This essay originally appeared in Kolaj #24. A quarterly, printed magazine about contemporary collage, our goal with every issue is that Kolaj Magazine is essential reading for anyone interested in the role of contemporary collage in art, culture, and society. Visit the website to subscribe or get a copy.

I challenge you, find your voice, find the biggest, boldest idea that you can, and make work that speaks it.

In my capacity as a writer, editor, and curator, many artists reach out to me asking for their work to be featured in the magazine or included in an exhibition. These requests come in emails, in the mail, in direct messages on social media. I look at everything. I really do. I have great respect for artists putting themselves out there. I know it’s not easy. That impulse to share one’s work is scary and laborious and hard. I get it. I’ve been there myself. The work of self-promotion is draining.

While I feel artists’ pain, I also care deeply about how society sees and thinks about art. That ethos leads me to privilege the viewer’s experience over the artist’s need. If we want people to care about art, we shouldn’t ask them to care about crap. I think about this frequently in relation to my own work. Is this series self-serving? Is it about me or is it about something bigger than me? Am I saying something that I think is important for other people to hear? Am I serving my community and earning the privilege to call myself an artist and live an artist’s life? When I fall asleep, I want to feel like I made a difference and didn’t con someone out of their money and time with a shiny, metallic balloon dog.

When it isn’t obvious to me, I respond to artists by asking them why someone should care about their work. I don’t do it to be an jerk; I genuinely want to understand how they see themselves in the world and if their convictions are supported by a framework of understanding about what they are asking.

When Kazimir Malevich hung The Black Square in The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in 1915, he declared that his art would not be a tool for God or country. In doing this, Malevich asserted that artists must be free to make whatever, to operate in a free zone of thinking. This was a radical idea at a time when art had for centuries been a tool of the state, the church, and the elite. When art was drafted into the Cold War, Western countries used it to demonstrate that its societies were freer than their Soviet counterparts. Artists were encouraged to go wilder and farther, to consider any material possible, any act as a performance of this thing we call art. This was not a bad thing. Over the course of a century, art went from a restricted, governed thing to…anything goes.

Something got lost along the way. As artists pursued increasingly exotic forms of art, they abandoned their neighbours, their communities, and society. This was never Malevich’s intention, just the opposite. Malevich said his painting offered a viewer “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.” He elaborated in his manifesto on Suprematism, “Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without ‘things’…It is attempting to set up a genuine world order, a new philosophy of life.” Malevich thought artists, free from the church and state, could liberate the people. That didn’t happen. The free artists of the West were gobbled up by a new power, Capitalism, and art became a way for some people to achieve celebrity, affluence, and status. When the Cold War ended, most artists were abandoned.

Public funding for the arts was slashed (especially in the United States) and artists were relegated to the sidelines. Nowadays, it seems, popular media often only mentions art in reference to auction prices or controversy. And society only sees art when it is cloaked in wealth or scandal.

We need to work ourselves out of this corner and rebuild our relationship with society-at-large. One way we do that is to make art that is meaningful to our neighbours. That means we need to understand the role the art we make is playing. That means we need to understand who we are speaking to and why.

Take, for example, Chicago-based Julia Arredondo, who uses commerce to disperse her ideas. She created a web bodega to spread folk empowerment and sells Avon products to challenge notions of femininity and beauty. Or Steve Tierney, whose recent body of work deconstructs gender. Or Beya Khalifa, who is challenging colonialism and Orientalism by using collage to make anew antique photographs of Bedouins. Or Lita Poliakova, whose Artist Portfolio appears in this issue. She operates from a deep understanding of what it means to cannibalize mass culture. She writes, “We can’t neglect the committed toxic affair between collage and mass media either. Mass-communication tools absorb all the clichés and then replicate them until they are outdated and perceived as trash, which is a highly exploitable concept based on a disposable attitude to resources and a greed for novelty. Meanwhile, collage itself, the cut-out type, embodied by magazines and newspapers, is always nouveau, never brand-new; it is a mixture of byproducts, an impersonal past that evolves through an artist. That’s how we’ve been shuffling the particles since the primordial bash.” All of these artists are saying something with their work that society needs to hear. Maybe the guy who’s never quite felt right in his body sees Tierney’s work and feels a little freer expressing his gender. Maybe somebody is given one of Arredondo’s Fuckboy Compensation Invoices and thinks that maybe he shouldn’t hit up that woman for a date every day after class. Maybe a young girl in Cairo sees Khalifa’s collages and realizes that she doesn’t have to accept how the West depicts her country, her community, and that she can determine for herself what images will represent her people.

I believe in the accumulation of small gestures. I do not believe one painting, one sculpture, one collage is going to change the world. But also I believe in the transformative power of art. The more we can engage people with our ideas, the more we can empower people to think, feel, dream, the better the world will be. So I challenge you, find your voice, find the biggest, boldest idea that you can, and make work that speaks it.

–Ric Kasini Kadour

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