Art. What is its purpose?

The only real question is how to prevent oneself from hollering, yelling, screaming and crying all day long. My daily ritual of reading the paper every morning is looking more and more like a masochistic exercise in pouring huge amounts of toxic waste directly into my brain. Where do I even start?

Do I start by contemplating the recent examples of direct censorship of artistic expression? Under the pressure of church, the Smithsonian pulled out a video art project called “Fire in My Belly” by the late artist Wojnarowicz from its ongoing exhibition. The explanation was that it could be insulting to the believers. To which I can ask the question: Isn’t the museum’s decision to censor a piece of art insulting to any free thinking person in the world? What about all those people who are now justly insulted? Or is it maybe that they don’t matter?

The second example is the removal of the anti-war mural that the Italian street artist Blu created on the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The explanation for this is that the anti-war message could insult war veterans in the neighborhood. Really? Is this the main duty of art – to avoid controversy at any cost? Should that be the main focus of an artist – not to insult anyone? Censorship has a long history. Both Fascist and Communist regimes had a habit of blacklisting unruly artists, of forbidding their work, of burning books etc. We know all that. We have learned about it in school. Those were the traits of totalitarian regimes, we’ve learned. How come America, the bastion of freedom, the land of the free, the country where freedom of speech and press is guaranteed by the Constitution, is showing signs of good old totalitarianism and nobody even gets too upset? Not to mention the Julian Assange case. Yes, freedom sounds good only if it serves the ruling class. If it doesn’t, let’s try to come up with the discourse that cannot be questioned too harshly and proclaim that we’re removing the “insulting” pieces of art or information because we’re “sensitive to the community” or, just, because “we care”. C’mon! I had to laugh reading today’s LA Times where the Museum of Contemporary Art director tells a way too complicated story about Blu missing a plane and him, the director, being unable to confer with him because he was not in town when Blu began his work. I mean, really!!! Even my 12 year old son doesn’t come up with stories like that!

Underneath it all, there is fear. It seems more and more to me that the land of the free and the home of the brave is built on it. Interestingly enough, when asked about their opinion on the case, other street artists who were interviewed had no opinion. Why? Because they “don’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to be in the exhibit”. That’s a classic. You don’t dare to protest because you’re afraid that the ones in power will punish you. As they surely will. And that is how power always manages to win. If anyone raises his/her voice, he/she can be assured that he/she will be immediately punished. Removed, fired, replaced. And, of course, nobody will ever tell you the real reason. You will be given a vague, oblique explanation or a plain lie, according to the level of power and the accompanying arrogance. You can be assured that your colleagues are going to be silent and you will be expected to understand and accept their silence. If you don’t , you’ll be treated as a black sheep and a “negative” person, which in this country, I’ve learned, is a true sin.

Let’s get back to art. What is its purpose? To create lullabies that help us sleep and thus not see the destruction of the planet and the undermining of all human values that is happening full force around us? To paint beautiful non-threatening little pictures that we can hang on the walls while we sit in front of our TVs and devour our unhealthy frozen TV dinners? To comfort us in our misery while the powerful rob us of our money and our will to live? To sing praises to the State and the Church, the two institutions whose desperate fight to stay relevant increasingly calls for more ruthless methods? To always be careful not to insult, not to raise questions, not to stir the water? Is that it?

Then again, we can say: why bother? It’s not that important after all. A mural, a video… who cares?! Look at the planet that’s dying, look at the children all over the world that are dying, look at the rich who won’t part with the minimum of minimums in order to help those in need… But we would be wrong. Because artists are there to show us the world as it is, not as the ruling class would want us to see it. Artists are there to ask questions about the world and make us think and, hopefully, take action in the right direction.

But who cares really? We are all “asleep at the wheel”, driving full speed straight into the abyss, but still hooked on watching the “American Idol” as we‘re slipping over the edge. We don’t care because we’re too distracted by all the gadgets we want to buy. We don’t care because we’re watching too many commercials that make us sick with the desire for things we don’t really need. And we know, deep down in our hearts, that our only chance of getting those unnecessary objects lies in our ability to swallow every injustice and every wrong. Our only chance lies in our readiness not to ask inconvenient questions. It lies in our ability to accept the state of the world and its division of power as they are. It lies in our ability to shut up. To become invisible. To become nothing.

For us, who came from a totalitarian system into “the land of the free”, it all plays as a bad joke. A joke on us. And ultimately, it’s us who are guilty. Guilty for believing a myth that proved to be just that and nothing more: a myth.