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.
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?