Creative Minds: Can art speak truth?
September, 2018: in the span of just a few days, media reports from the United States included stories that would have seemed unbelievable before now. There was an Oval Office meeting on the subject of prison reform with Instagram star Kim Kardashian, the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla smoking marijuana on a live web show, and support for Donald Trump by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after a New York Times essay written by an anonymous senior official inside the White House described the president as "amoral" and "petty."
Making sense of our chaotic world through art
So in a world in which reality competes daily with the imagination, what role can art — and artists — play in getting at the truth of things? That was the theme of a public panel discussion earlier this year in Toronto. The AGO Creative Minds series brought together two Canadians, and two American-based artists, to explore the topic: Toronto filmmaker Charles Officer, Hamilton singer-songwriter Iskwé, Los Angeles performance and video artist Andrea Fraser, and author Salman Rushdie, who's based in New York. The result was a wide-ranging discussion from four distinct perspectives, moderated by CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti.
Andrea Fraser has spent decades looking critically at aspects of her own realm: the global art world, with its odd-bedfellow pairings of wealth and poverty, power and subversion. One of her most-discussed works is a 2003 video in which she — the artist — has a paid sexual encounter with a rich art collector. Fraser has also written a book tracing the lead-up to the election of Donald Trump, called 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics. She has no definitive explanations for our current era, but feels that art is a tool in the search for cultural meaning:
I think there's truth in lies, there's truth in fantasy, there's truth in fiction, of course. Hopefully art, and that kind of critical reflection, can help us get to the truth and understand: what is the need for those lies? What does that fantasy represent? What desires and aspirations or fears does the fantasy represent? But then how do we cut through that trap of being in a hall of mirrors all the time. I don't know. I don't have the answer. – Andrea Fraser
Charles Officer makes both fact-based and fictional films, and sees his role in this era as providing context for audiences to analyze what is happening in the world from a diverse perspective. His documentary, Unarmed Verses, was inspired by his desire to know how young Black people in his own city felt about their own lives, after an acquittal in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida. Officer argues that we cannot hope to grasp a full picture of current reality without fully integrating and promoting the views and talents of creative people of colour, from the top down. He called on broadcasters, programmers, and executives to provide opportunities instead of paying lip service:
Right now in this city, in Toronto, we have this motto, 'Diversity is our strength.' And there are people in power who can spew those lines very comfortably. But in their offices, that intention is disconnected. We don't see individuals (of colour) in positions of power that actually greenlight these projects, or can actually understand the direction of them. – Charles Officer
Author Salman Rushdie's latest novel imagines both a extraordinarily wealthy New York family intent on power, and a cartoonish villain who becomes president of the United States. Yet despite his own obsession with such characters in life and art, Rushdie thinks people need to look beyond the daily tweeting from the White House:
We're all too fixated on Mr. Trump.. I think we really need to look at the bigger subject of what is wrong with America, of which he is the manifestation. I think of him as an effect, more than a cause. And the question is, what has happened to break the country in half? What has happened to America, that half the country believes the exact opposite about what the other half believes? – Salman Rushdie
Singer-songwriter Iskwé makes music that expresses her Indigenous roots, and takes on real-life subjects such as the crisis of murdered and missing women. She sees her artistic role as creating consciousness around the shared humanity and responsibility for the reconciliation process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Like the other artists on the panel, her goal is to spark conversation that goes beyond her work, into the public sphere. Like them, too, she is energized by the perspective of a younger, diverse generation of artists and citizens:
Somebody...once told me that the problem with the world is that adults are responsible for raising children… If we look at the young ones who are educating us right now… they're the ones at the forefront. – Iskwé
More about the panelists:
- Andrea Fraser is a video and performance artist, and academic, based in Los Angeles. She's also the author of 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics.
- Iskwé is a singer-songwriter in Hamilton, Ontario. Her latest album is called The Fight Within.
- Charles Officer is a Toronto filmmaker. He directed the 2017 documentary, Unarmed Verses.
- Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist based in New York. His latest book is The Golden House (Knopf Canada, 2018).
Watch the full debate: