by Jacqueline Bell Johnson
We have entered uncertain times. While I keep moving forward, fulfilling my roles at home, at work, and out in the art world, I’m aware that I have also been wandering aimlessly since early November. Questioning the validity of my life choices, especially my career path, asking, “What do I do now?” and wondering if any of my own wants and goals are even worth pursuing.
Regarding art, I often ask myself, what does a quiet moment in the studio mean when there is talk of an arms race, or being just a tweet away from a declaration of war? What does the act of making, the act of creating, do in the face of hate? Sure, you can alter your practice to be more literal, more political, more intense, but that might not be true to who you are as an artist, and placing expectations on artists to change what they make is removing their freedom and their choice.
I recently taught a semester of Art history and could not help but linger on early Modernists. It was a time when artists became heroes by creating change, changing thought and responding, even reacting to new technological and scientific developments. Resisting in big and small ways the ugliness that humanity had become, rewriting rules for a better society and encouraging others to do the same. It began with Dada. Witnessing the rise of fascism that ultimately led to WW1, the Dadaists decided to create their own society of nonsense. It was a chess move: we reject your society and replace it with our own. Following their lead, there was a blossoming of so many groups and ideas, each with declarations and manifestos, and a new visual language to boot.
This flooding of ideas was not competition; it was a culture of encouraging thought, examining philosophical stance, and taking a position that would resonate not just through communal discussions but in personal creation. Simultaneously, these were communities of support: lookouts, cheerleaders, springboards, partners in crime. What a great time to be an artist, right?
Well, in Europe, it was emphatically no. Artists at the time were steeped in worry, anxiety, stress. Many ultimately died or wound up dodging bullets, bombs, and the aggressive incursions of the SS or other nationalist forces.
Is there a scenario where creating becomes time-wasting? Where producing art loses its value?”
There are still those who question the wave of worry that many of us feel right now, in light of the recent election. For myself, it is a visualization of impending doom, very articulated, with detailed visions of multiple potential outcomes. I am seeing patterns, recognizing the past through more than just déjà vu. I know I’m not the only one, but for me, it is crippling. My instinct is to shut down. I want to curl up in a ball. I have cried, devastated for my young son. His future, our future, looks scary.
To counter the paralysis that accompanies any skims through the internet, or scans of newspaper headlines, or even just conversations with others, I retreat to the studio and to my sketchbook. Not making works of protest, no political jabs, or antithesis statements. I continue with the work I have been making, a set of ideas that I have been exploring for the past 3 years. However, there is a weight on my shoulder, whispering in my ear a string of thoughts that judge and work themselves invasively into the safest of spaces.
If this is the end, would making art matter? In a post-apocalyptic world where finding food takes all day, is it still worth it to merely create? And if we are heading in that direction, should I stop now? Is there a scenario where creating becomes time-wasting? Where producing art loses its value? These questions partially reflect the depths of my fear for the future, and they partially reflect my self-doubt as an artist.
I have concluded that yes, I probably would keep making art, though maybe not as often. And I look at those early Modernists and think: they kept working not only to critique what was happening around them, but themselves as well.
There are so many things more important right now than making your simple pretty paintings or abstract forms. Instead of this frivolous task, we should all put our efforts toward The Cause, not hiding in the studio, not making work for ourselves: ignoring, distracting, procrastinating, daydreaming, cowering.
To stop creating now would contribute to that dystopian future we fear all too near.”
But what if your work doesn’t lend itself to political expression? What if you can’t bring yourself to leave your practice behind?
So I write this now for all artists, but perhaps more importantly I write this for myself:
We face an era of grim horizons, amongst them being new proposals on the table to kill the NEA and NEH. But it is when we have the least support that we are needed most. To stop creating now would contribute to that dystopian future we fear all too near. It is not trivial. Production of culture is what takes us from a worker-drone colony and elevates us to a civilization. It is what makes us a Humanity instead of merely an evolved species of primates. The work we produce now will carry us through the bleak times ahead, help us heal and move forward.
Please, heed these words:
The studio is a noble space, and creation in the studio is a noble endeavor. Making art is noble, and it has always been so. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are documenting history, detailing communal reaction, recording the resonate emotions of an era. We are providing personal insight, offering testimony, and acting as a witness. We are devising new ways of thinking, new ideals, new standards. We are keeping culture alive, creating new movements, genres, styles and revivals. We are motivating others, giving people cause to defend and protect. We are gifting beauty, personal truth and articulating that of others. Each brush stroke is a small act of rebellion, every press of hands into clay defies oppression. Our pursuits in the studio matter, for they ultimately give people hope.
And so I ask of you only one thing: please share your work. Whether on a tiny or grandiose scale, let others see that there is something worth creating, worth fighting for. Show us that the beauty of the world, though in this moment may be difficult to find, will never be destroyed. As long as there are artists in the world, it can not be.
Expression is beauty. Beauty is resistance.
Jacqueline Bell Johnson is a sculptor, writer, and educator living, working, and exhibiting in the Los Angeles area. JacquelineBellJohnson.com