On ViewLa MaMa Galleria
October 15 – November 21, 2021
What function does art serve in society? There are always multiple answers to this question, all of which can be true at once. At different moments in space and time, however, certain functions of art have perhaps been extra salient. Art always reflects the creative (which is to say, the spiritual) needs of the collective. Thus art can illuminate historical consciousness, and vice versa.
The contemporary art that I grew up with, from postmodern to post-internet, seems to have principally served a social function of deconstruction. You could call it collective reckoning. In a world made ever-more complex by globalization and the rise of mass media, the creative tools of artists have served to detangle its complexities. This analytical function is reflected in the common praxis of contemporary art: interdisciplinary research as a dominant artistic strategy, critical engagement with history and subjectivity, and the inextricability of texts from visual media. In short, a complicated world has been mirrored by complex conceptual art.
But now, I am certain that a new paradigm is in the process of emerging, aligning art with a new social function. It comes forth in the context of collective crisis. Ecosystems are collapsing, the authority of capital forecloses all other priorities, liberal democracy has failed to assure human rights, and beyond the event-horizon of technological “progress” lies an equally alienating and inhumane frontier. These are not just the dooms of one pessimistic critic. “Humanity is failing,” read a banner over the River Clyde in Glasgow last week, an act of protest during the COP26 climate conference. The banner was flown by two German children, ages 10 and 11.1 I believe their slogan is a sentiment shared by many artists of my generation, who now feel the deconstructive modes of conceptual art are insufficient. In times such as these, art must do more. It must evolve from modes of critique into modes of possibility, becoming an agent of change. In the broken world we now inherit, art must help us to heal.
Betsy Damon’s current solo show in New York successfully frames her as a pioneer of such a healing practice, and as a key artist through which to consider the relationship between art and activism. I first wrote about Damon’s work last summer in a review of the 2020 group show ecofeminisms, where her standout sculpture The Memory of Clean Water (1985) represented to me a sort of elegy for gallery-based practice in times of crisis. However, the current exhibition (curated by Monika Fabijanska) takes a retrospective look at Damon’s experimental performance works from the 1970s and ’80s that preceded the departure of her practice into eco-activism. The 12 projects on view include collaborative works of feminist theater, workshops and public meditations for women, and a Shrine for Everywoman at the United Nations World Conference on Women in 1980 and ’85. Collaboration, public engagement, and solidarity-building are central to all these projects, so that on the whole, the exhibition ties a powerful feedback loop between performance art and activism.
Damon’s breakout performance series was the 7,000 Year Old Woman (1977–79). It started as a quest to discover the lost collective history of women. The artist painted her skin in white makeup with black lips, and covered her body in little cloth sacks filled with 40-pounds of colored flour. She cut these open one by one to spill onto the ground, gradually exposing her naked or nearly-naked body. Beginning with a gallery performance in 1977, Damon subsequently took the character to the city streets, staging public happenings in SoHo and on Wall Street. As she wrote at the time, “so complete has been the eradication of things female from our streets that we do not miss them.”
Holding public space as the 7,000-year-old Woman was an emotionally difficult act, so much so that Damon said, “at a certain point I felt so exposed, I tried to put the bags back on.” Throughout one iteration of the performance on Prince Street, collaborator and painter Amy Siliman painted yellow triangles in a ring around Damon, creating a protective barrier while further underscoring her reclamation of space.
At the time of the performances, Damon recalls, everyone interpreted the 7,000-year-old woman as a goddess image. The character doubtless recalled the mysterious Roman cult statue Diana of Ephesus, covered in little sacs like breasts or eggs (or offertory testicles). But it was a limited reading, for a dead fertility goddess hardly constitutes a credible threat to modern patriarchal order—which is exactly what Damon intended for the work to do. With her white and black makeup, the 7,000 Year Old Woman is more like a ritual-clown, one who both amuses and frightens her audience into the ambivalent space of transformation. In the documentary photos through which the work is experienced today, we see a range of emotions on the faces of the crowd: some laugh at the weird woman on the ground while some solemnly watch. The artist recalls some boys throwing eggs.
The related performance series Blind Beggar Woman (1979) extended the gesture of resistance to erasure. Costumed in rags and blinded by patches over her eyes, Damon perched upon the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the New York Stock Exchange begging passersby for stories from their lives. The character was conceived as a feminine antithesis to Homer, the mythic author of masculine epics. Naturally, she would be one who listens, who chronicles the ordinary and destitute rather than the heroic. She asserted poverty and disability before a temple of finance.
Plenty of Wall Street white-collars stopped to gawk at the blind beggar-woman, but Damon recalls that a majority of the strangers who actually told her stories (of which there were dozens) were working-class people, immigrants, and people of color—those to whom the message Damon called out probably mattered more: “your lives are important and should not be forgotten.” To me the work recalls something John Berger once wrote about the transformative power of incidental acts of solidarity: “Such moments—as no historical ‘outcome’ can ever be—are transcendental … Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen, and pursued.”2
As I discovered Damon’s historic performance works through photographs and video, I was also taking in images of the UN Climate Action conference in Belfast as it unfolded amid a spectacular outburst of protests. Thousands participated in pilgrimages, performances, and other forms of organized outrage at the predictably disingenuous efforts of world leaders to avert ecological collapse. I was especially struck by images of the Red Rebel Brigade, a performance troupe affiliated with the activist organization Extinction Rebellion, who were costumed in priestess-like outfits with white and black face makeup. 3 Descendants of the 7,000-year-old woman? The resemblance at least raises a question that seems critical to the art practice of Betsy Damon and the broader concept of art as a healing force. What is the difference, if any, between art and activism?
Activism as we are most familiar with it—that is, as an occupation distinct from fine art—means action to create change. Groups like the Red Rebel Brigade stage performances in order to draw public attention and funding toward specific legislative aims. Their demonstrations around COP26 have already drawn millions in crowdfunding to their organization, an impressive feat. And yet it is here, in the need to account for what is accomplished by one’s work, or even in the notion of clearly stated aims, that a romantic like myself worries about the fate of art that seeks to become a form of activism. I have always loved art most for its mysterious obscurity, for the perfect uselessness of human gestures of creativity—like screams of love into the void—and their numinous reverberations into reality. I admit I am afraid of activist art that becomes too pragmatic, too specific to its time, for the sake of clearly articulated politics.
Damon’s work provides answers to that anxiety. When asked at a recent gallery talk about the agency of her performances, she says that we don’t usually know quite what our work is doing as artists. Even in art that seeks justice, it remains paramount to follow creative instincts—the 7,000 Year Old Woman, she says, emerged from a dream. The title of her current exhibition, Passages: Rites and Rituals, reminds us that creating change is sometimes mysterious. It suggests the phrase “rite of passage,” a now-secularized idiom that originally referred to religious sacraments designed to facilitate transformation. Wine is transformed into blood, transgression into grace, two into one, life into death, and so-on. Damon’s work suggests not only how art can more actively engage in changing the world, but also how art must expand our understanding of activism.
In my lifetime, contemporary art has often felt like it mostly works upon the mind. But in a paradigm of necessary healing, it has much to offer the idea of activism, because it can also work upon the heart.
- John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 8.
- https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/07/red-brigade-silently-appear-extinction-rebellion-protests-10875730/ http://redrebelbrigade.com/