Social Theory, Politics and the Arts

27th Annual Conference

Frances Phillips

Last October I attended my first "Social Theory, Politics and the Arts" conference, speaking on a panel with playwright Brian Freeman, writer Karen Clark, and puppeteer/actor Jonathan Youtt to offer reflections from artists at the conference's culmination. The gathering's international scope was refreshing and eye-opening.

Among sessions I attended, "Coding Theory and Action" featured three papers, each rigorous and interesting but so distinct in approach and focus that they were hard to experience as related theses. Anne Cheng of the University of California Berkeley looked at the concept of "beauty" through the lenses of feminist theory and racial differences. Judit Freidrich of Elte University in Budapest pointed out a recent fascination with and appropriation of Vermeer's work in literature, film, and museum curating, suggesting that the artist's appeal is based in the way his women are portrayed — like “pinned butterflies.” Les Gottesman of Golden Gate University, San Francisco, told the story of the development of visual arts in Eritrea, focusing on its fight for independence from Ethiopia. Eritrea's liberation movement incorporated cultural expression. In 1975 Eritrea's civilian army issued a national “art test” (resembling that “Can you draw this?” matchbook test) from which they selected twenty-eight individuals to attend art school. Fourteen of the artists survived the war and developed a style of poster art for the revolutionary movement. Since the war, Gottesman has turned his attention to home-based crafts by women, and visual arts based on the aesthetics of those crafts.

Later I heard four papers about very different approaches to the development of cultural policy: in Eastern Europe (where challenges include a long-term talent drain, political corruption, new privatization, and need for new funding sources), in Israel (a rather technical discussion examining the implications of ministries of culture working alongside “arms length” arts councils), in Bali (through the lens of the political cartoonists of Java and Bali), and in Nepal (illuminating different ideas about culture and heritage held by people living inside a culture and outsiders coming in to define it). Norwegian scholar Marit Baake commented in her Nepal paper that when culture is a part of everyday life or is within a religious context, cultural policy is very hard to develop. But when culture is seen as objects, as “heritage,” or as fostering tourism, “either it is left in the country as a ‘national heritage,' or brought to the British Museum as ‘international heritage.'”

That afternoon a panel addressed censorship through the lens of art and minors. Other programs looked at research in community arts, systems of support for artists, artists and their cities, and youth culture and politics.

Both intimate and international, “Social Theory, Politics and the Arts” offered the perspectives of a wide array of commentators — nonprofit arts curators, academics, independent researchers, and people working in government ministries. However, as Baake told us, “It is as important to realize what is left out as what is included.” On our culminating artists' panel we wrestled with ideas for increasing artists' awareness of programs such as those discussed at this conference and for bringing more artists' voices into the conversation. Our being invited to speak and observe seemed like an important move in that direction.

Frances Phillips is senior program officer, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and co-editor of the GIA Reader.