Art as a Weapon?
by Tim Holmes, Helena Independant Record, 4-22-04
Art is light, whose sole power is to illuminate.
In the last few weeks I’ve taken some heat for turning white supremacist books into sculpture. I must admit that I approached the prospect with a certain amount of relish. After all the material comes with its own built-in irony, which mere clay or canvas does not. These books, in a marvelous harmony of black characters printed on all-white paper, convey the idea that the world would be better if all black people were erased from an all-white world! The author invented a ‘religion’ bent on reducing all racial diversity to a single hue-- and what did he call his religion? “Creativity”! Making meaningful art out of this stuff is just a matter of finishing a job already half-begun, I thought!
I didn’t turn these books into sculptures to anger anybody and I’m sorry they have. But it didn’t surprise me when I started receiving hate mail from white supremacists in response. After all, hate is what they’re good at. What concerns me isn’t so much the potential for harm from a flock that may not even be big enough to form a bluegrass band, as that their oversimplistic attitude is the same dangerous black-or-white reduction we hear daily from radical religious fundamentalists, politicians, and terrified presidents: ‘there are only good guys (us) and bad guys (them) and if you’re not with us, we will destroy you!’
To forget that a democratic nation is based on the idea that all people are created equal imperils that democracy and each of her citizens. Our political opponent is not our enemy but our contender in a contest of ideas. As soon as we see our opponent as an enemy to be destroyed, we abandon our own fitness for democracy. Yes, violence needs to be defended against, but much as terrorists (those whose only means is violence) can never win by those means, they can indeed make us lose-- by stooping to their level. There is no such thing as constructive violence.
Nor is there such a thing as destructive art. Much as the white supremacists feel attacked by my sculptures, they fail to understand that an artwork cannot hurt anybody unless it is hurled overhand. Good art can never wound, just as a person cannot be forced to change their heart. Rather, art is light, whose sole power is to illuminate. The reason it sometimes feels horribly intrusive is that it is sometimes shined into the dark, unconscious places that we want most dearly not to see.
Art is powerful because it asks tough questions. Art is the opposite of violence. While violence cannot build, art cannot tear down. That’s not to say that we are not sometimes made to feel vastly uncomfortable by art. When art causes such discomfort we should grit our teeth and face what becomes illuminated.