The Citizen Artist

20 Years of Art in the Public Arena

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 1 (Summer 2000)

Edited by Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland

1998, 344 pages, $18; Critical Press, Gunk Foundation, New York.

An anthology of writings from High Performance Magazine, The Citizen Artist traces twenty years (1978-1998) of artmaking that stepped outside of the stage or the gallery. In his introduction, Steven Durland speaks of the consistency he sees in looking back on contents of the magazine: "That thread was the artists' ongoing concern with art that reached beyond the traditional forms, content and context of the arts to engage itself in the lives of the broader community." These were artists who pushed against "...the arbitrary separation of art world and real world...," and this is art whose subject and audience are one, art wrested from confounding spiritual, environmental, and institutional dilemmas.

Rather than following a chronology, the editors have arranged essays and interviews around three broad themes, beginning with "Part I: The Art/Life Experiment," including the first High Performance cover story, an interview with Suzanne Lacy, placed alongside essays of and interviews with artists whose work reveals place, daily movement, and ritual. "Part II: The Artist as Activist," takes on artmaking in confrontation, examining the border, farm workers, homeless persons, Native Americans, persons with AIDS, and sexual outsiders. In "Part III: The Artist as Citizen," artists create work in institutions and with a wide variety of disenfranchised communities. The roster of featured artists is impressive and varied — Guillermo Gómez Peña, John Malpede, Anna Halprin, Judith Baca, Luis Valdez, Augusto Boal, Blondell Cummings, Liz Lerman, James Luna and many others. The collection incorporates disarming interviews with two key figures of the “culture wars” — Karen Finley and Andres Serrano.

Highlights of The Citizen Artist include: Alex and Allyson Grey's interview with Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh about the year they spent in New York City tied to each other with a piece of rope; Guillermo Gómez Peña's essay about street performance; Steven Durland's interview with Korean-American artists Ja Kyung Rhee and Hye Sook; Adrian Piper's provocative, honest essay, “Ideology, Confrontation and Political Self-Awareness”; Max Navarre's 1986 reflections on living with AIDS, Leslie Neal's story of her dance workshops inside a Florida maximum security prison for women; and Marty Pottenger's story of CWT#3, making art out of the construction of City Water Tunnel #3 in New York. A number of the essays are excerpts, which, no doubt, keeps the collection readable; although at times they have been cut too close to the quick and seem choppy.

As they were written, the essays now found in The Citizen Artist were mapping a terrain in the art world at the moment that a new horizon was coming into view. Looking back one now can see intersections between works that seemed disparate at the time — art that was spiritually motivated and indebted to ritual, art responding to the degradation of the environment, and art tapping the collective voices of the disenfranchised. Questions the anthology raises about artist and audience, art and placement, meaning and inclusiveness are still fresh and profound.

Review by Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund.