Saturday, August 20, 2011

Talking about diversity

A couple of days ago I was invited to a lunch for artists; we were being asked to donate or lend work to be displayed at a women's shelter, whose inhabitants need all the pleasure, hope, and caring they can get.  Our hostess is African-American and she had decorated her table from her extensive collection of salt-and-pepper shakers, in honor of  the new movie "The Help," which she had just seen.

We talked about how difficult it is for members of one race to fully appreciate how members of another see the world, especially for privileged people (whether by race, income, family situation or any other marker) to understand less-privileged people.  And that conversation morphed easily into discussion of what we should be sensitive to as we made or selected art for the women's shelter.

One artist suggested that it would be good to depict people of different races, to increase the potential for viewers to identify with the subjects of the art.  But another, who used to live in Santa Fe, a crossroads of cultural diversity and high art, said that the etiquette there, enforced by great indignation, was that you don't borrow motifs, images or any other references from cultures or even genders not your own, because "how could you possibly know" anything about them.  She was so put off by this attitude that she started making all the people in her own work purple and green, without any identifiable cultural identification.

We continued this discussion in the car on the way home.  Not only could we whites not fully understand how a black person thinks about Aunt Jemima salt shakers, we non-victims cannot fully understand how a battered woman or abused child will respond to some art we might produce.  Somebody had suggested making a whole lot of small pieces of art, to give to every woman or child who came through the system.  But we didn't know whether this would truly be appreciated by the recipients, or whether it would just be a way for the artist-donors to feel good.

As an artist I generally don't spend a lot of time thinking about how viewers will understand and interpret my work.  I am clear about what I think, and what I'm trying to say, and will discuss it in an artist statement or gallery talk, but I do not adjust that message out of concern for how it will be received.  Yet in considering art in a specialized or therapeutic setting rather than in ordinary public gallery display, a different level of sensitivity is in order.  It was a new concept for me to be grappling with these questions.  I don't suppose this train of thought is going to arrive at the station any time soon.

What do you think?


  1. I in no way fully appreciated what it was like to be a minority race until I went to work in Zimbabwe. I realised how one cannot blend in, or make oneself invisible, and how easy it is to be categorised simply from superficial appearance without having any kind of opportunity to explain oneself.
    I think that we simply have to educate ourselves as widely and as practically as possible, so that when we express ourselves through our work no narrowmindedness is there. Once it it out in the public domain we have no control really as to what uses our work is then put.

    I very much enjoy your blog, and I have been lurking for a while. Today I have been moved to mention you and your packaging project in my most recent post.

  2. What a thought provoking entry today! Years ago I made an appliqued quilt depicting the "When at night i go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep" lullaby and I made the angels as diverse as possible. How interesting to think now of the positive and negative emotions we can evoke without even knowing.

  3. I think it's a mistake to make art tailored for your audience. It distorts your vision and results in less than your best work.
    And because, as your discussion indicates, we can never fully understand what it is like to be in someone else's shoes, it seems dishonest and a bit insulting to give them art that we consider "appropriate" or helpful for their situation.
    Anyone who actually engages with a piece of art brings her own interpretation to it. What she sees at age 20 is quite different than what she might see at age 50.
    Part of what makes a work of art "great" is that in distills enough of the human experience to speak to the viewer (reader, hearer) on many levels.

  4. I'm not entirely sure where the line is between 'sensitivity' and 'pandering.' How will we ever come to understand one another without forthright expressions -- artistic and otherwise -- of who each of is?

  5. Pleasure, hope and caring.
    Isn't the answer in your first sentence?