Abdication of the Artists

I live in Woodstock, New York. In addition to being "that Woodstock," it has been host to an arts colony since 1903 and it's full of musicians and writers and photographers and others of that ilk.

Every year the Woodstock Guild of Artists holds a particularly charming exhibit, the "5X7 show." That's inches. There's a $10 admission, all the pieces sell for just $100, and it raises money for the Guild.

This year there were 152 pieces. Some were very clever. Some amusing. A few exhibited very precise draftsmanship. A couple used words and images. There were sculptures -- the only rule is size, there's no restriction on the number of dimensions you can try to reach into. There were hazy landscapes and precise landscapes and some portraits.

What struck me the most was what was not there.

Not a single piece was political. Or about economics or religion or the environment or mass delusion or science or the media.

Five Americans and seventy-eight Iraqis died violently today. The shoes on your feet were likely put together by workers on slave wages. Christian activists who went to Iraq to rescue people are being held hostage. The poppies are blooming in Afghanistan and the warlords are getting rich. In Bolivia a leading candidate is running on a platform of the legalization of coca growing. The polar ice cap is melting. New Orleans was destroyed this year. It will not be rebuilt under this administration. Nineteen billion dollars was lost, misplaced, stolen from Iraq while Paul Bremer III was in charge of it. He got the Medal of Freedom afterward. The treasury is being looted. We're living in the age of the crusades, Christian against Muslim, the 11th Century coming back in the 21st. The Catholic Church is opposing the use of condoms in a country where the rate of HIV infection is 38%. Suburban sprawl is not merely unchecked, it is accelerating. McMansions grow larger. SUVs have grown into Humvees and the price of gas goes up.

There will be people who freeze to death this winter due to the cost of oil. I don't know if any of them will be from our town, but I do know that there will be people who are wearing their long johns and sweaters inside their homes as December crawls through the cracks and they'll keep them on through the nasty fringes of March.

Our public dialogue is anemic. The Right has hijacked the pulpits. Public relations speech and imagery are the order of the day. Public policy is sold the same way as cheap goods at Wal-Mart, with no regard for their quality or utility, or our need for them, but only to move product and contribute to the grosses of the grossest.

It would have been a relief if there had even been a piece celebrating Rush Limbaugh, or the advance of American Imperialism -- Bravissimo Pax Americana! -- or in favor of the War in Terror, or to Support the Troops. Something to show that people who regard themselves as artists think that maybe, sometimes, art could be about something.

This is Woodstock?

152 artists were given an opportunity to show a small piece of work. Each and every one of them, individually, made a decision not to be political, social, religions or scientific.

This is not to say the art must be "relevant." This is not to say we should return to Soviet realism and show Heroic Workers planting new flowers on the village green.

It is to note that is this case, the artists abdicated. Universally.

No czar or commissar told them to, no corporate sponsor paid them to, nobody from Homeland Security came around and hinted that they would be taking names, no influential critic said the age of relevance is dead, no greedy gallery owner said I can't sell anything with a political or social theme.

It is to suggest that this is symptomatic of "art" in general.

It is content to leave political image making to Karl Rove and Osama bin Laden. To leave social statements to Target and Toyota -- yes, "consume, consume, consume" to the neglect of anything else, is a social statement. Leave spirituality to Focus on the Family and the Pope who graduated from Hitler Youth. Leave the issue of education to the anti-tax zealots and the privatizers.

Those people -- and thousands of others who toil at image making and persuasion for corporations and politicians and major religious institutions -- think in all the terms of art. They think of images and aesthetics, materials and textures, color and line, allusions, delusions and illusions -- and they use them to sell their products.

If the "artists" -- and this is addressed to artists everywhere, not just in our little town -- prefer to use their craft for it's own sake, or to show how clever and how able they are, then that, of course, is up to them.

Which is why the nature of the world that they are not engaged with belongs to those they have abdicated to.