June 3, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

It’s not in the eye of this beholder

The Indianapolis Museum of Art re-opened recently to much fanfare in its newly renovated building. Critics reviled the stodginess of the previous entrance and extolled the trendiness of the new one.

It was déjà vu all over again. I can’t remember how many times over the years we’ve witnessed the art world gushing over new artworks, the buildings they’re housed in or the people who make them. Art should be engaging, after all, but it’s as subject to fads as anything else that’s interesting to humans.

Now, I’m not one of those people who insist that art be representational. I don’t need paintings to look like the work of Rubens or Ingres. For that matter, I don’t think all art is limited to painting or sculpture or the more traditional mediums. Just spare me from artists with a message.

An Associated Press story called “Art goes public to make us think” recently reinforced my opinion. It made me think, all right, about a college teacher of feminism and public art named Peggy Diggs. When she and her husband started teaching, Peggy decided she needed “to get out and do things, not just sit in the ivory tower … in a place that was so quiet, it made me want to bust out.”

I always thought quiet was probably essential for making art. Oh, well. She said she lost interest in the “elitist” art scene and took up public art, which “made her feel like an activist—‘using my work rather than just making objects to consume.’ ” Huh. And all along I thought the consumption of art through aesthetic experience was a worthy and fulfilling activity!

Over the years, she’s decorated buses with billboards about street violence and printed newspaper inserts with dialogue between elderly people and teenagers who were fearful of gangs in their neighborhoods. She helped homeless women to “create large banners with slogans challenging stereotypes about homelessness,” and produced milk cartons that carried the message, “When you argue at home, does it always get out of hand?”

Peggy enlisted maximum-security prisoners to help her design “ ‘problem-solving’ products for people who live in confined spaces.” One of these is a microwave oven made from aluminum foil, wire and a light bulb. “I’m a deep believer that everyone is an expert at something,” she said. “What they know can be useful for the most extreme situations, like refugee camps … or small-apartment life.” I’ll bet the refugees will be thrilled.

In a photograph accompanying the article, Peggy is depicted wearing a “disaster-preparedness coat” she designed. She appears as a rather handsome woman dressed in a long, padded flak-jacket garment, which is hung all over with flashlights, water canteens, protective goggles and other devices. It’s not clear exactly what disasters she’ll be prepared for.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of Peggy’s activist efforts is stamping currency that passes through her hands with slogans questioning why we need to be paid for everything, and what is so satisfying about buying things. She’s hoping to raise public consciousness about materialism.

This article sure raised my consciousness, but it might not be Christian to say how.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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