American and European Emancipation of Art

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American and European Emancipation of Art

The theme of this gallery is to investigate challenges and possible solutions to problems of emancipation. My perspective is that liberation is cultural, and in order to change unjust societies people need to act and think democratically through their everyday relationships. In this introduction I want to explain how three of the gallery’s artists expand upon the overarching theme while interpreting their art with my views in mind.

“Emancipation” is defined as a political struggle for equal rights. In the past the word called to mind monumental yet polemic movements of social change that were associated with renowned leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Emmeline Pankhurst, Che Guavara. Contemporarily emancipation can be understood as a global culture of reciprocity, acted out through peoples’ impartial relationships. Activists may or may not be famous, as they are involved with familiar rituals and commonplace demonstrations of respect for varied perspectives and universal rights.

Everyday culture as a vital source of emancipation is not a novel idea and John Dewey describes such in Freedom and Culture (1939),

Our first defence is to realize that democracy can be served only by the slow
day by day adoption and contagious diffusion in every phase of our common
life of methods that are identical with the ends to be reached and that recourse
to monistic, wholesale, absolutist procedures is a betrayal of human freedom
no matter in what guise it presents itself.[1]

Dewey hoped that democracy would be understood like a work of art, in that both are means and ends to a better world, as experimental and engaging experiences. Similarly throughout this gallery the art functions as a tool to assist in opening up possibilities for new social forms of emancipation. Everyone can participate by writing comments and being part of the planned conversations, so the art is not set apart from public opinion, as in a conventional gallery. We can act as critical thinkers, using our commentaries for furthering relationships among reviewers.

Moreover, the art of Dominka Kortarba, Jan Gilbert and Lew Thomas fits into a shared history between America and Europe of liberation philosophies. Biographically, Kortarba is from Eastern Europe, while Gilbert and Thomas are Americans. All of them are interested in making art that shows what it is to be free and what freedom means.

Exemplary in her skill as a pianist and sound engineer, Kotarba in Piano Collage no2 or Emancipated Piano consummately presents how freedom occurs through piano music. The piano sets itself free of mechanical practices as a means of innovative experimentation. I was surprised when I learned from Kotarba’s description that all of the sounds of the composition are made with the piano. There are moments when the composition sounds as if an orchestra is tuning up while at others times the piano sounds like a phenomena of nature, like wind blowing through a deep canyon or sound traversing outer space. As the catalyst of these kinds of experiences the music is free to be a part of a universe of sounds, and listeners are free to interpret what they hear. As her piano makes new sounds, Kortarba emphasizes a moral meaning through a syncopated leitmotif, that life is simple, yet expansive and memorable.

Philosophically the music is not a response dictated by mechanics but a composition that has value as listeners are inspired by its qualities through their embodied and creative imaginations. Likewise as a Pole who lived her childhood and became a musician in Warsaw, Kotarba is free to innovate as an independent artist spreading her music around the world via her involvement with Polish and international theater and film projects.

Jan Gilbert offers a complex association of images and messages, showing the viewer her philosophy of emancipation as a process. She directs the viewer through an interactive film-strip, and viewers find hidden meanings by clicking on their desired frames. The title, Masters of their Conditions, was borrowed from scientific articles written by the artist’s long-time collaborator Jacques Arpin, who is a psychiatrist and cultural theorist.[2] Gilbert and Arpin have done research over several years about what inspires human freedom when people are in the midst of extreme difficulty, finding that an inter-personal, relational culture is a healing aspect of such experiences.  Nietzsche’s call for a personal and public revaluation of values also comes to mind when engaging with Gilbert’s imagery, as culture is represented not as a matter of authoritative power but as a source of empowerment through aesthetic relationships.  For Gilbert and Arpin, people master their conditions by becoming “wounded healers,” thereby exchanging the roles of doctors and other kinds of experts with patients and artists. Gilbert has been influenced by Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. Bourriaud views culture as a constructive way of acting with an attitude of respect and dignity towards oneself and others. Gilbert’s mélange of images show the human condition at its most extreme, as images of a Post-Katrina New Orleanian home are loosely associated with a symbol of an earth-force ritual performed to deal with breast cancer. The images disclose how through valued relationships people are able to live past disastrous disappointments caused by a greedy, envious type of modern human progress, to realize a liberated culture, which accentuates health, charity, and social change.

Lew Thomas is an auteur photographer with an acute sense of what art history means, not as an academic subject, but through art interpretation. Thomas’ photographs are points of critique to be continually revisited and revised. The source of his piece for the gallery, CitizenJulia, is a photograph taken by him in 1988. In retrospect this was one year before the ending of the Communist block in Europe, but in the context of his serial portrait, Orwellian questions about free thinking, freedom of speech and the sharing of natural and human resources still exist. As I viewed the pictures and read the poignant text, I thought about recent political problems such as the war in Ukraine and the human/natural resource disasters in New Orleans. In his black and white photographs Thomas makes it clear that the world must be ever watchful for signs of totalitarianism and fascism. For Thomas, a citizen is someone who makes others aware of problematic social conditions.

To repeat myself, this art shows what it is means to be free: free to associate, free to speak out, free to imagine. I find another important message here, that art is inspiring as it motivates people to reorient their personal characters, becoming increasingly acceptant of differing perspectives, so we can reconstruct our communities and institutions as critical yet changeable and hopeful democratic cultures.

by Rebecca Farinas 

[1] John Dewey, “Democracy and America,’ from Freedom and Culture (1939) (On Thomas Jefferson),” The Essential Dewey, Volume 2, edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis), 1998, 365.

[2] The title stems from the name of a series of publications by Jaques Arpin, “Masters of their Conditions,” Transcultural Psychiatry, 2003, 2008, 2014.

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