Finding a Collective Identity in Art
By Brenton Crozier
How important is art in our culture? In our daily lives? In our respective communities? I think it would be really easy to overstate an answer on either side of the discussion, but I tend to think that’s the point. Successful art is emotive, it starts a conversation and essentially, it creates synthesis. And while there are some fairly fundamental shared thoughts on composition, colors, symmetry and perhaps even at a most axiomatic level, beauty, art is insanely subjective. All you have to do to disrupt an otherwise peaceable lunch at SOTRU headquarters, is bring up Jackson Pollock. Depending on which one of us you’re listening to, he’s either a genius or a hack.
But what part does art play in a broader scope? And this goes beyond the kind of fine art you would enjoy in a museum. Does art have healing, even restorative abilities? I tend to think that it does, that it’s quite possible to work through, or at least face mental and spiritual damage with art. In thinking about other mediums, like music and film, it’s easy to see how crucial art can be because of the incredibly strong associations we have with certain pieces. I’m sure few preachers would argue that the message communicated in the movie, The Passion of the Christ, resonated far more emotionally with viewers than any spoken sermon. I’m sure few teachers would argue the effectiveness music can have in the learning process.
Even if you do narrow the lens back down to strictly featuring fine art, it’s easy to see how essential a part of a community it can be. In Jacksonville there is a really simple park right on the St. Johns River called Memorial Park. And within that park there is a bronze sculpture called ‘Life’ that was created by Charles Adrian Pillars in memory of Jacksonville residents that gave their lives while fighting in World War I. And whether I’m running, walking or driving by, I have to get a look. Although I’ve seen it countless times, it continues to move me and almost have a re-calibrating effect. Though the verdant park is in a great spot, the sculpture is its nucleus, what really sets it apart. Great works of art have captured important victories, tragic events, incredible landscapes, moments of weakness, moments of strength, etc. People are able to infuse their native culture into the greater experience through art.
All this isn’t to say that the artist is an exalted individual that has a greater ability to interpret life, events or people better than anyone else, but more so the ability to capture the emotional essence, to jar something loose inside a viewer and even to bring you somewhere you haven’t been . . . geographically and metaphorically I suppose.
I read a New York Times article titled, “Culture, Rolling Into Towns on Big Rigs” about painter Eric Fischl and his idea to create a semi-truck based “roving museum and performance space” that will “tour the country for two years to address what he sees as an identity crisis in American culture.” This type of generalized analysis would typically make me roll my eyes. However, in terms of the American identity at this juncture, I think he’s right. Between the ever-growing political polarization and challenging economic circumstances it feels like there is more prevalence in politics and problems than anything else when looking at the country’s identity. And I’m not concerned with our outward-facing identity. Geopolitics will always be fluctuating. It’s more about taking that collective breath, not losing focus on who we are as human beings. It doesn’t mean ignoring the huge issues hovering of us, but merely resetting, remembering that the problems aren’t the whole of things.
Fischl has recruited celebrated painters, musicians and poets for this project that will tour over a two-year span. He assures readers that “Their tour is not about trying to show up anyone else’s idea of art, or to instruct people who live outside the major art centers about the merits of big-city contemporary culture.” The art world can feel so insular, disconnected from every day people. This is a fantastic way to bridge that divide and remind everyone involved of the importance of the resonance of art. Ms. Norman, the playwright, that is participating in the project, said, “As much as we love Brian Williams, I don’t think he can tell us in the same way as a painter or a poet what it really feels like to live in Iowa.”
We Want to Know:
- Do you feel that art is highly valued in your community?
- What are some pieces of art that are important to you and why?
Read the New York Times article “Culture, Rolling Into Towns on Big Rigs” and be sure to listen to our Des Moines episode, Heart of the Heartland, that features Amer Al-Obaidi, the former Director for the National Museum of Contemporary Arts and the Iraqi Arts Council who had to flee the country and eventually relocated to Des Moines, Iowa.