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Art Critics as Socio-Political Commentators

This columnist has often written about how to draw and paint and where to buy art supplies. With the bombing of Ukraine, and members of the media killed, I decided to examine the evolution of the art critic. More than mere tastemakers who analyze and curate, the art critic affects socio-political landscapes by aesthetically addressing problems in need of fixing. How then can I not be grateful to live in a society that allows me artistic freedom and for those who politely challenge my opinions?

In the New York City post-war fine arts arena, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), who appropriated the German word ‘Kitsch’ for the Pop Art he disliked, and Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) who coined ‘Action Painting’ for the likes of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), had a strong influence on what was embedded into the art canon. In cinema, ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,’ written by Jean Kerr (1922-2003), was a comedic look at her theater-critic husband, Walter (1913-1996), whose critical Broadway play-lambasting could close a show.

While Peter Schjeldahl (b.1942) (The New Yorker), Jerry Saltz (b. 1951) (New York Magazine), are renowned critics, their opinions don’t cause earthquakes. In the modern world, there’s a new pundit on the artsy block—Joe Public! Platforms like Rotten Tomatoes allow viewers to undermine box office remunerations with a few keystrokes. Nameless masses have demanded that politically incorrect monuments be torn down. Groups demand exhibitions to showcase works by non-whites and narratives documenting exploitation. Many museum staffers resent the large salaries paid to management and are asking to be unionized, demanding higher wages, benefits packages, and increased minority hiring. Additionally, there is a push to appoint museum board members who behave properly and ethically acquire their wealth.

Most critics don’t work for major media outlets, which provide a living wage. Writing for a publication or exhibition catalog doesn’t pay much, and therefore most have multiple jobs to make ends meet. However, critics recognized for writing on specific topics are akin to being specialized museum curators.

Sadly, as is the case with Putin’s war, there are the tyrants who punish dissidents who write or image the socio-political. The needless desecration of the earth occurring with the bombing of Ukraine is a travesty beyond comprehension. The following works are by artists and writers who contextualize Global Warming.

Maia Ruth Lee’s ‘Bondage, Baggage and Prototype 4’ (2018) is made from recyclables. It is enigmatic in that it’s beautiful to observe but conjures up some of our worst societal ills, such as homelessness. South Korean-born Lee’s neatly stacked four multi-colored packages bring fond memories of packing camping trip duffle bags. But the bundles also look like parcels, which all too frequently appear on urban sidewalks as unhoused person’s only possessions.

Iñupiaq photographer Brian Adams’ ‘Kivalina Sea Wall,’ Kivalina, Alaska (2007) depicts realities of Climate Change as the Northwest Coast of Alaska is eroding. Kivalina is an island of four hundred Iñupiaq residents in the Northwest Arctic Borough that is slowly returning to the sea. Residents hunt the Bowhead whale, which becomes difficult as ice packs grow thinner. Boxes and sandbags are a temporary fix to the actuality that endangered villages will eventually have to relocate at great expense.

Jean Bundy’s ‘Paradox of Productivity’ (2020) images the port of Anchorage, Alaska, which imports 95% of the state’s food. The result is lots of barge traffic through the North Pacific, evidencing warmer, acidic waters that negatively affect sea life. At the Helsinki airport, wooden reindeer mannequins don genuine pelts, reminding passers-by of the tug-of-war between mineral production and indigenous lifestyles. Scandinavian Sámi continue to herd reindeer, while Alaska Natives maintain a subsistence hunting and fishing lifestyle. While both cultures make ends meet by selling original fine arts and crafts to gift shops, they also derive remunerations and social welfare from oil production.

Iceland’s, Ásthildur Jónsdóttir’s ‘Arctic Aesthetics,’ (2019) is a hand-stitched and painted view of the eight countries that reside in the Arctic Circle. The artist explains that she wanted to be “involved with issues concerning the ecology of the planet….[and to encourage engagement] in the beauty of the Arctic, both physically and psychologically.” Her art layers ancient needlecraft upon contemporary landscape genres.

Most maps are shown from the vantage point of the equator where notable historic travel, transportation, and colonial entrepreneurship occurred. Looking at the world from the top down disorients but ultimately creates a greater sensitivity for this region and its importance to the rest of the planet. It is, at its core, a commentary about accelerated melting and enlightenment about Imperialism.

Harvard professor Richard Lazarus’ ‘The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court,’ documents the slow demise of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) since its 1970 inception. Under George W. Bush, greenhouse gases were not considered air pollutants and the EPA was directed not to regulate them. As a result, the administration truly dismissed Climate Change. Summing up Lazarus’ account of the 2007 US Supreme Court decision, Justice Stevens was picked to write the opinion of the court. He addressed Climate Change by stating “how greenhouse gases that caused climate change were clearly ‘air pollutants’ subject to the Clean Air Act, and how important it was for the EPA to better explain its reasons for not regulating such pollutants (246-247).” In an email to this critic, Lazarus wrote, “the truly amazing John Paul Stevens… sent a resounding message to the public about the need to take seriously the threats presented by Climate Change.”

The US Supreme Court, 2022, has once again been asked to consider limiting the EPA’s authority and is expected to do so—stay tuned! Putin’s war with Ukraine has stressed oil and gas production and wheat commodities, which has stymied Climate Change conversations on the world stage. But they will return with art critics, as stewards of the earth, continue to elucidate damages.

Mini Sleuth: ‘Rule of Five’ by Richard Lazarus on Amazon.

Jean Bundy, MFA, PhD is a writer and painter living in Anchorage. She is a VP at AICA-Int. and serves on Governance for Pictor Gallery NYC.


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