This month on wall-less.com I’m taking a break from profiling local artists to reflect on the role of art in making sense of our current social and political climate - one that is deeply divided along socio-economic, gender/sexuality, and racial lines. I wasn’t alive during the first civil rights movement but I imagine that those who were are currently feeling a kinship to Sisyphus as they look back at a summer that brought us marriage equality and then forward to four years of a Trump presidency. Over the last three weeks I’ve felt alternatively furious and helpless. I’ve cried while sitting at my office desk. I’ve yelled at the radio while driving to the grocery store. I’ve intentionally avoided social situations just so I wouldn’t have to discuss the outcome of the election. I’m clearly living in the category of people who view Trump’s election as a moral defeat, a lost moment for all woman-kind, and a step backwards away from social and economic equality, away from environmental protection, and toward a nation governed by private interests. I am disheartened to say the least.
Floating around the inter-webs are so many articles and posts about how to make sense of a Trump presidency; how to ‘fight back’; how to understand the risk of normalizing his oppressive viewpoints (or not); and how to better understand those who elected him. Reading through those texts brought me only temporary relief. And then Rebecca Solnit came to speak at GVSU two weeks ago. She was there as part of the University’s Fall Arts Lecture series, she spoke about her Atlas project and her life’s work in making connections between seemingly disparate categories in order to find meaning in the intersection of significant narratives about race, class, and gender. Her talk was meandering and vernacular and I went home hungry for more. I downloaded her Men Explain Things to Me essays and landed on Grandmother Spider, an essay originally published in 2014. In this essay Solnit weaves an analysis of a painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, from the series Telaraña, that depicts a woman obscured by a bed sheet as she’s hanging it on a clothes line together with the history of gender subjugation in the arts of weaving and painting, with indigenous peoples’ creation stories in which Spider Grandmother is the principal creator of the universe, with the myth of Ancient Greek fates who "spun, wove, and cut each person’s lifeline". Solnit artfully connects the institutionalized oppression of women, minorities, and the poor with the textile industry and presents contrasting histories where women are elevated as the source of all life while having little control over their own lives; “They are spinning, they are caught in the web.” This essay broke me open. Probably it was partially the timing - it had been long enough since the election results for me to build up a solid coating of grief and anger - and partially it was the poetry of her ideas. Instead of trying to rationalize this toxic climate head-on, she was coming at it from an unexpected angle and filling the space around the issues with light and metaphor, broadening the picture to include vast histories and potential. In that empty center something clicked for me and I saw that the opposing sides of our nation-wide argument aren’t participating in the same conversation, we’re not even speaking the same language. We’re holding up moral arguments against economic rationalizations. I’m not the first to make this suggestion but looking at it from this vantage point, through the lens of art, made it feel real.
On Thanksgiving day I spoke to my father and my step-mother on the phone--we are similarly minded folks, they carry a more pragmatic outlook. We grazed the election results, shared our food intake levels for the day, and began talking a bit about art. My step-mother usually takes extra care in asking me art-related questions because she knows I see and value things differently than she does and she’s genuinely interested in the reasons. She’s an observer and a literalist. The sky is blue, the grass is green, these things are true for her and when rendered otherwise in a work of art she struggles to appreciate. I thought of Solnit’s essay again and her interpretation of Fernandez’ bed sheet painting. Solnit opens her essay with a description of the painting and an assessment that “here, in this painting… a woman both exists and is obliterated.” She presents these two contradictory ideas that aren’t exactly co-existing but existing in the same space at the same time, as if in two distinct realities that rely on the same body and the same gesture to be true. But I don’t think this conflict invalidates either concept, instead I think that this quasi-co-existence of conflicting interpretations serves as a vital proclamation that there is a third space that lives between those of us who disagree, a space where we’re all looking at the same problems but drawing completely different conclusions. I see a pink sky, you see blue - same sky different vantage points. I see the election of Trump as the most recent moral failure of our country, you see a savior for the working class. America is a plural society. And even though we’re not always good at upholding our pluralism, it’s always there beneath the surface as two separate realities. I wonder if somehow we can live together in this third space without sacrificing the welfare of anyone, just like my step-mother and I can debate our differing opinions with kindness and understanding.
So as an offering in the midst of all this incredibly polemic rhetoric…
I value our natural resources and support alternative energy solutions… but I understand that your livelihood is tied to the oil, gas, and coal industries.
I value all people equally and believe that everyone has the right to a better life… but I understand that there is fear and mistrust in the new and unfamiliar.
I value fiscal and social responsibility... but I understand your obligation to your employees, stockholders, and business partners to generate a profit.
I hold a set of values and beliefs… and you hold another.
Maybe I’m just galvanizing the us-versus-them problem, but I think it’s important to begin translating our concerns across this language barrier we’ve built around the issues. Our social fabric is made of all these viewpoints. We’re all responsible for weaving it together and ensuring that no one gets caught in it.