Photo by Helena Lyng-Olsen

Art in Crisis

in Features/Main Feature

New Haven’s artscape has been resculpted by the coronavirus pandemic and recent social movements.

Daniel Pizarro was eating cereal when I met him, pale sunlight pouring from a window beside him. He sat in his East Rock home that July midmorning while I sat a few miles away at my own apartment, in front of a laptop screen. Even over Zoom, Pizarro’s voice was warm. He had curly, dark hair and a full beard.

Pizarro is a graphic designer. When the pandemic arrived and the shutdown began, he lost 80 percent of his client-based jobs. Luckily, though, he’s found new work through his connections with New Haven nonprofits and grassroots organizations. For the last year and a half, he said, he’s been trying to build a name for himself by using his graphic design skills to further social justice work in New Haven. He’s designed flyers, videos, posters, and graphics for Junta for Progressive Action, Cancel Rent CT, and City Wide Youth Coalition, among other groups. “Some of it’s been paid and some of it hasn’t,” he told me. “But that community has really held me through this pandemic.”

Across the country, artists face a fate similar to Pizarro’s. As of August 24, Americans for the Arts estimated that 94% of artists in the U.S. lost income due to the pandemic—an average of $22,200—and 63% became unemployed. The total income lost, they reported, was $50.6 billion. As author William Deresiewicz wrote in The Nation this May, “The major basis of much of the contemporary arts economy—live, in-person, face-to-face events—has been destroyed.”

This past summer, Pizarro led a three-week youth program at a local arts nonprofit called Artspace. The program was supposed to be in-person. But after the pandemic arrived, Pizarro and the other program coordinators reimagined the entire curriculum, reducing the number of students from around twenty to only eight. They purchased iPads, styluses, and animation software for the students. The class met on Zoom and focused on digital art. Miraculously, the transformation was a success. “They’re all making amazing art,” Pizarro said during the second week of the class. “And they pick up on it so quickly.”

The summer course—Artspace’s Summer Apprenticeship Program—explored graphic design as a tool for activism, using the art of the Black Panther Party from the 1960s and 70s as a model. The curriculum’s focus on the Panthers is one of a few initiatives Artspace has developed this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the New Haven Black Panther Trials, including a gallery exhibition inspired by the legacy of the Panthers and a podcast about the trials in New Haven. Lisa Dent, the Executive Director of Artspace, told me that these projects had been scheduled for a couple years—well before the pandemic, and well before the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. But the projects suddenly became timelier than anyone expected. 

After the murder of George Floyd, protests swept the nation. According to The New York Times, between 15 and 26 million people had participated in the protests by July 3, making it the largest protest movement in U.S. history. These protests pushed the long-standing injustices of systemic racism and anti-Blackness into mainstream attention and prompted many people to work toward change within their disciplines. For those in the art world committed to broad political change, the questions are, in Dent’s words,How do artists engage in social justice? How can artists support that work or be supported during that work?” 

According to Pizarro, the students in Artspace’s Summer Apprenticeship Program discussed how lessons from the Panthers can be applied to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. “Some of the main messaging that [the Panthers] talked about, like police brutality, is directly paralleled with the BLM movement in this moment,” Pizarro said. 

But what exactly, is the connection between art and activism? What can art do that, say, protest and community organizing cannot? Pizarro emphasized that art is profoundly personal and expressive and that it can help individuals find their voices within a movement. “The students are trying to figure their place out, and they’re creating work that directly speaks to that,” Pizarro said.

“We’re not telling them what to do, but we’re allowing them the space for self-expression, and to contribute to this idea that artists in this moment do have a role to play.”

It’s one thing to say that artists have a role to play in this moment. It’s another to clarify those terms. What role, and which moment? How exactly should art engage with a protest movement—not to mention a pandemic? 

***

The category of art, and even of contemporary visual art, is vast—perhaps too vast to generalize usefully about what role it should play right now. Different kinds of art will inevitably engage with social justice in different ways. 

Althea Rao, for example, decided to put her project Vagina Chorus on hold during the pandemic. Until the end of July, Rao was an Artist-in-Residence at Artspace, which means she had around-the-clock access to studio space owned by the nonprofit. Vagina Chorus, one of the projects Rao was developing in that studio, involves a group of performers using a “vaginal insertive pelvic floor trainer” combined with a “Bluetooth enabled bio feedback algorithm” to “sonify the internal movements, producing immersive light effects and a symphony of sound waves, forming a chorus,” according to Rao’s website. In other words, the performers create a music and light show by squeezing their pelvic floor (an exercise called a kegel). 

The project is designed to address urinary incontinence, which, as Rao told me, “is closely tied to childbirth, menopause, all of these physical events that a person who has a uterus might have over their entire lifespan.” The major symptom of urinary incontinence is leaky urine. Rao said that while urinary incontinence has been stigmatized and ignored for too long, it was understandably overshadowed by the pandemic. “It’s just a matter of urgency,” Rao said. “If someone is worried about, ‘Okay, I don’t even know where I’m going to live tomorrow, I cannot physically socially distance, and I might die if I get [Covid-19],’ and then you’re talking to them about, ‘What about your leaking problem?’ they probably won’t want to talk about that. It’s not as important.” 

How should Rao’s project engage with the current moment? The question sounds misplaced.  If your art is about urinary incontinence, then it’s about urinary incontinence — not the pandemic, and not necessarily the BLM movement. 

Though the pandemic has halted performances of Vagina Chorus for a while, it’s also provided Rao an opportunity to reimagine her project in a form that respects social distancing measures. “I’m resisting the idea of having this be a virtual performance,” she told me. “So if I’m still doing an in-person performance, can social distancing be an intentional element of blocking the stage? Can this parameter, instead of preventing a meaningful engagement, become something that’s challenging and exciting?”

She imagines something like a silent disco party at sunset. Inside a glass building, the performers will do their kegels and execute “pelvic floor exercise-inspired choreography.” Sitting outside, audience members will hear the music through personal headphones and watch the light show through glass windows. “As daylight fades away,” Rao writes on her website about the reimagined project, “Vagina Chorus will illuminate the audience’s view and mind.​​​​​​​”

“Without the parameters of social distancing, I wouldn’t even have thought of [using headphones or performing in a glass building,]” Rao told me. “And now, these technical elements have become a very interesting add-on.”

Other artists have been creating new works more or less directly in response to the pandemic. Artistic partners Aude Jomini and Eben Kling are working on a custom modification (a ‘mod’) to a videogame from 1993 — and, in the process, leaving behind more traditional gallery spaces. Jomini, an architect, and Kling, a painter, are frequent collaborators who have contributed to multiple exhibitions at Artspace over the past few years. The game they’re customizing is called Doom and it normally involves shooting your way through hordes of demons. In the nearly thirty years since its release, fans have made countless mods for the game. The mod Jomini and Kling are designing is set in New Haven and uses original drawings by the two artists for the characters, buildings, objects, and weapons in the game. Jomini and Kling gave me a tour over Zoom; it’s a surreal landscape. We walked around a pixelated Long Wharf, the screen-share jumping and lagging every so often. Kling’s carefully hand-drawn characters looked slightly warped on the screen, and Jomini’s original buildings, towering above the streets, were gray and a little grainy.

The two artists see their project as a refuge from the pandemic. When they couldn’t safely go downtown in real life, they made their own digital downtown. It felt too passive, Kling said, to spend these months just waiting for the pandemic to blow over, creating paintings and other physical artworks that couldn’t be shown until a safer time.

“I think both of us were already slowly drifting away from more traditional gallery spaces,” Kling said. “Making art-objects or traditional kinds of paintings and putting them in a gallery and having people come in and look at them and talk about them — it just doesn’t sound very exciting to me anymore.” 

Their Doom project is in many ways the opposite of traditional studio art. It’s a democratic medium—anyone can make a mod, with little technical skill required. More importantly, it escapes what Jomini calls the “baggage” of traditional art. When you make traditional studio art, “You’re always pigeon-holed within a certain discipline and what you’re referencing within art history, and there’s a way in which that’s so deadly to me,” Jomini said. “It’s a kind of death-making—this collecting and selling and pouring all your thoughts into this object, which then becomes precious. That is not really interesting to me.”

This idea of art as a precious object, which dwells in the dim, regal hall of a museum, is similar to the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura.” Aura, Benjamin wrote in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, is the reverence we have for “authentic” works of art—the awe we feel, for example, in front of the original Mona Lisa and not a copy of it. Like Jomini and Kling, Benjamin believed aura was outdated—and that it would be destroyed by the advent of photography, film, and other modern forms of mass-producible art. For Benjamin, rejecting aura was a political choice. In his preface he declares, “The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows… are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”

But when I asked Jomini and Kling whether they saw their artistic practice as political, they answered cautiously. Kling called it a “slippery term.” “I do think a lot of previous work that I’ve made is social commentary to a certain extent. But it’s not really political in any kind of partisan way,” said Kling. Jomini agreed, saying that she’s wary of thinking of art as “a tool” for political messaging. “Yeah, I’m wary of that kind of utility, too,” Kling said. “The line at which you cross into the world of propaganda is pretty fucking thin.” 

I asked specifically about the Black Lives Matter movement—had it prompted any thoughts about how art can or should engage in political movements? Kling, who is white, said that the question is what’s useful to the movement and what’s not. For example, he said, “If there is going to be a large-scale painting project, [since] I have designed and realized large scale murals in the past, that’s the kind of thing I would like to utilize in those moments. But I don’t know if I’m somebody to go back into the studio and make a bunch of paintings about the Black Lives Matter movement.” 

Jomini, who is also white, agreed that art was not the best medium for her to engage with the BLM movement—in part, she said, because it shouldn’t be a priority to make white artists a central “part of this discourse.” It’s better, she said, to attend physical protests, and to work for broader, systemic change within organizations. But, she emphasized, that work isn’t part of her artistic practice.

It seems true that institutional change is more important than making art about the BLM movement. But it seems equally true that art is not outside politics—it’s always implicated in politics, because politics pervades all life. Does this mean that all artists committed to social justice have an obligation to use their art as a form of activism? It’s a tricky question. Forcing artists to make art about politics won’t lead to meaningful progress—not least because they won’t make good art if their subject is prescribed. But let’s assume you’re an artist who wants to use art to aid social justice. What should you do?

***

Benjamin ends “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with a call to action. Humanity’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order,” he writes. “This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” If this sounds melodramatic, it’s useful to remember that Benjamin was writing in Germany during the 1930s. But his main point could be universalized: to resist fascism, we must politicize art. Do Benjamin’s theories apply today? Should artists, in response to the momentous events of the summer, politicize their art? What would that mean?

I asked Pamela Lee, an art history professor at Yale, to explain how art can do political work. “It’s a great question, and it’s also a question that, if you’re going to pursue it, will take you several decades,” Lee said, laughing slightly. At the simplest level, “art represents something,” she said—and that something can be political. “The most famous example is Picasso’s Guernica, the work that monumentalizes the catastrophes of the Spanish Civil War. And the question that always follows is, ‘Well, did that ever save anyone from dying? Did that stop fascism from taking hold in Spain?’” But in Lee’s opinion, those questions are misplaced. “In 99 percent of cases, I don’t think there is such a direct causal connection between how art produces politics,” she said. It’s ridiculous to ask Picasso’s canvas to halt Franco’s tanks.

Art can also be political if it’s “pure propaganda,” Lee said, the classic example being the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. But Lee pointed out that the art commissioned by the Popes during the Renaissance was also unabashedly political—it was intended to “advance [the Popes’] position on the geopolitical stage.” 

Ultimately, Lee said, “art is always political,” but that doesn’t mean the subject matter of art must always be political. Who gets to see this piece of art? Who owns it, and how was it produced? How much is it worth? Who determines its worth? “For me at least,” Lee said, “these are political questions—not by way of partisan politics, but by way of access and power.” 

“Art is political in the sense that it’s a kind of occasion…the occasion for a whole complex of social relations.'”

Lee makes an important distinction; to say that art is “political” can mean two different things. It can mean, on one hand, that art participates in an activist project. But it can also mean that art is just one more part of our vast social world, its histories, and its complex relationships—all of which is inevitably implicated in politics. All art is political in the second sense, but not in the first. And, in Lee’s opinion, that’s okay. We shouldn’t critique artists, like Jomini and Kling, whose art isn’t explicitly engaged in activism. “I think that artists should do what they want to do,” she said. “If you want to paint flowers, why shouldn’t you? … I can say that all art is ideologically or politically stratified, but I don’t think that means that an artist is under any pressure to conform to some perceived notion of what constitutes the political.”

“Art,” she emphasized, “can be speculative.” It’s important for artists to have the freedom to experiment, to imagine what “the political” can be. Art’s power rests on this unfettered creativity. Dictating a “proper” way for art to be political risks stunting art’s ability to imagine new ways of being in the world—and, counterintuitively, its potential to imagine political change. “I think this is the bottom line here: artists are not just reflecting society and culture, they’re producing it,” Lee said.  

“It’s about doing the hard work of sitting on these committees, getting up earlier, talking to my boss and talking to other people at work and doing outreach to the Yale School of Architecture… all these larger organizations are what will change the tide.”

***

Pizarro and his students met every day on Zoom for three weeks. Sometimes guest speakers visited. Addys Castillo talked to the class about her role as the Executive Director of Citywide Youth Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on getting young people involved in anti-racist organizing in New Haven. Nontsikelelo Mutiti, a graphic designer and a friend of Pizarro’s, also visited. One day during the program, Pizarro assigned the students a documentary about the Black Panther Party to watch for homework. The next day, as a surprise, Pizarro announced to the students that Ericka Huggins would be visiting class that day. “They were starstruck,” Pizarro said. The students got to meet a real-life, former leader of the New Haven Black Panther Party, just after learning about the Panthers’ historical significance. Huggins spoke to the students about Black female leadership and the importance of “taking time to heal” during the labor-intensive work of activism.

Some days, the students worked on self-portraits. Others, they practiced digital typography, or creative writing. They even did theater exercises together, all without ever meeting in person. 

“With any environment where you meet new people, you’re sort of shy in the beginning,” Pizarro told me. “But I think that is particularly true with how young people behave in a digital space.” His students, at first, didn’t want to show themselves on camera. “We’re sharing our intimate spaces, like our room. Some people might be a little shy about that.” But over the three weeks, Pizarro said, the students blossomed. He encouraged them to have breakout sessions so they could get to know one another without his help. The theater exercises, especially, helped Pizarro and his students break past their discomfort. They forgot their lines, they did silly improv skits, they laughed together. “It was really a joyful experience that I didn’t expect,” Pizarro said. “You know, I’m a graphic designer. Graphic designers tend to be more shy, more introverted. And I do exhibit some of those things. If I embrace something like theater, I’m able to come out of my shell as well.”

The pandemic has created new challenges not only for Pizarro’s classroom, but for his broader philosophy about art’s role in society. “I see artistic practice as a social practice, as one that contributes to this idea of movement building,” Pizarro said. “Take protest for an example,” he continued. “We can discuss how protest actually is an art form, right? It’s a performance. It’s a performance to inject the necessary conversation, because the media is not covering it in a way that we want it to.”

Not only are protests a form of communal performance, they’re also a collective of individuals using visual art. Protestors make signs, design shirts, paint banners, and generally use a visual language (a fist in the air, kneeling in silence on the street) to express their demands. “It’s such a beautiful thing, to understand art as communal,” Pizarro said. “We’re taught that art needs to be separate, that it’s this precious object we just stare at on a wall. And it feels so distant, and we don’t see the artist. But in protest, you see all the artists; we’re all there. We can dialogue. We can see each other. We can smell each other. We can touch each other.”

Of course, the pandemic makes this harder. One of the challenges with moving everything online, Pizarro said, is figuring out how to preserve a sense of genuine human connection. “We have to pour more of ourselves into the Zoom process,” he said. “We have to open up more, to open up faster, and not be afraid to share deep parts of ourselves.”

***

I met Kwadwo Adae outside his studio on a misty, humid Friday in July. He wore a lab coat covered in paint splatters of all colors, along with boxy glasses, gray slacks, a blue face mask, and orange gloves. He gave me a light fist-bump in greeting. Inside his studio, potted plants sat on window sills, and paintings lined the walls—vast canvases of flowers, and portraits, many half-finished. Adae creates these paintings in his studio, but he also normally teaches four or five classes a week here through the Adae Fine Art Academy. Children’s classes are on Saturday, adults come during the week. Normally, he also teaches art to senior residents at local assisted living facilities and to young adults at the West Haven Mental Health Clinic. 

The assisted living facilities shut their doors in February. Adae closed his art academy in March. “All of the teaching, all the in-person teaching I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years, was just unavailable,” he told me. Suddenly, without the income from teaching, he was at risk of losing his studio space.

Adae began to rely on selling his paintings. Luckily, they’ve been popular. “People have been coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “A lot of the floral paintings have been going.” He allows customers to pay in installments because so many have lost jobs. He also started teaching online classes. On Tuesday evenings, he heads to his studio, sets up an Instagram livestream, and records himself giving lessons on figure drawing. He asks those who watch the video to donate via Venmo. “People have been generous,” he said.

Adae had a tight schedule when I met him. Artspace had commissioned him to paint nine portraits of protestors and community organizers in New Haven for their “Revolution on Trial” exhibit, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the New Haven Black Panther trials. A few of the portraits sat beside us on easels while we talked. Each protestor stood defiantly in the exact center of a canvas, staring straight ahead. The backgrounds were solid colors, one bright red, one orange, one blue. A mass of people with raised fists and protest signs crowded each horizon.

Adae, who is Black and the son of Ghanaian immigrants, is often out in the streets with the protestors he paints. In 2017, he became heavily involved in the activist group Justice for Jayson, which emerged after Bridgeport police officer James Boulay shot and killed 15-year-old Jayson Negron. At one protest, Adae saw Negron’s little sister speak to the crowd. “She was 13, tops,” Adae said. “And she got on the mic and addressed the protesters and it was extremely inspiring—and heartbreakingly sad. She should be hanging out with friends. None of this should be her life. But because of this incident, it’s her life.”

“I cannot just sit and do nothing and watch people that look like me get slaughtered,” he said. Since then, Adae has continued to be involved in local activism. By attending protests over the years and around the city, he has gotten to know a handful of other regular activists in New Haven—many of whom became the subjects of his current portrait series. 

“These are people that I see in protests, people that I’ve linked arms with against cops. And I’ve had the thought in my mind, ‘Okay, if this police officer swings a baton at this person… I’m getting in between them,’” Adae said. “I would take a nightstick for this person.” And yet, Adae said, even after all this, he realized he didn’t know his fellow protesters. He called it “a strange but beautiful relationship.”

For Adae, art and protest overlap. “Everyone can do something to be heard and to stand up against an injustice,” he said. Since Adae is trained as a painter, he uses those specialized skills “to make murals about activism, to paint activists.” Much of Adae’s art is community-oriented; it aligns with Pizarro’s belief that all art should be a form of “social practice.” For example, Adae has painted many murals across New Haven — art that is resolutely public, not tucked away in a museum or a gallery. He’s currently working on a mural in Dixwell in response to the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon by Yale and Hamden police officers in 2019. The mural depicts four brown sparrows taking flight—small, everyday birds, painted large enough to cover the side of a building. Sparrows, to Adae, symbolize peace and freedom—the very things, he said, that police violence robs from a community. His mural, he hopes, will be a reminder that “We all deserve peace; we all deserve freedom.” 

***

At the end of their program, Pizarro’s students produced an exhibit of digital artwork. Actually, there were two exhibits—one online, and one in-person at Artspace’s physical gallery, which is publicly showing the “Revolution on Trial” until October. Online, the works are subtly animated. In Abdulrahman Elrefaei’s project, a TV flashes, declaring the phrase, “The media does not cover the whole story.” In Natalia Maria Padilla Castellanos’s piece, protest signs jump gently back and forth, emblazoned with phrases like “No justice, no peace” and “Las vidas negras importan.” The work depicts a Black Lives Matter protest “ascending through the streets of Antigua, Guatemala,” in the words of the artist’s statement. In the front line of the protest are real people: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Rigoberta Menchú, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Addys Castillo, Ericka Huggins. 

At Artspace’s physical gallery, in one room of the “Revolution on Trial” exhibit, each student’s project is duplicated many times, each replica stacked vertically, like a film strip. I thought of Benjamin’s concept of reproduction and how it undermines aura. These projects weren’t sacred; they were accessible, lively, and engaging in their directness. 

Kwadwo Adae’s portraits hung in the next room of the gallery, and, according to his artist statement, he had a similar accessibility in mind: “Adae’s painted tributes align the subjects with honorific portraiture, a genre typically associated with elite classes,” the notes read. “However, here the centralized formats and streamlined backgrounds retain a sense of ease and immediate accessibility.”

This was democratic art—“the People’s Art,” according to the subtitle of the exhibit. And it brought to mind something Pizarro had told me. It was something, he said, that he hadn’t quite worked out for himself: a half-formed thought. “I don’t know at what point the term ‘art’ became separate from ‘culture,’” he said. “Growing up, my parents had what you would call ‘art’ all around our house, but these were cultural artifacts… whether it was cultural instruments, or certain small sculptures we would have around our house. For me, art isn’t separate from culture. Culture is art.”

What would it mean to fully believe that art is no different from culture? It would be a radical revision. Although we refer to “the arts and culture,” we understand them to be fundamentally different. Art is inspiration, innovation, genius. Culture is the organic, unthinking collective. Viewed this way, the very word “art” seems tied up in antidemocratic ideals. 

So, what role should artists play right now? The same as non-artists, I guess. For some reason, we separate art from culture, from social life. We place it apart from us, then we ask it to justify itself by demanding it does political work. We don’t worry about whether “culture” can bring about political change—the question barely makes sense. Culture is life, sociality, community. It can’t be reduced to political usefulness because it is the basis for politics, the reason for politics. It is political in the sense that all life is political: in a society with deadly intentions, the only way to really live is to fight for change. 

At the “Revolution on Trial” exhibit, there’s a video piece by the artist Chloë Bass. Slow-motion footage from the 1970 May Day protests on the New Haven Green plays on loop. We see a close-up of Ericka Huggins’ face. A narrator recites, delicately: 

“Extraordinary moments and movements and things come out of all these normal moments that are really kind of boring.”

A banner painted with the words “Power to the people” hangs from a building.

“We talk about the crisis versus the chronic. What is an incident, and what is an ongoing condition?”

Vapor trails cross a light blue sky.

“It seems all states are equally permanent and elusive: emergency, revolution, attachment, care, peace.”

—Eli Mennerick is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a Senior Editor.

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