Art in Troubled Times
by Ric Kasini Kadour
Note: A version of this essay appears as the editorial in Vermont Art Guide #5.
The start of Summer 2017 felt pretty good. An exhibition I curated for the Vermont Arts Council opened in June. I built “Connections: The Art of Coming Together” by asking artists to nominate one another. The commentary on the artwork was as much about the relationships between artists as it was on the artwork itself. A series of essays expanded on what I learned about artist networks and communities. Overall, the experience of curating the exhibition led me to feel hopeful about the fabric of our society, that good people working together can do good things.
And then summer happened, specifically, a group of white supremacists held rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia and the rest of us got to watch it on television. Clean-cut white men marched with tiki torches and shouted “Jews will not replace us. Death to Antifa. White lives matter.” The nation was thrown into a moral crisis over the emergence of those who wish to reorder American society according to extremely racist or authoritarian values and commit the genocide of people of color, queer people, Jews, and others who do not fit a narrow definition of “American”. The President and members of his administration demonstrate a sympathy to their position. The unfathomable became a reality: hate was graced with legitimacy.
I don’t mention these events to further beat a drum. As I write this, our social media feeds and cable news outlets are doing that just fine. Sides are being taken. Questions are being asked. Morality is being debated. I mention these events because, moving forward, this is the world in which we live and if art is going to be relevant to people, if art is going to serve a meaningful function in the day-to-day lives of people, then we need to understand that this is the world that art lives in as well.
I’ve long thought that non-representation in modern art made sense after the incomprehensible horrors of World War II. Of course, abstract art existed before 1945, but there is something about bold brushstrokes, radical palettes, and kinetic compositions that help us make sense of chaos. The absoluteness of a painting is comforting in the face of moral ambiguity. And the freedom with which 20th century artists made art, particularly in America, was a beacon, a signal to choose freedom in our daily lives.
Too often contemporary political art today strikes a pedantic note, but fails to resonate beyond those predisposed to hear its message. While I enjoy its wit and the sophistication of its message, it often lacks the depth of pure concept or the punch of emotionally expressive work. And still, I would say that in times of social, political, moral crisis, art is more important than ever. One cannot underestimate the power of encountering a towering sculpture in a lush field or the joy of crawling into a mobile camper that has been turned into a miniature museum or the comfort of seeing a familiar landscape rendered in an eccentric palette. Even when art is nostalgic, it can be a force for good. Murals like Salute to Vermont, which I write about in Vermont Art Guide #5, can remind us of our values, of what we need to hold on to. Art provides an opportunity to seek out others, at a festival or an opening or by simply popping into a gallery on a Thursday and chatting with the owner. Art can deepen our emotions, give us space for contemplation, and, most importantly, reinforce our humanity. Art helps us maintain the fabric of our society, our connections to one another. Taking care of each other and fortifying our humanity is exactly what we need to be doing more of in these times.
Self-taught Sheldon Peck was a 19th century portrait painter from Cornwall, Vermont, who, in addition to art and farming, was involved with a number of social issues including abolition, racial equality, temperance, public education, women’s rights, and pacifism.
Portrait of Mary Jones, Shoreham
by Sheldon Peck
oil on academy board