BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 30 MAY 18
Featured in
Issue 196

What Is Art's Responsibility to the Times in Which We Live?

In this era of rapid change, an introduction to some of the artists responding to the here and now

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 30 MAY 18

2018 is a year of anniversaries. It’s two centuries since the birth of Karl Marx and the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s also the centenary of women being granted the right to vote in the UK (albeit only those aged over 30 and of certain financial means) as well as 100 years since the end of World War I, 80 since the invention of LSD and 50 since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. Despite their differences, each of these events marks a cultural eruption. While interpretations of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet The Communist Manifesto (1848) may have had a catastrophic impact on the fates of countless people, there’s no denying the light it cast on the economic structures that self-interested humans have long built to defend their own patch – and its anticipation of the worst excesses of globalization. The deaths of 37 million people during World War I made it apparent (too small a word) that what is sanctioned by governments is often disastrously wrong, so giving birth not only to pacifism but to the howling anarchy of the dadaists – arguably the most influential art movement of the past century. Frankenstein – written by the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the remarkable 18th-century advocate for women’s rights – made thrillingly clear that ours is a species which isn’t always in control of what we create, paving the way for surrealism, while proponents of LSD cheered from the rooftops that our minds are still infinite, largely unexplored places. 2001, A Space Odyssey landed in cinemas as if from outer space itself, boring and baffling and dazzling its audiences in equal measure, its sense of infinite unknowing embodied by the recurring and unexplained image of a minimal black sculpture.

While anniversaries are useful for letting us know how far we’ve come, they’re good reminders, too, that so-called progress isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. In recent years, thanks to civil wars, religious fanaticism and climate change, at least 65 million people have been forced from their homelands. Pollution and overpopulation are wreaking terrible, possibly irreversible, damage to the planet. There’s a worrying movement to the political right while racism and sexism continue to spawn their hatred. But there’s a flip-side: a groundswell of countless activist groups across the world are grappling with everything from racial, sexual and gender politics, to gun control and the environment, to animal and human rights and more. Most of them are facilitated by social media, which, depending on who you talk to, is a corporate tool, a monstrous distraction or the means of effecting real change. (I’d suggest it’s a mix of all three.) All of which is to say that change, both good and bad, is happening at a dizzying pace – and somehow it seems to be accelerating.

So, what is art’s role in all of this? 

Let me back track a little. In April, I travelled to Ireland for the unveiling of a mural by Brian O’Doherty. It was at the Sirius Art Centre in the small town of Cobh, which overlooks a sweeping bay from where many migrants – including O’Doherty himself – once set sail for a new world. Titled One Here Now, the mural, which employs the ancient Irish language of Ogham, had been buried under paint for 20 years but, thanks to the efforts of Sirius’s director, Miranda Driscoll, was once again revealed in all of its pulsating, geometric glory. O’Doherty, who turns 90 this year, is also, of course, the author of the essays that were to become Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976): the first analysis of the intertwining of aesthetics, economics and society. Throughout his 70-year career, he has constantly resisted categorization: a doctor who became an art critic and an editor (along the way commissioning both Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ and Susan Sontag’s ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ for Aspen magazine in 1967), he was director of the National Endowment for the Arts and has written award-winning novels and art criticism – all the while continuing to make art himself. In 2013, O’Doherty wrote a feature for frieze on the evolution of his thinking, ‘Strolling with the Zeitgeist’, in which he outlines the questions that have preoccupied him throughout his career. To my mind, they’re as urgent today as they ever were:

Does art do something? If it does, what does it do? Is it for pleasure, a higher form of masturbation? For spiritual enhancement and purchasable transcendence? Is it an instrument for political action? Satire? […] Is art a well the depths of which psychology can plumb? […] Has it a moral, even ethical component? But in relation to what? Is it entertainment? Spectacle? (Movies are better.) Is it a conundrum wrapped in obscurity, an aesthetic fortune cookie or a complex of cultural signs? (Hello Jacques Derrida!) If it is a language, who speaks it?

That there are no simple answers to O’Doherty’s questions is as it should be: restless experimentation with how to respond to the here and now is what keeps visual culture vital. In recent years, in its struggle to reflect our muddle through this messy world, much art has pushed against categorization – which, to my mind, is both a very good thing and one that in no way negates the potential of more traditional approaches, such as painting, to also reflect upon contemporary life.

This special issue of frieze, themed around ‘Altered States’, focuses on the artists, designers and writers I imagine to be, on some level, O’Doherty’s fellow travellers. They include the British artist Sonia Boyce who, in her own words, likes to ‘explore what happens when people come together’; the ‘audio investigator’ Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who forensically examines the intersection of sound and politics; a group of international artists researching the creative and ethical potential of facial recognition software; and young painters responding to Zimbabwe’s chaotic politics with a series of defiant works that explode with life in the face of a repressive regime. Our cover is by the Dubai-based artist Lantian Xie, who makes work, he tells Amy Sherlock, in order ‘to move people around and get people visas’. ‘Citizenship is only one logic of belonging,’ he continues, ‘There are very many others.’

The human race has always clung to the notion of borders, be they mental or physical. In recent years, though, welcome cracks are appearing – and that, as the great Leonard Cohen once sang, is how the light gets in. O’Doherty concludes ‘Strolling with the Zeitgeist’ by describing the one thing he feels certain about: ‘What I do know is that we’re all in a flotilla of large and small crafts, rafts, canoes, accompanied by numerous individual swimmers, crossing from here to somewhere.’ It’s a beautiful image but I would add a cautionary note: on your way to somewhere, wherever that may be, choose well who you travel with, and how, and why. Because where we’re all headed is anyone’s guess.

This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'Right Here, Right Now'.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.