This week I am in New York directing the Conney Conference on Jewish Arts, a meeting place for artists working with Jewish content, wrestling with theory and practice and, through public talks and dialog, attempting to create a sense of place for their own identity-based work. While the intent of this gathering creates a particular context, the framework would support any group of artists/practitioners who would gather to investigate a different set of circumstances or issues of identity/criticality.
The participants in this conference look at the arts through their own expansive and discursive ideas about Jewish identity. To that end, the interdisciplinary presentations made by artists working in the visual arts, dance and performance, film and video, scholarship and other means of research, approach their work from numerous perspectives. Many leverage their ideas about identity from both real historical events and poetic interpretations of family histories, others rely on art historical tropes and traditional forms of painting, sculpture, etc.
The conference is an intergenerational community whose ethnic diversity is expressed as a part of their collective practices. It is evident that we are in an era of generational shift as well; there is a clearly defined split or difference in how artists educated at the end of the Modern era and those educated since the start of the postmodern era think about personal identity and its relationship to their work. Though such differences are not dependable across generations, i.e., without deviation, the degree to which personal history and issues of identity infiltrate the practices of 21st century artists reflects a certain kind of allegiance to the theories and conceptual approaches of the era.
The evidence to which politics and an understanding of the interconnectedness of global cultures has altered the landscape of arts practice is ubiquitous. Two recent reports of events taking place at the intersection of the arts and institutions make this clear:
- Decolonize This Place Launches “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” with Protest at Whitney Museum
- Tate Galleries Refuse Sackler Money Because of Opioid Links, Save the NEA (Again), and Why Deaccessioning Isn’t Always Bad News
The first piece appears in Hyperallergic, an on-line arts publication and the second in the venerable New York Times; different audiences for sure, but similarly, reporting that frames art within the politics of contemporary political narrative.
I will let the reader explore the articles, however, I will add that both note just how inextricable art has become from both politics and ethical discourses.
Such dialogs begin with a question, often asked to oneself, but ultimately asked out loud to others. These public questions, to which we ourselves do not always know the answer, makes both the one who asks and the ones who are asked, accountable to the answers that flow from launching such questions into the world.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department