Throughout history, artists and philosophers have defined art, and its role in society, in various ways. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, rather famously wrote: “We have art so as not to perish by the truth.” Others, however, have conceptualised art in more positively agentic terms - those of normative possibility and social change. For this reason, I have chosen the above quotation from the Cuban American artist, Ana Mendieta, to reflect my own perspective and orientation toward art. In my view, once completed, every artwork becomes an independent, spiritual entity unto itself - not only capable of shaping intellectual and moral institutions, but of actively constructing the entire social order.
In my practice as an art historian, curator and educator, it is this spiritual and agentic quality of art in which I am interested, and that I wish to convey in my work. Art history is replete with examples of how art has changed the moral structures of society, both negatively and positively. For example, understanding the authoritarian dictates of Eastern European regimes during the Cold War would be impossible without acknowledging the vital role socialist realism played in the perpetuation of state control, and suppression of human rights, in nations behind the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, art can - and does - speak truth to power, and may be used to advance social equality and justice movements. The underground, experimental film movement in the former German Democratic Republic exemplifies this, for it kept alive alternative, critical visions of East German society at a time when only socialist realism was allowed to be produced, and publicly displayed. In today’s world, by contrast, art and artistic images travel much more widely, freely, and rapidly around the globe, thus vastly increasing their power to create political and social reality.
“Art is a material act of culture, but its greatest value is its spiritual role, and that influences society,because it’s the greatest contribution to the intellectual and moral development of humanity that can be made.”
- Ana Mendieta