One of our new initiatives in the Art Department is an open forum for graduate students held once per semester. This offers the grads an opportunity to have a voice in the department; to report back to us about their concerns and help us to make the department better. Having just met with the grads last week, and whilst in the midst of a landscape of political debate as we approach the next election, I have been thinking about how critical such engagements are.

Separated from the commerce of art, the gesture of art is a powerful agent for change; one is always aware of the tussle within the broader contexts of art that, on the one hand, grapple for the status quo and on the other, nudge art toward a different purpose. I was reminded of this while listening to Anne Strainchamps on To the Best of Our Knowledge over the weekend, and an episode that focused on protest music. I was also reminded while talking with Brenda Baker, the Director of the Madison Children’s museum last week and then again while meeting with the our graduate students on Friday. What is common in all these conversations is that artists often share many concerns, though simultaneously, they differ greatly on what it means to be an artist and what the purpose of art is in contemporary culture. Any attempts to find universal truths about art simply move the horizon line even further away; the “truth” of art is that it is a fluid construction of history, materiality and the moment. Thus, when I ask any of our students what they are attempting to accomplish in their practice or in the study of art, I am amazed at the range of responses. Our students begin a conversation about art when they arrive in the department that they my never finish. It is a conversation that, if properly engaged in, will last a lifetime and with luck, one in which the speaker’s point of view will evolve over time, often resembling nothing of its original form.

To the Best of Our Knowledge looked at protest music from sources as diverse as the Vietnam War, William Burroughs, Industrial Music, and Hip Hop. The connective tissue of all of these sources that are a part of this narrative is the desire to alter the reality of the present that each artist or group profiled found themselves a part of.

The personal is political but the political is also personal. Art changes the culture from the inside out. The music of the 1960’s inexorably changed the cultural critique around war and the visual arts were the corollary to that social change. Pop art and the psychedelic posters and broadsides of the era was the optical reference of such protests. Thus, music and art were (and still are) linked in their responsibility as agents of change.

As a very local and timely example of the same spirit of protest discussed in the radio essays featured in To The Best of Our Knowledge, the exhibition, Artists in Absentia, currently at Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, features the writing, art, music, and dramatic work of inmates from Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wisconsin. Artists in Absentia is an initiative of the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project and was recently profiled in The Isthmus. Artists in Absentia is an example of the power of art to drive conversations about the most relevant issues of our time.

For more information, please contact the Exhibition Coordinator José Vergara.

Douglas Rosenberg
Professor and Chair, Art Department