Kazuo Shiraga, Inoshishi-gari 1 (Wild Boar Hunting 1) (1963), from the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Fur, paste, and oil on panel
“This is one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity.” -Azar Nafisi
“I would declare pompously, (art) is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.” -Azar Nafisi’s
News flash, I am about ten years late, but I am currently reading Azar Nafisi’s “memoir in books” Reading Lolita in Tehran. I gathered the inspiration to pick up this text after viewing the recent blockbuster, directed by Ben Affleck, Argo. Affleck’s film explores the creative power of cinema masquerading as a ticket to freedom for American journalists from the grip of the Iranian government. Sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire film, clenching the hand of my housemate, I had an inclination that this would have to end victoriously. In the end we all end up cheering, as with moments to spare, the Americans are whisked away to freedom via the tailspin of aircraft and the privilege of nationality. In the end the film had a satisfying finale for the hope seeking Americana in me, but I could not help but consider the position of the Iranian housekeeper working in the house of the wealthy Canadian diplomat housing the American hostages? In what venue does the average Iranian women find freedom and creativity? Nafisi gives me one answer I can relate too, that is the freedom of the artistic expression of the mind and escapism of creating another reality through image, text and sound i.e. art. Diversion into the imagination created by artistic reflection can often be caused by recovery from , or the prevention against, trauma. In Western culture, art is seen as leisure, and leisure is viewed as luxury to the non-western world. I began to consider what if art was as much of a necessity for the West as it was for Nafisi when she was living under the layers of fear and repression covering Tehran? Nafisi states in her memoir, “This is one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity.” Therefore, I ask the question to artists like Nafisi, as well as to other non-western artists, who are pealing apart the layers of the cultural trauma of war through art, how do I validate my necessity of art in a culture that views it only as leisure? How do I explain not only the enjoyment of art appreciation but the urgent value of visual literacy for culture today, to my dis-interested students and pragmatic minded aquintances? How do I tell them that artists keep this country “free” because artists have dreamed of a world apart from oppression, artists interpret dreams and dreams create realities.
Art has as much potential to become an act of in-subordination as catharsis therefore linking resistance to the first stage of healing and freeing oneself from oppression. We see this violence of in-subordination and catharsis in the art of the 1960s Japanese performance collective, the Gutai. On a recent trip to New York I viewed the Gutai exhibition at the Guggenheim, Splendid Playground, currently on exhibition now through May 8th, 2013. I lackadaisically wandered through the seven floors of the Guggenheim wanting to experience the energy of this movement within its context, wanting wall labels and curators to explicate the necessity of this form of artistic expression for Japanese culture, and to capture the immediacy of the images as experiences rather than mere objects. I felt resistance to this installation of Gutai art, filling seven levels of wall space not as a form of consensual communication but as “things.” I lingered in front of a particular piece for quite some time by Kazuo Shiraga called Wildboar Hunting 1 (1963). The Art Historian in me was trying to figure out how the technical components of his piece without reading the label. Upon reading the label, I found that this work was made solely with the artist’s feet, and Shiraga used both paint and animal carcass to create a work resembling a mess of mangled flesh and fur, more likely found on the side of rural country highway, than the highly esteemed Guggenheim palace. I find this image brilliant and captivating. Mesmerized by the forgotten energy that it took him to create this now stagnate museum object, I also discovered in this piece a bit of the incarnation of Nietzschean catharsis for the post-war Japanese soul, springing from a place of necessity in order to continue existing. I do not blame the Guggenheim, or the sophisticated museum-goers for passing this work by, nor do I blame our culture and the fact that art is so far from necessity and now become only leisure. The function of art as leisure or education is now a current issue in government funding, particularly in my home state of Pennsylvania. Why is art so easily placed in the same category of experiences of luxury like the enjoyment of sunbathing? If art is leisure, intended to be completed on one’s own time; it therefore becomes unessential to education. Shiraga and Nafisi pull us into the pulse of art, to the lifeblood of learning through artistic mediums. I long to sit in the shade of artists who burn to create in order to exist, and learn from them how to feel relief from the burning indifference of a culture obsessed with productivity. At the end of the day, for many over worked Americans, entertainment is often equated with non-existence, and intelligent thought provoking examples of art therefore become too much work.
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, (New York: Random House, 2003), 47.
Guggenheim Museum Website, Splendid Playground, (New York: Guggenheim Press, 2013), https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/gutai-splendid-playground