February 2017

by Mark W. Scala/Chief Curator Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Nowadays many artists are wondering if and how they should respond to an emerging political environment that they fear may be hostile to beliefs they cherish—beauty, ethics, truth, individual expression, tolerance, and community building. Should they just continue to do as they have always done, knowing that creativity has a humanistic and aesthetic dimension that transcends politics? Or is there a need for a direct response, for an art that overtly strives to change the hearts of people who may be able to influence the world in a positive way?

Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, MCA Chicago, July 11–November 22, 2015 Photograph by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

“All art is political,” it is often said, meaning that art of every type, not just propaganda, conveys values that, purposefully or not, either reinforce or challenge systemic norms. Even artists unwilling to dive headlong into polemics can alter worldviews by undermining certainty with ambiguity or putting forth private insights, as well as startling beauty and fresh visions that dissolve numbness—an important step in recovering from shock.

“The pendulum between private contemplation and social connectedness reflects dichotomies felt by artists around the world.”

In politics, groups of like-minded citizens hold more sway than lone individuals. Even in art-making, which is often most compelling when it gives us a singular voice, collaboration and cooperation can enlarge that voice, extend its reach, and make it feel less like one is singing alone in the shower.

A possible model for such a citizenry of artists can be seen in the works featured in The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. This remarkable exhibition tells the story of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which included such cerebral avant-gardists and free-jazz pioneers as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Offering cutting-edge public performances and music training for inner city youth, the members of AACM have advocated a renewed spirit around black identity through experimentation and a passion for transformation. The collective merges inspiration from many sources, from African percussive traditions to what the AACM website calls “the music of the future,” with experiments that evoke avant-garde compositions by John Cage or the mystical spaciness of Sun Ra.

Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, MCA Chicago, July 11–November 22, 2015; Photograph by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

This has been an environment in which musicians and artists have nourished one another. In the 1970s–1990s, visual artists like Wadsworth Jarrell and Jeff Donaldson provided a dynamic visual counterpart in works that reflect influences from densely patterned African textiles to the raw energy of Abstract Expressionism. The generation that followed has continued the spirit of AACM in their efforts to use art to transform lives; it includes the multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave, who is in The Freedom Principle and whose major installation at the Frist Center this fall is being organized by my colleague Katie Delmez. More than a celebration of Chicago’s cultural identity, the lesson of The Freedom Principle is that radical creativity can generate communal energy anywhere in the world.

From this roiling avant-gardism, we can move to the more introspective (though no less radical) work of Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist whose The Visitors is closing this month at the Frist. An ensemble of eight musicians spread throughout an old mansion in upstate New York plays their instruments and sings plaintive lyrics, creating a collective bond while in physical isolation from each other. At the end, they join together and walk through the fields singing, their voices remaining in harmony. But whereas the isolated performances were tinged with melancholy and regret, this finale is sweet and full of fun; the ensemble glows with the pleasure of togetherness.

The pendulum between private contemplation and social connectedness reflects dichotomies felt by artists around the world. Imagine each of the musicians in The Visitors not just in a separate room but in a different city or country, connected only through headsets—a network of isolated voices, emanating from far-flung homes, neighborhoods, cities, and nations around the world. Even though they are alone, these musicians are linked by technology and the shared desire to contribute to the emotionally stirring composition they are playing. When they come together at the end, the technological bond gives way to a more physical, palpable connection. An example of what is today called “relational aesthetics,” The Visitors emphasizes human interaction over the making of an art object.

The Visitors is just one work, while The Freedom Principle defined a loosely held set of tenets that spans generations and milieus. Yet I see them both as agents of renewal, artistic and social. Dynamically melding art with life, they share optimism and at times even joy at the possibilities opened by their joined voices, not only for their community but also for the world.

To learn more about Nick Cave’s Inspired Community Art Project, visit www.fristcenter.org.

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