“The Greatest Artists of Our Time!” by Debra Hand
In the art world there are so many headlines about this or that artist being the greatest. Headlines about how a particular artist is performing a magical function for the rest of us in society. Often we’re told that this artist — through their work — is confronting, re-imaging, deconstructing, examining, or questioning some vital aspect of life for all the rest of us so that we can be saved from ourselves. Recently I was at an art show where an excited collector asked just such an artist, “What made you paint this picture? What does it mean?” Twenty minutes later, still cornered by the artist spewing a wordy narrative, the collector finally managed an excuse for a polite escape and bolted from the area like a freed hostage. The artist had claimed the work was profound and impactful and had labored to convince the collector, but it didn’t appear he succeeded. But, the question is: was that collector’s life made better by having encountered the work of art? Was the person now more enlightened and more informed, or inspired toward change? Did it give him some additional perspective on life, or the world? Let’s really look at what great art is and what is the definition of a great artist.
They say “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but so what. Some of the issues we need to address as a society will require millions and billions of words in order for us to work through them and become better. In those cases, a painting is the least adequate form of communication with which to address the problem. It would be like trying to run the Internet on cave drawings alone. On the other hand, sometimes a painting can communicate a concept or idea so easily and effectively that no amount of words are a match for it. Paintings have far fewer boundaries than words, because words must be placed in some rational order to express a thought; a painting need not be logical. It can express a thought entirely by color alone, or by composition, or by the way it presents shapes, lines, or negative space. It can exist completely as a visual experience and as something each viewer can bring their own meaning, logic, and language to. If an American artist paints a picture in New York and that picture is displayed at a museum in France, the picture will speak French to the viewers. Each viewer will provide a meaning to the painting for themselves, and the language for its interpretation, even when the artist is unable to speak the language. With art, everyone brings their own perceptions and filters with them. In this way, art is the most limitless form of communication on the globe. It is full of so much potential power. But, can art really save us the way many art experts and artists so often proclaim? The answer is “Absolutely!” But not like this.
Societies are created and changed by people and the greatest concentration of the most imaginative among us, are found in the arts: painters, sculptors, writers, filmmakers, etc. This makes artists the most potentially powerful because artists with real imagination have the power to influence thought and shape culture. They can make or break popular opinion, inspire us, or change the trajectory of our relationships and dreams by expanding or narrowing our empathy and compassion for each other. They can do all of this and more through the power and imagery of storytelling. Every art-form — from film to music to literature — shares this magical potential. That’s because, as humans, our lives are literally stories that we inhabit in real time. We get to write and rewrite them as we go along, every day of our entire lives. Most often, our individual stories become a continuum of the stories we are born into. One person might pursue education because of a story handed down by a grandparent who was denied one; or maybe a story about heroism made you want to become a doctor, or a firefighter. You may not have personally experienced the stories that led you to choose your lifestyle or career, but seeing or hearing stories about the subject inspired you to imagine your own possibilities. Since it’s not possible for each of us to directly have every human experience possible, we must all largely rely on the stories of others’ experiences to help us understand our own lives. In this way, stories are blueprints for human existence. They can help to uplift us or they can help to destroy us as a society. Each and every religion on Earth is taught in story form. The social structure and territorial boundaries of each and every country is based on stories. Tradition is literally the reenactment of past stories and the future is a mental projection of the stories we hope to fulfill. The ability to tell stories is one of the most tremendous powers bestowed on humankind and guess who the most powerful storytellers of the world are? Guess who are the ones that inevitably shape our lives and worlds? Artists! They are the song writers and filmmakers, the actors and dancers, the painters and sculptors, the authors, architects and designers of the world. They hold the magical power to show us who we have been, who we are now, and who we can be. This is why it is so vital to protect them. But, even among this unique species, there is a select group — those artists that I consider to be “cultural warriors.” These artists are not just looking to create and sell art work. They’re looking to use their artistry to change the state of the world. For these artists, art is not the endgame, but rather, art is the means to the endgame. Whether or not they’re painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, producers, dancers, actors, whatever – there consciousness is such that everything they do will always have the sole purpose of uplifting humanity in some way. If these types become carpenters rather than writers, they will be somewhere in society with a hammer, hammering for good, or justice, or fairness, or some bigger cause.
So, when an art expert claims to be presenting an artist that is saving the world through art simply because they’ve painted a picture, well, I’ve seen the “real thing” done up-close by the best, so I know what a real art activist looks like. Let’s start with Dr. Margaret Burroughs, the most important Black artist of the 21st Century. Why? Because she used her life in the arts to create the DuSable Museum, the very first independent museum totally devoted to African-American history in the whole wide world. Even as Blacks lived under the constant onslaught of derision and racial ridicule, she fought to establish and sustain the self-esteem of an entire race of people. She promoted their beauty and dignity and held up their great contributions to the world to affirm their value. Dr. Margaret Burroughs didn’t spend her art-life creating long-winded narratives about her art, instead she spent her time in service to a larger cause. And, at the end of the day, any money she made from selling paintings, or any leisure time it helped to create for her…it went towards keeping culture uplifted in some way. Every dollar that went toward art supplies served her mission to create cultural institutions on the highest levels; to showcase the beauty of her people, and to recover and heal them from the brutality of racism. Not only was she the principal founder of the DuSable Museum, but she also founded the historic South Side Community Arts Center. As mentioned, I’ve seen how an artist uses art to change the world, and I know it when I see it, even when some so-called art expert or artist has found clever words to look the part without really doing the work. Once you have truly seen greatness in an artist, it’s easy to identify other great artists. I look at artists like Theaster Gates who is using his whole self, from head to toe, to change the community around him; rehabbing properties and building new cultural institutions such as the Stony Island Arts Bank which serves as an art gallery as well as a community center that provides the platform for diverse people to interact and to do social problem solving, while also providing a creative learning space for the youth. I look at the artist/educator and writer, Joyce Owens, who devotes so much time to speaking on art panels, writing on Black art and culture, and representing the culture on an intellectual level on behalf of Black art and its evolution; I look at the husband and wife artists, Najee and Seteria Dorsey, who have together created the incredible online magazine “Black Art in America.” I think about the sacrifices, both personal and financial, that the Dorsey’s have made to create an all-encompassing platform where artists, collectors and intellectuals can participate in the exchange of knowledge, cultural ideas, and gain a profound understanding of, not just Black art, but also the entire art world. How they have created a platform that also features videos and written content while also providing information about important cultural events and exhibits; a platform which also facilitates the acquisition of art by collectors. I think about the thousands and thousands they continuously spend to showcase Black culture and to create physical gallery exhibits of the finest art being created by African-Americans. I think of the artist Danny Simmons and his great contribution to Black artists; the years and years of hard work through Rush Galleries that has put many Black artists on the world stage and insured the presence of Black art on the highest levels of the art world. I also think of performing artists like the rapper, Common, who has created an entire art-centric school for youth; one which uses artistry and artistic outlet as a means of self-development and empowerment. Through the school’s programs, young people are able to discover their own unimagined talents and strengths and reinforce their own value to the community and, thus, the world. Through this one rapper, these students are learning to use art to build and uplift their families and communities, rather than tear them down. Every child at that school will have a different, more meaningful path in life because of Common’s own artistry and the vision of him and his partners in this mission. I could go on and on with the names of “real” great artists, but I’ll stop here with the name of the renowned artist, Dr. Samella Lewis. Of living artists, she is at the top of the list in a category reserved for legends. She is one of the most esteemed Black artists of the century and has used her entire artistic journey to advocate for artists and to uplift Black culture through her work. She too has written and spoken extensively on the subject. This is just a brief example of artists using art to save the world, change the world, re-work society, re-imagine, re-construct, and every other kinda “re-” the world. So when someone tells you that an artist is the greatest, or most important, or the most influential artist in the world, the first thing you should ask yourself is “how is that person quantifying that statement?” If someone says that the African-American sculptor, Richard Hunt, is the most accomplished sculptor of public monuments in the world, this statement can be proven. His works are all well documented, so this statement is not just someone’s opinion, it’s fact. But in most cases, when someone declares that a certain artist is the most important, or greatest artist of our time, it is simply not even possible for them to know that. They certainly didn’t compare the work of that artist to that of every artist in the world in order to arrive at that statement. Even if they did, you are still being presented with one person’s opinion, or the opinion of a select group who have personal interests in pushing that artist’s name to the top of the food chain. Too often, such opinions are tied to an art expert attempting to brand and market an artist for their own financial goals. The point is, when you decide to consider an artist “great” it should be because of how that artist speaks to you; how they represent, influence, or impact the issues that you find important, or how their work enhances your daily life. You should not just accept someone else’s opinion of what great art is. Art history provides some comparisons between artists in terms of artistic processes and techniques as artists have attempted or developed new methods. But even someone with ten degrees in art history cannot scientifically declare who was or is the greatest artists in the world. This is an answer that must come from you the viewer or collector, because it is your privilege to answer that question for yourself. Now, if your interest in art is largely a financial one and you are only concerned with who the highest selling, or fastest selling artists are, there are plenty of people waiting by to offer an answer to those questions too. But, if you’re interested in art as an instrument to enhance your personal life, or enlighten us as a society, then learn to look at art for its true power. Artists cannot change the world if all the collectors are out there searching for the next big investable art star, rather than buying what they love and what nurtures them. And collectors can’t help change the world through art if they’re somewhere spellbound by art marketers and a game of words designed to part them with their money by convincing them that a short list of art stars hold the alchemy to world order. This kind of game only gives slick art merchants the power to create art stars of the mediocre while “real” great artists are starved out of their own true callings. If artists continue to be pressured into forsaking true creative ingenuity so that they can focus solely on competing like show horses in a derby, well, look around the art world and see the result for yourself. Or just look at the local and world news. If artists are supposed to be saving the world, are they really doing as good a job as the art experts claim they are? Are they really even being given a chance to? Where the art business is concerned, art will only be as meaningful or empty as collectors allow it to be. So collectors, look at the state of the art world. Does it reflect you? By the way, it’s not that most people don’t understand art because it’s so deep and complex, it’s because the art world provides such fertile ground for greed-inspired deception. The question is, can artists survive the games being played? Or, is the art world too far gone? Will collectors, through their purchases, allow artists the freedom to work and sustain themselves so artists can use every part of their creative selves to impact the world? Will “great” artists be allowed to continue to thrust our minds deeply into the subject of life; to open our hearts with empathy and to expand our understanding of who we are, and who we can be; to help us dream, or reflect, or to stretch the boundaries of our own imaginations… or even just to sometimes create for us beautiful objects that provide respite for our over saturated minds. The power of art in all its forms is the closest thing we have to magic in this realm. We grow, shrink, or change as a society through the ability of our artists to bring us new stories, or to refresh the themes of existing ones. After all, our lives are daily enactments of the stories we believe and subscribe to — whether or not they come to us from real life, or from the imaginations of our artists. Great artists are the true visionaries among us, especially those like Dr. Margaret Burroughs who used her art to help construct a better humanity for the rest of us to enjoy. She understood the immense sense of self-worth and dignity that African-Americans would derive from seeing their strong heritage institutionalized and fixed like a jewel among all the other upper-crust American institutions. She even called her endeavor a “museum” when it was only a small collection of artifacts housed in her living room, long before the DuSable Museum was established at its current world-class location. As an artist, Dr. Burroughs used her creative powers to extract beauty and dignity from pain and despair during one of the most racially chaotic times in this country. Through art, she re-examined, re-imagined, deconstructed, reconstructed and all the rest of those buzz words — and she never corned a collector, Black or White, with any conversation that didn’t involve how they could work together to create bridges for those coming behind them. This is the potential power of “great” artists. They can help us to see our strength and potential as a human family. They can inspire us all to personally contribute to a better tomorrow. So, the next time you look at work by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, think of how her art was literally used to help uplift humanity because even if Dr. Burroughs only painted a blue square, that square was on a mission to make life better for other humans. She succeeded in changing the world through art in a historic way and her “greatness” is quantifiable.
Meanwhile, when you hear the term “the greatest, or the most important artists of our time, or the most influential…” or any other similar terms — please understand that you are likely being targeted with commercial hype designed by someone with something to sell you, rather than someone with the goal of providing you with a proven fact or scientific conclusion.
As for the art experts and artists out there pretending to be changing the world with a rope tied to a doorknob, or whatever the contraption — unless you’re going to take the million dollars you sell it for and use it to create real change in the world to benefit others, well, you can corner someone other than me with that game of words. I’ve seen with my own eyes what real “great” artists look like. As for the great collectors out there who the cultural warriors must depend upon in order to change the world for real, please don’t let others decide (for you) what “great” art should be (to you). You decide, and then stand by your right to cultivate and support your own aesthetic and cultural values. You have the right to tell and to celebrate your own stories. Remember the following wise words from the “great” writer James Baldwin:
“Take no one else’s word for ‘your’ experience.”
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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