It would be hard to work in the arts at this particular moment in the US and not question what you do. I’ve talked to a number of people in precisely that situation, wondering in quiet moments if what they’re doing is useful, purposeful, sustainable. Some are certain in their work, most have moments of questioning, others are putting more energy elsewhere of late. On the national stage, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been threatened with annihilation once again, and once again the usual letters are being dusted off and repackaged, full of arguments honed during the 1990s culture wars that rest primarily on economic analysis, i.e. the arts bring in money and contribute to development. Not the most edifying reason for existing — to generate wealth, primarily for people who aren’t artists and don’t work in the arts, in the midst of a near-constant political crisis and some of the most staggering economic inequality this country has ever known.
It was in this context that I stepped into JACK, a performance space in Brooklyn, for an event last weekend titled “Art in the Age of ‘Apocalypse.’” Curated by Jesse Phillips-Fein and Shanté Paradigm Smalls, the event consisted of five works, most of which were in progress or responses to the theme expressed in the title. Angela Arrocha presented a short shadow-puppet piece inspired by a scene in László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance. Ashley Marinaccio shared photos and quotes from artists she asked to imagine a post-apocalyptic theater. Avram Finkelstein offered a photo-accompanied lecture on co-opting imagery and gestures, with a focus on both President Trump and the Bellamy salute. Jesse Phillips-Fein, along with dancer John Gutierrez, performed a dance piece and spoken meditation on birth, motherhood, contemporary politics, and what it feels like to be an artist in the midst of those things. The duo DD4DD (Waqia Abdul-Kareem and Robin Marquis) presented a film depicting a BDSM scene overlaid with dialogue exploring power, vulnerability, and race, particularly in the context of interracial interactions.
As with any group presentation, it was a mixed bag. More than once it felt like we were in an academic setting rather than a public performance venue, with the work feeling at times far too didactic and at others overly simplistic, as if it had been generated by students whose art doesn’t yet have much depth or teeth. But, as is also the case with group presentations, there were moments of insight and coalescence.
One such moment came during one of the Q&A sessions that followed each work. In response to Marinaccio, an audience member pointed out that many of the visions she presented of how theater might look and function in a post-apocalyptic world were already happening in some developing and/or recently devastated countries. Though a couple of people nodded, no one responded, and the conversation quickly moved on. But the comment stuck with me because it touched on a number of important ideas at once.
The first is that art doesn’t require enormous resources, or even significant infrastructure. It never has, not for the 40,000-plus years it’s been around. And countries and populations without resources do not lack for art, far from it. Yet so much of what artists and arts organizations in the US find themselves focused on is precisely the thing that all those pro-NEA arguments rest on: money, funding, grants, generating income. That said, there’s a core issue that people talk a lot about but rarely act on: the distribution of arts money, or more particularly, the redistribution of arts money to populations and groups that have systematically been denied access to it — which was particularly relevant to this event, given that it was part of a series titled Reparations365, focused on distributive justice. But the larger tendency toward heightened competition for funding among an ever-increasing field of artists and arts organizations starts to mirror late-stage capitalism, where the goal becomes growth itself, constant increase, rather than art-making.
The second idea raised by the audience member’s comment is that there are countless places on Earth right now where inhabitants have already endured apocalyptic moments, some short term, others relentless: Syria, Palestine, Venezuela, Haiti, Somalia, Japan, and on and on. Even here in the US, we have New Orleans and Lower Manhattan, or, stepping further back, indigenous peoples who have survived genocide but not disappeared, as well as those who lived through enslavement and kept going. Which is to say, if you want to understand art in times of world-shattering crisis or of fewer resources, you don’t need to wait for the future; the past and present have plenty of tales to tell.
In terms of the featured artworks, some of the strongest bolts of insight came from Phillips-Fein and DD4DD. Both of their pieces laid bare the artists’ questions and conflicts at this particular time in their lives — for Phillips-Fein, the focus was on the upheaval of becoming a new mother amid political crisis, and for DD4DD, it was on trying to integrate racial justice into the most intimate acts and relationships. Rather than being purely self-reflexive, the two works showed artists asking how to remain human in the midst of conflict, how to challenge, relent, give in, refuse. It seems to me that this is one of the values of art, in or out of apocalyptic times: to remind us that we are human and that we feel — we fear, rage, love, want, fall short, are capable of change, and are almost constantly uncertain of what lies ahead. For those reminders, I was thankful to have attended the event. As Abdul-Kareem noted at the end of the dialogue in her film, “That’s how we survive — we just keep showing up.”
“Art in the Age of ‘Apocalypse’” took place at JACK (505 1/2 Waverly Avenue, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn) on May 28, 2–5pm, as part of the yearlong series Reparations365.