Read Time 6 minutes
The role of art in turbulent times
We asked creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director of Riposte Magazine, Gem Fletcher for her thoughts on the importance of art in response to turbulent times. Gem reflects on what art can do in a time of crisis and how can we work collectively to make progress.
“Realise you have entered into a moment in human history where you are going to be held more accountable than you have ever been held. There is something catastrophic happening. This is the most vital learning lesson. This is a transition of life.” I think about these words daily. They imprinted in my mind from the moment I heard them back in April. Spoken by artist, activist and educator LaToya Ruby Frazier in a lecture for Yale’s MFA course, she urged students to come up with new beliefs and values and use this transition of life to transform themselves. For me, this was a rallying call for us all.
So what is Art in 2020? Can art do anything in times of crisis? For me, art-making is about world-building. It’s imaginative work, untethered by constraints. It is a platform, a voice, a space to tease out agenda, ethics and values. It can bring us joy and liberation while also exposing trauma and injustice. It can build empathy and deepen consciousness. It functions as a guide through personal and collective crisis and awakening. It helps us locate our innermost capacities, and it has a way of finding us when we need it most. Great Art is alive, messy and ripe with questions.
We are living in unprecedented times. Instability. Uncertainty. Unsure of what lies ahead. Yet cultivating resilience and facing the unknown is something that artists have been doing for centuries. The work of an artist is one that is devoted to a lifelong commitment to questioning, failure and discovery. Existing in the messy discomfort which for so many is too difficult to bear. The work is never finished. The meaning is never fixed. But art doesn’t solve problems, it doesn’t function in that way, but it is here to wake us up and provide material to make us think. It’s a call to action and will keep dragging issues into the light until something changes. In John Henry’s Stranger Fruit he captures Black mothers and sons, suspended in embrace confronting the disarming violence and ubiquity of fear facing this community. Through this work, Henry opens up a line of enquiry that not only speaks to our recent history but a lineage of racial injustice. It functions as a guide through personal and collective crisis and awakening.
At the end of my podcast The Messy Truth, I ask my guest the same question, ‘what matters more, the experience of making the work, or the final piece? For me, the answer reveals so much about who the artist is, why they are doing what they do. Their priorities, intentions and definition of success all laid bare. The life of an artist and their output are inextricably linked. And while not all Art is autobiographical, the work’s entanglement with its maker can reveal what is truly alive in the work. Sophie Mayanne uses her body as a material, not only to explore how she feels in her skin but to express, challenge and dismantle the stereotypes projected onto fat bodies. In Jess Cochrane’s visceral works, she charts the social and cultural construct of beauty and the impact it has on the mental and physical wellbeing of women in her generation. These women demonstrate the potential for art-marking as collective healing – a space for metabolising our world in order to reimagine and liberate.
As we grapple with our complicity within power structures that perpetuate inequality and exploitation. We must move beyond the individualistic mindset and commit to collective progress and personal evolution. To be constantly looking back and lifting others up. To stay sharp, demand change, speak out and speak up. To think critically about the work we are making, how it functions, who it serves and what it’s purpose is. 2020 continues to be a mass revelation of our vulnerability. We still can’t fully understand the seismic impact it has had on people and the planet, yet we know in our veins that things must urgently change.
As I look for comfort in my world of images, the volume has been turned down. I’m craving radical new ideas and approaches, a reimagining of the medium birthed from a place of togetherness and radical optimism. I find that solace in the work of Carmen Winant. Her collage strategies examine feminist modes of survival and revolt, vibrating with joy in the collective imagining of a world free from patriarchy. In their recent collaboration for Vogue Italia Photographer Tyler Mitchell and Playwright Jeremy O’ Harris reclaim the concept of Nonsense inspired by the Dadaists. Black Nonsense is the notion that images could be a portal for joy. The assignment also saw Mitchell bring in his peers to contribute to the story as a way of destabilising hierarchy and ownership in the editorial space. Marking Time by Nicole Fleetwood is a book and exhibition that explores vision and justice in the context of mass incarceration. As the movement to transform the USA’s criminal justice system grows, Art provides the imprisoned with a healing modality, giving voice to their experiences and trauma. All of these works speak to the relationship between art and freedom, radically reimagining how we are in community together as creatives.
‘Art is crucial to a civilisation. Ethics comes from that. Justice comes from that. What takes us there – Art.’ Olivia Laing