What to Do with the Artist’s Class Guilt?
Billboard / C-print, 61 x 76 cm, editions of 5
Wawi Navarroza reminds me of Duane Michals. Well, not exactly, because that would be an insult to Michals. Navarroza just reminds me of something Michals said in an interview while discussing political art. “The bar keeps getting lower and lower and lower,” he said. “All these kids are spewing out of art school photographing their dinner and then making it a 20-foot photograph.”
Michals then shared an anecdote about an exhibit by a female photographer who “wasn’t even looking through the lens.” (This reminds me of the current craze for trendy/cutesy Holgas and everything lomography.) In short, Michals found this woman and her art appalling:
She was just waving her hand taking pictures and kept saying, “Oh look, everything’s art! Everything’s art!” and I said, “No no, everything is not art.” That’s the problem: Everything has become art.
Everything is reduced to art. Natumbok mo, Duane Michals! The problem with many artists today is that they keep glorifying their La Vie Bohème existence and cutesy little ruminations via paintings, photographs, objects and installations. It is not uncommon to see them feign “social commentary” in their works, but in the same breath distance themselves from politics. (A lot of these “commentaries” are actually provided by friendly curators and other intelligentsia who are only too willing to whip up the exhibition notes to legitimize these artists’ “concerns.”)
Apparently, it’s cool to be artistic but uncool to be political. Which brings me back to Wawi Navarroza, who recently unveiled a curious billboard along EDSA in time for the elections. According to her Facebook note, the piece is called Not Today, a composite photograph with references to Francisco Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (which was painted during a period of war) and the gruesome news photographs of the recent Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao.
Of the two methods, the billboard is definitely the more interesting one; it is more concerned with the “public” which does not necessarily visit galleries, and it has an obvious “advocacy” (as compared to “art”) stance. As a billboard, Navarroza’s photograph is accompanied by the tagline “Enough blood on the ballot” as well as the sponsor’s company logo.
Audrey Carpio, in an ambivalent piece about the photograph, praises Navarroza’s provocative imagery but also notes the irony of the billboard as an advocacy. “Everyone is against abstract evil concepts, of course,” Carpio argues, “but if no concrete action is going to result from it, it’s little more than a PR exercise.” Signature campaigns, after all—like the one accompanying Navarroza’s billboard—are easy to organize, and even easier to dismiss. As far as political campaigns go, it’s on the same level as wearing one of those ubiquitous baller IDs.
What is more interesting to me, however, is Navarroza’s own interrogation of herself and her motives behind the photograph. An excerpt from her artist’s notes:
I can’t help but wonder what is this evil in human nature, this aberration? I’m incredulous as all of us who have been passive witnesses to massacre, warfare and atrocities that have been such a part of our immediate sociopolitical everyday realities (sensitized by news, the cult of celebrity, mind-numbing variety shows, and other crap on TV). We are safe behind our TV screens and computer screens, in Facebook where we have seen and passed around the monstrous pictures, scared, shocked, and saddened, for a pause, then we take a deep breath and go on with the continuum of our lives separate from the tragedy. It weighs on the shoulders. We are festered and frustrated…but in the privacy of our own little thoughts we ask, what can we do about it?
It is interesting to see her ruminating about political involvement, vacillating from passive to active in each succeeding sentence. She criticizes her own bourgeois distance from social tragedies—all of which, she admits, are part of her immediate reality not because of her personal familiarity to these tragedies per se, but because they are mediated by network television. As a human being, she is emotionally affected, but as a bourgeois artist moving in elite circles and gentrified spaces, she is also distanced. She is “festered and frustrated,” but she only considers action “in the privacy of her own little thoughts.”
Thus, the dilemma of every member of the bourgeoisie: class guilt, or that nagging feeling of embarrassment at one’s own comfortable position in the face of everyone else’s sordid condition. Navarroza is bothered by the state of society, but not in a direct and pointed way. She chooses to deal with this guilt by way of art. Which brings us to Not Today.
And Duane Michals. “Everything is art,” said that female photographer Michals loathed. She could’ve been Navarroza. Her 2009 exhibit “Perhaps It Was Possibly Because” was an assortment of random autobiographical imagery installed in a beautifully random order on the gallery’s walls. “You are forced to look at it from every which way,” she says, “to dissect it for relevance, desperate for and wanting to extract it of meaning. If there is one.” Maybe everything is art, but not everything is meaningful.
Now, in the aftermath of the Ampatuan massacre, Navarroza is bothered—and who wouldn’t be?—which is why we have this sudden shift in concern. “Am I political?” Navarroza asks herself, to which she replies:
I don’t know that word. I don’t have any desire to be entangled in the tentacles of politics and its weird operations. I don’t pretend to be an Activist or a Catalyst for social change nor a moralizing artist with a noble message for all. I’m saying this is what happened. Skin your teeth into this. Look. See. Here We All Are.
She fails to see that while she does not wish to be entangled in politics’ “weird operations,” she already is. After knowing what happened, after looking at the situation and seeing what has been done, the question is: what now? What will we do and who will we do it for?
They say that oppressive times produce the best art. As a corollary, perhaps the best artists are also the best citizens—aware, engaged and committed not to socializing, but to social change. Talented not only in the techniques of art, but also the vernacular language of the oppressed—or at least willing to learn. Navarroza and many other artists, unfortunately, seem to be neither ready nor willing to go political. They are somewhat aware of our social ills, yet they are not ready to come down from the lofty position of The Artist into the more “ordinary” positions of The Citizen or The Worker. Why, in the face of extrajudicial killings and possible systematized electoral fraud, do we have to respond with art? Why does everything have to be done in the realm of art?
Perhaps it is easier to exchange witty sociopolitical banter with the moneyed elite and intelligentsia in high-end galleries, rather than with blue-collar workers and other “mundane” people on the street or in the countryside. Perhaps it is easier to stage a photograph rather than a mobilization, to file a signature campaign rather than a case at the Commission of Human Rights, to shoot a tableaux rather than the enemy.#
Entry filed under: Art, Edgar Allan Paule, Exhibits, Photography. Tags: 2010 elections, advertising, ampatuan massacre, artist, artists, billboard, cherie paris, election violence, fine art, francisco goya, maguindanao massacre, photographer, photography, public relations, social involvement, urban time, violence, wawi navarroza.