, their land, and the Thai economy.

What can be expressed, from art produced outside the European Union, is the need for grassroots cooperation that has been the spirit of human fulfillment. This year in art expressed that.

Coco Fusco, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word, 2021.

Photo: Courtesy the artist

It is still too soon to say what the defining artworks about the current pandemic will be, although it seems fair to suggest that Coco Fusco’s video Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word is highly likely to become one of them. Fusco’s subject is Hart Island, a landmass near the Bronx that has been used as a burial ground for the unidentified for well over a century. In 2020, Hart Island took on a new valence, becoming the place where the unclaimed bodies of those who’d fallen ill with Covid and died were taken and buried by prisoners from Rikers Island. Using drone photography, Fusco’s camera looms high above, capturing the island as if from the point of view of one of the nameless who passed. Periodically, however, her camera ventures downward, closer to the water, where Fusco can be seen in a boat, rowing solo and dropping flowers into the Long Island Sound. Shown at this year’s Whitney Biennial, the video acts as a memorial for the unknown Covid victims buried nearby, whom Fusco has postulated may have been immigrants or houseless, and as a reminder these people died with others by their side, even if they did not know it. As artist Pamela Sneed says in the video’s tender narration, “The bodies lie together alone.”

This year in art reflected the widespread race to isolation, spurred by a pandemic, and how it leads to death and a genocidal impulse in which we are both perpetrator and victim. Our need for an increasingly unimpeded life leads to detachment, isolation, and in the end… death.

Two protesters, both wearing shirts reading 'JUST STOP OIL,' beneath a painting of sunflowers that has been splashed with soup. They kneel beneath, with their hands stuck to the gallery wall. A group of cameramen photograph them.

A recent Just Stop Oil protest involved spilling tomato soup onto a van Gogh painting.

Photo : Photo Just Stop Oil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Climate change became a loud, unignorable topic in the art industry this year after activists and protestors targeted famous artworks at major museums around the world. It started with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre being smeared with cake in May. Other notable examples included mashed potatoes thrown at a Claude Monet at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, and tomato soup splashed on a van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London. At least one climate protestor explained the works were chosen based on their prominence (and use of protective glass) to highlight the need for governments to stop subsidizing fossil fuel developments. While the Getty family is famous for its oil riches and art collection, the heir Aileen Getty has also donated at least $1 million to help fund many of the climate protests taking place at museums.

This event challenged some of the deepest ideals of the high economies of “famous” art, in the light of more, so-called, realistic concerns with the climate. It expressed the myopic view that climate change should be dominant in the minds of people. It clearly represented a criticism of the culture of fame and prominence. A culture of fame is certainly one of the most tragic ideals of the Western world. And as it criticized a culture of fame, it was indeed a sincere expression of a youth perspective of what is wrong with the established order. If fame is indeed the key to a fulfilled life, at the expense of a climate that is damaged by an economy built on fossil fuels, then I stand with them in criticizing the ideal. But perhaps the disorderly protest would have landed if the metaphor it invoked was more naturally similar.

Perhaps the greatest achievement in these scattered examples of art, and art events, is the challenge presented to the idea of global citizenship, i.e., of living at a scale that humans are not evolved to do. If we are indeed meant to hang out again, with beauty mixed with play and life, or to row on the waters of mass, isolated death, or to aspire to fame at the expense of the world around us, then we may need to consider again living more locally than we have. We may indeed need to see that the good life is not “out there somewhere”, but is indeed in the recognition that is all around us. We may need again to become local and to direct our gaze to humans and particular scales and scopes. This year in art is telling us, like the years in health or in climate, that we are indeed people of local environments that we share with other people.

2 thoughts on “2022 in Review: Part 3 – The Year in Art

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