Art is Everything

Jen Liese (Center for Arts & Language)

I know we can’t sugarcoat this bitter pill that is remote art and design learning, which of course is small in relation to the virulent global throat in which it’s lodged, but I have already seen a few instances of students working within and triumphing over constraints, and I want to honor this phenomenon, which I imagine is transpiring a thousand times a day in RISD students’ far-flung, makeshift, sort-of studios.

This morning, for example, I was in a Zoom meeting with a Textiles grad whose whole thesis depends on the color green. He has no green yarn and can’t readily get it. An idea came forth from the gridded group: to weave together his yellow and blue yarn, and see what happens. The meaning of his work—which speaks to immersing oneself in garden-like garments as a kind of escape, armor, and solace—suddenly burst out in a new direction for me. I thought about how we all have our habitual necessary balms, which sometimes grow old, ineffective, or just inaccessible. So how can we remix and reinvent them from whatever we have at hand?

I’ve been thinking, too, about Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignments series. An object lesson in working within constraints, it’s also one of the most sweetly, smartly joy-inducing artist’s projects I know, an art-balm I revisited before and still. I also just dug out my notes from a lecture Adrian Piper gave at Skowhegan in 1997, when arts funding had been thoroughly depleted and corporate and moneyed interests were on the march. Piper coached the crowd in how to cope: “get comfortable with cheap media”; think big but make small. Talking about Mythic Being (1973–75), in which she disguised herself as a black man and took account of the altered responses of passersby, she noted: “This piece … was incredibly cheap to make. All I needed was my wig and my fake mustache and my glasses and my cigar.” It’s not lost on me that Nina’s project depends on being trapped on airplanes, which now seem like a literally deadly trap, but also maybe tickets to freedom or home. And Piper’s performance brought her out into the streets and face-to-face with others—it’s an exercise in social proximity of a sort we have suddenly, painfully lost, for now. But still, new constraints will bring new discoveries, and even the small ones matter. We just have to believe that.

Accumulated Artforums. Photo by the author.

This morning, my daughter asked me for some magazines for a collage project assigned in her version of virtual school. I pointed her toward the stacks of 20 years’ worth of Artforums stashed in our coat closet and said, “Go at it.“

“But mom,” she said, “Is there only art in those?”

My answer came so easily. “But honey, art is everything—there’s everything in those.”