I always wanted to do something that would make the world a better place than how I found it. When I was younger, this task–while not worded in this way in my 6 year old brain–was a fairly accomplishable goal. All I had to do was invent something that would change the world. Simple enough, right? My first experiments involved trying to combine the right house-hold things in my bathroom to create explosive toothpaste. If 6 year old me knew how that would save the world, we will never know, because the combustible Colgate never came to fruition and my detailed experiment archives–scribblings in 5-star notebooks with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on them–seem to have been the victims of thievery…or were lost.
When I was older, I started to think about different ways to have a positive social impact. My Dad always said to focus on the small things, that if he can make one person smile, then he has changed his community for the better. And that’s how things work. Because when that one person smiled, they may go on and make another person smile, and so on and so forth until the entire community is altered by that smile, then the county, then the state, country, and world. I’ve always liked that idea a lot. This sort of trickle up approach or the “Every time a doctor flaps his lips on one side of the earth, there’s a tornado on the other side” idea. It’s comforting, but I felt it to almost be a cop-out, something to tell yourself when you no longer can have a big impact.
I’ve tried over the years to fit my interests into a socially-conscious approach. Most recently that has been art. The making of art is inherently selfish in my mind because it assumes that the creator has something to say that needs to be heard. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something that I feel about the art process. Nor does this mean that art can only be selfish. I think that JR’s work is an example of the powerful impact that art for social change can have on the world. His pieces remind me of Augosto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed” in that he works with communities to create a site-specific, healing installation. Only Boal involves acting and JR involves photographing.
Getting to see JR’s show at the CAC was a great opportunity. I wish that I could’ve been there to hear him speak at the opening though. I feel like a lot of the works that were showcased in this particular exhibit were ones that I had already been exposed to via TEDTalks. This wouldn’t really matter to me much if I was able to see originals, but because his works are installations, a lot of what we got to see at the CAC was simply documentation of his pieces, rather than the pieces themselves. And it is because of this that the gallery was somewhat of a repetitive experience for me. I do wish I could’ve seen the portraits for his Inside Out project. In addition, there were some technical issues (images falling out of matts, dusty frames and broken projectors) that caught me off guard. I expect a certain caliber of professionalism from the CAC and this exhibition faltered in delivering that.
But really sitting with JR’s art did re-spark my interest in making socially-conscious work. Although, I am definitely still torn on how much of a political impact art really can have on the world. The people that JR made work about and for are still living in the troubling environments. The Palestinian and Israeli portraits that he installed seemed to more directly address the issues at hand than some of his other installations, but even that did not change the political situation, it simply drew attention to it. And as Duane Michals said in response to allegations of social-importance in his own work,
“I feel the political aspirations are impotent. They can never be seen. If they are, it will only be by a limited audience. If one is to act politically, one simply puts down the camera and goes out and does something. “
That’s a pretty good point there. But I still haven’t made up my mind on the issue. While there are more direct and immediate ways to effect change on a situation, I do think–at least for the moment–that art’s impact can transcend a “limited audience,” as in the case of JR’s photographs and methods. I think JR’s work is some of the strongest examples of art being able to result in positive social change. Even if it just changed the minds of a few people, as my Dad says, sometimes that’s all it takes. As much as it pains me to say it, Dad might’ve gotten this one right. But I mean, even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes.