WHAT is art and who gets to decide? I saw this expression on a series of posters several years ago in New York City. The posters depicted children’s crayon drawings, graffiti, classical works and more to illustrate the point.
Art, in its purest form, is universal and transcendent of the normal human experience of time and experience. Ironically, art is also about failure because it attempts to answer existential questions about ourselves —who am I, why am I —but can never achieve its goal because the questions will always outweigh the answers, and the answers are personal and universal at the same time. The wealth and value of art is that the journey or experience helps get us closer in our struggle to understand.
American Author Toni Morrison illustrates the point: “Art is not palliative, nor an ambassador with a portfolio of goodwill, nor a distraction from persecution. It is incendiary and properly so. It sharpens us, makes us vulnerable, frightens us. All of which is to say that the practice of true art is the practice of knowledge unseduced by its own beauty. It is perception, it is imagination, and it is knowledge.There is no combination more powerful, and there is no void more dangerous than their loss. Unlike money, vengeance, justice, rights, or the goodwill of government—art alone can translate trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.”
Fundamentally, art is a personal experience, a dialogue of sorts between the viewer, the art, artist and society. One does not have to like a work of art for it to be of significant value in sharpening our collective moral imagination. Art is at its best when it is subtle and ambivalent and provocative, and incites discussion, debate and dissonance.
The Blue Trees Project is a perfect example.
Blue Trees has already generated more discussion about art and its reflection of community than anything else I can recollect in my 22+ years living in Squamish. And that is no small task. The project is an internationally renowned art initiative by Konstantin Dimopoulos started in Port Moody, Richmond and West Vancouver BC in 2009 to raise awareness and encourage discussion about the benefits of trees, the decline of urban trees and the threats of climate change. It has won awards and accolades in many cities and countries.
In the artist’s own words: In my environmental installation, The Blue Trees, the colour and the Tree come together to transform and affect each other; the colour changing the Tree into something surreal, out of this world. While the Tree, rooted in this earth reflects what we may lose. This change is important not only as a means to highlight ecological issues but also that it may effect a transformation in the psyche of people by raising our social consciousness. What the Blue Trees can mean for Squamish is perhaps very different…and yet to be determined.
So who gets to decide (what art is)?
Well, it shouldn’t be politicians, that’s for sure. Paraphrasing an email council received last week from a citizen: I would not encourage council to neuter an artist’s expression to conform to individual views by the public who may or may not understand or appreciate it. This is exactly where government should not tread. Stifling the expression of the people, culture or art is a slippery slope to a very ugly world. I hope this council and councils in the future continue to afford such a valuable component in our community without constraint.
I’m so glad our community is having this conversation about art…we should always be open to some sharpening of our moral imagination.