My partner, who is an artist, discussed with me the other day the types of artists. There is the artist who is creating art with an agenda, who is often a political activist and their medium is art. But then there is the artist that simply creates art to express themselves. My partner discussed how modern art today is focused more on the statement said through art, where it becomes a metaphor for some type of political agenda. As much as this is celebrated, it also causes tension and frustration for those that seek to simply express themselves through art. Often times, those artists are criticized for not addressing the issues of today, and it seems that people often don’t appreciate the aesthetics of the piece and instead seek out hidden meanings. This was a valid point, but I added that expression and the aesthetics of a piece is in of itself the revolutionary act. Sometimes people forget that in their search for hidden meanings and metaphors.
One way to really see this is in the discussion on race and art that was hosted by the Art Center this past weekend. Dread Scott and John Sims were the two artists giving talks that day. As I listened to how they created their work and what influenced them, I noted a discernible and interesting difference. Dread Scott presented himself more as an activist artist, while John Sims presented himself more as an artist expressing himself through various art mediums.
Dread Scott discussed the political aspects that influenced his work and how he creates art in order to challenge the viewer into re-imagining the world in which we live into something radically different. He examined the past and reinterpreted it into the issues of today, for in regards to race, there is a lot of parallels with the past that are still sadly prevalent today. This examination of the past within the present was incorporated through a variety of mediums — painting, screenprinting, photography, installations, and performance. His hopes and dreams for a better future was realized in his activism in communities and in his art that deliberately challenges his viewers to interpret the world differently. Much of his work held deeper meanings and metaphors concerning the history of race relations in America, but he also created works that could only be interpreted in one way such as the lynching flag of the early 20th century updated to reflect police brutality today. His activism and art were coupled together, a vehicle for his ideals.
John Sims, on the other hand, discussed how his art originated as an expression of his thoughts, interests, and emotions. He began his discussion with how he was a math artist, and how he expressed his thoughts and contemplations about the nature of math and art into artistic forms that utilize mathematics. Much of his math-art explored aesthetically pleasing iterations of mathematical ideas. He organized conventions and classes to show others the relationship of math and art. This was part of an expression of himself but also a desire to help others find new ways of expressing themselves and the world around them. He spoke of how people, especially women and people of color, are often told they cannot do math, and so he sought to circumvent society’s programming — to re-ignite the enjoyment of math and art. It started from him expressing himself and evolved into the activist realm.
The latter half of his presentation swerved into him confronting the reality of the Confederate flag in the south, particularly Florida, and the intense emotions it caused. In order to process these emotions, John Sims took the confederate battle flag and began to transform it through the use of his math-art techniques. He found new ways to deconstruct the flag through color alterations and to display it so that it echoed the memory of the brutality in which the flag was birthed. This personal journey started with somewhat aesthetically pleasing color alterations and evolved into more abrupt (and for some jarring) expression of complex emotions. Through this expression of his emotions, he created a project that challenged Southern ideology regarding the flag and its relation to race. During this journey, John Sims interacted with the issues of race in society today, to really grapple with it on a personal level, and in turn to help others in their own journeys with these same issues. This act of expression was revolutionary — just as much as Dread Scott’s more activist art was revolutionary.
Both challenge society and the racist norms of our time, but they started at different places and took a different path to that similar end point. Often times, people will focus so much on the former — those who are activists that use art as a medium, that they often fail to see the power of the latter — those who use art as expression. In marginalized communities, the expression of oneself is the revolutionary act; it is a challenge to society. This is because society perceives their agency as a threat to order and often punishes those that try to freely express themselves. So, through the act of expression, the artist becomes a revolutionist. This is why expressing oneself can speak to the issues of our times just as powerfully as any activist act. It is this tension between expression and ideas that creates a visceral reaction in the viewer, one that births discussions such as this. Art is revolutionary no matter its birthplace, whether it be in political ideology or in the emotional realm.