This is a talk I gave a long time ago (September 17, 2003, to be precise) as part of a panel following a talk at Sewanee by the artist, Jerri Allyn. At the time, people thought it was a negative response, but I really hadn’t meant it that way (well, some of it’s negative, but I try to point out what there’s to be negative about). Later on, by the way, Ms. Allyn did end up sending me a Name That Dame placemat! Fourteen years later, she is still a vibrant part of the art scene in LA and elsewhere, and every bit as political as she was in the past.
As Ms. Allyn told us yesterday, she grew up in the culture of the Quaker protest movements, so that the political for her has always been at its heart performative. That poltical protest, in addition to being a matter of principle, can also be an occasion for awkwardness, is something she also reminded us of, in the story of seeing a boy she “liked” and whom she might have hoped “liked her back,” who asked her, What are you doing? Why are you in that line?
It is, of course, a question that’s always been put to political protesters: What are you doing and why? When Thoreau was jailed for his acts of civil disobedience in protest against the Mexican War, his friend Emerson asked him that very question. “Henry, what are you doing in there?” His response was, “My dear Waldo, what are you doing out there?” The simple act of politcal protest then invites the response, Why are you not protesting? Perhaps the artist who forces that question on us does us a real service. Why, if we write or paint or take photographs, if we dance or sing– why, if we do anything creative–is our activity not employed in a political way, in the service of policies we think ought to exist, against obvious injustices which need to be denounced?
I suppose one answer to that might be, Well, just how effective can art be in the service of politics? Well, political propaganda depends upon the work of artists–think of the recently departed Leni Riefenstahl– and I’m reminded that Vaclav Havel once vowed never to write any poetry that could be chanted in the streets. But what of the politics of protest in our democratic system? I mean, do a bunch of leaves on a sheet really do anything to get bills passed or judicial appointments blocked or campaigns planned? You know, personally, I heard nothing in Ms. Allyn’s talk to suggest that we should be making art instead of voting. To make art or respond to it doesn’t excuse us from our civic duty. Art like Ms. Allyn’s, rather, asks us to bring something else to the performance of our civic duty– I use the word “performance” advisedly– something more than what we might get from simply scanning the headlines or listening to Letterman.
Let’s take, for instance, the installation of “Civil Defense/A Grave Mistake,” which took as its point of departure one of Ronald Reagan’s sillier remarks in connection with the use of nuclear weapons. The project makes the point that shovels are used for digging holes, and that holes are for hiding in, holes are for being buried in, holes are trenches which are reminders of older, pointless wars, holes are metaphors for digging into an inflexible position, holes are things we cannot get out of. So the “mistake” becomes a “grave,” and such a “defense” is utterly indefensible. Now I won’t pretend to understand the entirety of the symbolism of that installation– why should the nuns be wearing different colors? why are they nuns, anyway?– and I won’t pretend to enjoy the tone of the work, which strikes me as supercilious, unsophisticated, arch and obvious. But one could do worse than be arch or obvious; one could ignore the issue, and instead stick his head in a hole. Of course, when it comes to nuclear war and its absurdities, perhaps there isn’t room for the nice and the friendly, perhaps arch and obvious is the appropriate response.
The point of such installations is not necessarily to be liked, though some of it is very likeable: Some of the segments on the Waitresses video, for instance, have all the energy of the early Saturday Night Live skits, which are still such a large part of our cultural vernacular. To watch the latest incarnations of Saturday Night Live now, with all its slick production values and all its deeply unfunny jokes, is to realize how much we’ve lost. The humor on that show used to make us look at society from an oddball angle, and that’s in short supply nowadays, I think. In a similar vein, some of Allyn’s work is very likeable, and I myself am wondering if I can get a copy of a “Name That Dame” placemat. I’d like that a lot.
But to return to where I began, with politics and performance, with the principled and the awkward, with a teenage girl explaining herself to a boy that she liked, what more is there really to say than “War is bad”? Yes it is, and though it could be put in a more nuanced way, still sometimes we seem to forget that simple facts sometimes are simple facts. We forget that waitressing is often a crappy job, that oppression isn’t a thing only of the past, that injustice exists. In the end, such art jumps up and down in front of us, obnoxiously attired, like a fool in motley in the court of the customer-king, not seeking, much as it might want to, that we “like it back” but instead by its mere presence demanding, Haven’t you noticed that war is bad? My dear Waldo, what are you doing out there?