LivingArts: Not Just a Pretty Picture


I have always felt pretty comfortable with art for its own sake. I am fascinated by process, materials and symbols in art, and can get pretty wrapped up in the aesthetic experience and “object-ness” of a work of art. But in my recent work I have spent a lot of time on the other side of that sentiment – art that is powerful for its ability to connect us to larger issues in a way that traditional history or education cannot.

I am currently working on educational programming for an exhibition that stems from a very dark history – the Holocaust. I have been surprised and inspired to see how much of an impact this work has had on my own understanding of events. Having studied world history in school, I know the basics and have always understood the horrors of this history somewhat abstractly – from a safe and comfortable distance. This work makes it personal.  It has transformed my understanding in a way that traditional forms of teaching never did.  

One thing that I am still considering – how to reconcile this dark history with the stunningly beautiful images presented in this exhibition. This is not the Holocaust imagery of emaciated survivors or the camps. Yuri Dojc shows us personal artefacts left behind, of the passage of time and memories lost. The books and other objects in the exhibition are weathered and decaying. They are beautiful. But at the same time each one represents a life cut short.

The first comparison that came to mind was Edward Burtynsky’s work – stunning images that reveal the industrial ravaging of the landscape. Beautiful but terrible. I have heard this dichotomy criticized – that it is hard to understand the environmental message that these works could communicate when we are so distracted by their aesthetic appeal. By extension, to teach us about something grave, the art must be hard to look at.

In my current project, I am thinking about the same thing. Does the creation of beautiful images detract from an important teaching moment? I haven’t found a completely satisfying answer but my feeling is no. One of the most effective things about these images is that they do attract us. They draw us in and make us want to know more. They make us connect in a way that an uncomfortable image would not. And it is with that connection that we can begin to really consider the bigger picture. That is where the understanding begins.

It is not always a comfortable, but art is powerful. Visceral. Personal.