Thursday, November 10, 2011

Viva la Revolución / Hey art’s pretty important, you guys

“This society—American society—does not value the arts.”

True words from Patric McCoy, President and Co-Founder of Diasporal Rhythms, as well as one of the panelists at “Creating Community through the Arts,” a discussion I attended a couple weeks ago. The conversation was a breath of fresh air. Saying the things we all want to say but are often hesitant to say out loud, the panelists pulled no punches, dispelling and deconstructing misconceptions and myths about art and artists, taking on America’s lack of funding for the arts and arts education; and, most importantly, offering grassroots level solutions to the problems addressed.

American society at large may not value the arts, but one cannot deny how indispensable the arts are to American society.

“Arts are essential for democracy. […] The arts teach people to think freely.” –Panelist Carlos Tortolero, Executive Director of the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Here’s an excerpt from my write-up of the panel discussion on Sixty Inches From Center:

Patric McCoy: I’m seeing that the energy is actually in the subcultures, and that it really is a bottom-up phenomenon. [...] What we have is a top-down process, is that the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the art critics, and so forth [...] tell you who is good, instead of you telling them who is good. All of our community should be working to promote… should be telling you, “This is who we think is good in this part of the city,” and it bubbles up. I think it’s most prevalent in visual arts. [...] In the musical arts, we don’t have a problem in America that it comes up from the bottom. [...] Hip hop can start in the Bronx, gospel in the South Side of Chicago… we don’t have a problem with that, that eventually, it gets up to the top and it becomes “America.”
Carlos Tortolero: It becomes “America” from the powers that be, and I think the real problem is that the power structure has created an “either/or” situation, and I want to create an “and” situation, where the mariachi music is good, classical music is good, hip hop… it’s all good. It should be an “and” situation where we embrace all forms of art, in which all forms of art are valued.
Luis DeLaTorre: [...] Do you think it’s because music is a very rich commodity, that people can trade easily, and make money off of, and art isn’t seen that way?
PM: That has to do with power, and that the visual arts are associated with power. Imagery is extremely powerful.

When it comes to working within one’s subculture(s) and inciting change from the bottom up, panelist Giselle Mercier, an installation artist from Panama and the Executive Director of Pros Arts Studio, pointed out that anyone can be a patron of the arts, that “it has to be a collective force and can’t be just from people who have means.” She explained that, instead of purchasing a $3 cup of coffee for one day every week, one can donate to a local museum (or, as I’ll interject, invest in a great piece of artwork).

Technology was another topic that was raised, framed initially as another problem (think bookstores-might-be-going-bankrupt-because-of-tablets problem) artists and arts professionals face. One audience member asked whether technological advances “undermine the ability of the people to decide which art is important.” On the contrary, technology makes the world smaller, makes art more accessible (shameless self-aggrandizing: hello, blog), allows for the democratization of art (why yes I will continuously recycle my own words). In the words of moderator and artist Luis DeLaTorre:

[With technology], we can have [art] at our fingertips To be able to experience it, visual art and music, you have it right there. I was talking to a friend of mine and I said, “Art is dead.” Her response was, “Art is never going to die, because it’s that human experience of creating that always propels us.” 

Essential for democracy? Never going to die? It’s what propels the human race? If that’s what art is and we’re not supporting it, it looks like our values are indeed skewed.

Read more highlights from the conversation here.

All of this brings me to the flip side of the discussion we had (and are still having) on this site concerning overrated artistsOne of my main objectives is exposing and sharing the talents of artistswho might otherwise remain under the radarwith shows like Exquisite Corpse and via online galleries. Who do you want to see exalted in galleries and museums? What do you want to see? Who/what do you feel represents you? We need to take the microphone from the mainstream and major outlets and institutions and hand it back to the people, to you. The artist has the ability to condense an entire zeitgeist into a single image, to create something that someone else can look at and say, “This is who I am, and this is who we are.” Art encapsulates the voice of the people.

Related: I’m pleased to be a part of Lolk Collectivea new community-focused initiative I mentioned briefly in this interview. Launched by Zachary Johnson, who exhibited art in Exquisite Corpse, Lolk is looking for collaborators, so this is an artist call for those of you who are interested in street art, guerilla art, and other forms of happiness.

Everything is connected.

Except for the following fact.

My favorite “search keyword” (thank you, Blogger stats) that led someone to this site this week: “how old is jenny lam”

(Well, kind stranger, if you click around on enough links—hint! the sidebar! also! interviews on the press page!—you’ll figure out when I graduated college, and that should narrow things down. Although I’ll let you continue to believe I’m either a 14-year-old prodigy—the ages mentioned on the “About” page are fabulous red herrings—or a geezer with an aging portrait in an attic.)


  1. I applaud your advocacy for the arts. America's culture has been reduced to mindless TV, sports, and sexual images.

    The arts are relegated to an "elite" of high minded people.

    When I grew up Leonard Bernstein filled concert halls with people of all ages. His funeral procession through NYC was lined with thousands of people paying him their last respect.

    I think the blame is on corporate America from promoting a "buy, buy, buy" commercialized society. Going to Walmart Saturday night is viewed as a social activity.

    Best wishes in your pursuit of better times!

    Andy Rose

  2. Thank you, Andy! We live in a corporatocracy, and it's time we dismantle it, bit by bit.

  3. In speaking of underground art that has risen to the top with very little recognition to the 1000's of individual artists worldwide, There are many GREAT artists moving into the skin art business in order to make a decent living. Many of these artists also produce oil and other styles of artwork. I believe we should get more respect from the intellectual art community. Thanks, Joe Griffith ( Electric Dragon Tattoo Studio )


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