HOW TO GO ON – making art when everything is all fucked up…

January 2011 – the passionate and subjective rant of my MFA thesis reduced to 1000 words of passionate and subjective ranting…

My politics are feminist, anarchist, humanist, passionate, radical and green – both in my artistic practice and my personal life. I believe in resistance, and although my gestures may not be grand, these basic tenets underlie everything I do.
I grow my own vegetables.

The question of how to be an artist in the circumstances of today’s world is for me an ongoing struggle. The ecological catastrophe and the unchallenged rule of neoliberalism make this a period in history different to that facing previous generations of artists attempting to establish their role in society. Given the urgency of these times, can art have any significance, can it have a role as a tool for radical change for a better world?

“Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labelled ‘file and forget’, and I can neither file nor forget.” – Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man 1

Cursed with an inability to submit to a blinkered view, I feel I have a responsibility to act. As one of the first generation of women who have had access to education, birth control, and economic independence – things which have given me the ability to act – I feel this is also my moral obligation. We have an extraordinary combination of factors creating the situation now facing us, and we have never before been qualified to acknowledge, understand, and tackle them. Under these conditions, is being an artist an ethical choice – and if so, what kind of artist do I need to be?

How can I go on making art when what’s happening in the world around me is so calamitous? How can I conquer that sleazy feeling that it’s totally decadent to be an artist when the Amazon is vanishing, whales are extincting, people are starving, child prostitutes being scarred, the Enrons of this world unscrupulously undermining any remaining business ethics to profit at all costs, and the country I have lived in for the last twenty five years disappearing as the sea rises?

I can convince myself that art, under these circumstances, has any significance, only if I can believe in the power of art – in its power to effect change in the fucked-up-ness of things – if not directly then obliquely, effecting a chain-reaction, a little less aimlessly than butterfly flapping its wings. If I cannot believe this then I should stop being an artist, become a farmer, a nurse or an assassin, or set off to save the jungle, the ice-cap or prostituted children (how to choose?!)

Art, manipulated into a corner where it is no longer taken seriously, is allowed, expected even, to say or do something, anything, outrageous, to be critical and to subvert, and yet this criticism should remain within accepted bounds. Like the court jesters of old, it is okay to lightly mock, to poke fun at the established order, to show, as it were, that there is space for criticism, that this belongs within the co-ordinates of democracy, yet the jests should be just that, lightweight and not taking themselves too seriously. Any real criticism of the foundations of the ruling ideology is out of bounds, and ‘off with their heads!’

Art’s value (and by value I mean inherent value not monetary) is diminishing, disappearing, as art becomes just another word meaning design, or fashion or decoration, leaving artists as nothing more than providers of consumable ideas for articles of fashion, design and decoration. Art, like an old-fashioned girl-child, is being told that she must return complacently to a predetermined place in the corner and look pretty, speaking only when spoken to. We must resist this. And in order to do so we need to operate from a position of resistance to the all-encompassing neoliberal paradigm which threatens art’s very existence – in that art will be subsumed into the commodifying concept of capitalist economy as just another product, devoid of any magic, reduced to just another marketable design or marketable designer. Art will simply succumb, will lose its power.

If art is to retain any worth, any strength, in a world where value has increasingly become defined in terms of consumption and ownership, where things have become more important than the people they are supposedly produced for, and the fetishization of commodities taken on a new desperation as we attempt to fill the bottomless pits left by relinquishment of control over our own production of fulfilment, then resistance is the only way to go on.

If we do not resist, then soon there simply will be no more place for art. So we artists – if art is what we do best – need to fight for its survival, to prevent art itself from becoming extinct, and in doing so, work as an unpredictable, unexpected vehicle to a life somehow richer, clearer, more just, closer to humanity – a catalyst which could not have been predicted. Art at its best can have an inexplicable power, a kind of magic. Because when art works it works in ways which are often indefinable and unfathomable – but being indefinite and unfathomable it may perhaps be able to reach depths which other, more traditionally efficient methods for radical change may not.

Art can still find cracks in the system where its voice is neither unheard nor prone to willful misinterpretation, and can make subversive use of its privileged position and ‘Yessah ’em to death’2 for as long as the disguise holds – after all, as long as it’s just art then we can hide behind that cover. My own work, which comprises various strands – objects or interventions, often in public space; performance lectures combining written texts with photographs and video; and installations juxtaposing compositions of individual video pieces – is both an ongoing attempt to create ‘meeting places’, and to ‘make sense of life’s brutalities’3

Yet the dilemma remains if it is possible to retain some credibility as a truly engaged artist and still maintain an ongoing relationship with the minefield of the contemporary art world… It seems to me that it is essential to keep in mind the challenge to channel art-related skills and perceptions in such a way that they empower rather than impress people. When negotiating the dangerous waters of the art world and in staying out of the mouths of the sharks without ourselves becoming predatory, we have to keep a critical eye on the balance and ensure that, whatever compromises we make, it weighs out on the side of empowerment. And, in order to turn back the tide of objective non-committedness, however we decide to go on, we need to do so with a passionate and radical subjectivity.

Onwards, comrade artists!
Jimini Hignett – Amsterdam, January 2011

1. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1953, Penguin, Harmondsworth, England, p.467
2. Ellison, 1953, p.409
3. John Berger, “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts, and honour.”