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What is the Role of the Artist?

Cheryl Oring conducting interviews at the College Art Association Conference.
Cheryl Oring conducting interviews at the College Art Association Conference.

LOS ANGELES — “What is the role of the artist?” I’m used to hearing this question in college seminars and rant sessions after opening parties.

Artist Sheryl Oring tried a different tack. Parking herself near the main entrance to the College Art Association conference this year, Sandler set up a typewriter and donned a Mad Men-esque secretarial look, complete with a beehive hairdo and perfect red fingernails. Visitors sat down and told her, simply, what they thought of the role of the artist.

Oring, in turn, typed out their thoughts efficiently on her bright red typewriter.  She stamped the statement with a date and gave the participant a copy.  The participant could then stamp it with labels like “Draft” and “Needs Work” before Oring snapped his or her picture and filed it all away in a small binder.

Red figured prominently in her performance, with red fingernails, stamps and a typewriter.
Red figured prominently in her performance, with red fingernails, stamps and a typewriter.

Because Oring’s project started on the same day as naturalization services at the Los Angeles Convention Center, she received responses from people outside the usual College Art circle. One participant from Taft College thoought that the role of the artist “is to be innovative enough that it helps us to see ourselves.” A young girl whose father received his citizenship that day said, “Sometimes people may not be sure of what they want to do but they can get inspired by the artist.”

The project, dubbed “100 Possibilities,” was put together to celebrate the centennial of the College Art Association, held here in Los Angeles.  It continues in the vein of Oring’s well-known “I Wish to Say,” in which she invited participants to write a postcard to the President, and “Collective Memory,” an effort to record New Yorkers’ response to the question, “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?”

The visual language of bureaucracy reminded me of Garnet Hertz’s “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” meme. After a series of wacky images of artists, the last, most honest one is a simple form: “Exhibition Proposal.” As America struggles with decreased arts funding, the question of the artist’s role couldn’t be more vital.

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