From our sister publication Art Practical, today we bring you Deena Chalabi’s article in issue 8.3: Art Can’t Do Anything If We Don’t. This issue explores the role of art in times of crisis, and how it both succeeds and fails as a call to action and political tool. Chalabi states, “Art offers alternatives to ideas and images prepackaged for us by politicians or corporations (rarely are we encouraged to imagine new things, as a society). Art in all its forms allows the world in, and largely acts as a counter-argument to essentialist thinking.” This article was originally published on March 23, 2017.
Before I entered the world of the visual arts, I thought mostly about words. I documented what art—broadly defined to include literature, theater, and film—could do in societies all around the world where free expression was threatened.
Today I work at the intersection of contemporary art and the world beyond it, asking questions about the meaning and impact of art in public life. I consider art-making as both an imaginative practice and as a form of speech. In the current political climate, I spend even more time than usual mulling over the relationship between these two roles, wondering what art can do as public speech, and what role it can play in fostering our individual and collective imaginations. Yet, despite having the word “public” in my title, I am not always sure where my duty as a citizen of the world, and my role as a curator, intersect. On the one hand, I want to agree with those who think art shouldn’t have to be a tool for action; that art shouldn’t have to answer to anyone. On the other hand, I consider that position a luxury of those who can afford it. I need to believe art can do something.
Early last month, I went to see Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about the work of one of my heroes, James Baldwin. The film is powerful in its entirety, both historically interesting and politically timely, but the footage of one speech struck me in particular: Baldwin is standing in a jacket and tie, surrounded by seated young White people, almost exclusively men, who listen to him politely as he delivers an eloquent and searing indictment of White supremacist thinking. Later, I scoured YouTube until I found the source: a debate from 1965 at the Cambridge Union in England with William F. Buckley, on the question: Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro? “[One’s] response or reaction to that question has to depend, in effect, on where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality, or system of reality is,” begins Baldwin. “That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them. A White South African, or Mississippi sharecropper, or a French exile from Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality… [in which] one civilization has the right to overtake and subjugate another.”