Art, Abstracted

Graphic by Gavi Welbel

“The word ‘art’ is something the West has never understood. Art is supposed to be a part of a community. Like, scholars are supposed to be a part of a community… Art is to decorate people’s houses, their skin, their clothes, to make them expand their minds, and it’s supposed to be right in the community, where they can have it when they want it… It’s supposed to be as essential as a grocery store… that’s the only way art can function naturally.” – Amiri Baraka, one of my intellectual models.

Art’s ability to possess its admirer seems to have escaped us in this world. I think we have forgotten the value inherent in artmaking and artsharing. 

Maybe I’m being cynical or pessimistic. Maybe I’m being idealistic. It’s probably a mixture. But, as I reflect on Baraka’s quote, I wonder where one finds community to experience art today. I wonder about how we are taught to make art and the purpose we place behind it.

***

I went to Saint Ann’s, an arts high school that played a big role in curating my mindset towards artmaking. My school’s philosophy was a blur between individualism and communal values. For one, we were encouraged to explore as many areas as possible in order to ground ourselves in an identity. Our personhood was given space to reach for the stars. On the other hand, we were taught to share our explorations with others so that we could entertain, teach, and inspire. The artist and the art were both heralded as unique contributions to the fulfillment of a community.

Some of my favorite memories are in my high school’s art studios and classes. We were never given a traditional rulebook on how to make art. We were given an easel, some water, a palette, and some paint. And the canvas was our free-for-all.

The art studio was my home away from home. Friday evenings were the times that felt most fruitful. The art studio was open until 7 p.m. Our teacher, Angelo Bellfatto, would be sculpting away while we sang out loud, had dinner, danced like fools, and painted into the sunset. There seemed to be no limit on time or energy, only the vast expanse of art’s horizon. 

This energy of freedom in artmaking grounded me in the belief that art should make its viewer feel that sense of both vulnerability and power.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the Western world lacks these values, yet it creates the illusion that they exist in the art world today. (I don’t think this is always true, but I do believe that the general discourse around art in this society does not correlate with Baraka’s vision, or mine.)

Take museums, for example. I don’t know about you, but I did not grow up visiting museums as a pastime. I went to museums for school trips and probably didn’t think much of them beyond an opportunity to spend time with friends outside of the school building. While I view this form of teaching to be essential to any child’s education, I also feel that because for the longest while this type of interaction with my museums was what I knew best, I only associated museums with school. My neighborhood doesn’t have a museum or art spaces so I wasn’t surrounded by this cultural framework growing up.

In many ways, the politics surrounding museums is intrinsic to those surrounding race and class. I grew up and still live in a predominantly Black neighborhood where access to such resources is limited or unknown. It wasn’t until I entered a predominantly White educational institution that the reality of art as a career, study, or hobby became truly entrenched into my identity.

I won’t elaborate further on this, but I do question the museum as a structure for sharing art and building community since it is probably the most well-known and recognizable one in Western society. Baraka states, “[Art is] supposed to be right in the community, where they can have it when they want it.” There are many limitations to experiencing art in museums: the hours, the distance between oneself and the art, the monetary cost of owning an artwork, and the transportation accessibility. These things often form a distinct separation between the art and the viewer.

I’m not sure what my ideal arts community looks like, but Baraka’s words stick with me as a way to look forward and challenge what we consider to be art spaces in the West. The art community that I was a part of during high school felt like a genuine place for creativity and expression. Making art among others disrupted Western notions of individualism. And in that space I felt most challenged and welcomed as an artist. I felt like I was contributing to a collective force. 

***

“The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely. That’s how I see it. Otherwise, I don’t know why you do it.” – Amiri Baraka

My thoughts on this are scattered and unfinished. They are not to be taken as polished or correct. But instead as ideas to reflect upon, defend, or disagree with.

If you would like to publish your thoughts, reflections, dis/agreements, and/or responses to this piece with the Herald, please send a draft to nyeda.sam@yale.edu.

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