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Around 1982, I read an article by art critic Suzi Gablik about the role of art in our time. Her words echoed my own question: What is the spiritual in the art of today? I wrote Suzi, we had lunch in New York on her next visit (she taught in Virginia at the time), and so began our connection. Suzi’s questions ended up in her book Has Modernism Failed, published in 1984.
Some years later (1988), Suzi asked me to read the first hundred pages of the journal I had kept about my first outdoor ritual performance, The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande, and very applicably I can use the expression, the rest is history. There is no question that Suzi's take on my work was instrumental in launching my artist career. In turn, she has said how much my work was key to her answering the questions she held about the role of the artist in society, which resulted in The Reenchantment of Art, published in 1991.
This encounter was much larger than me. I am grateful to the universe for Suzi’s presence in my life. But she influenced others as well. Many of my accomplished artist friends were reassured by Suzi’s support. She told them that they were part of not only the present, but also the future of art. Let me quote from a speech, Art and Politics without the “Isms,” which she prepared for her alma mater, The Black Mountain College, where Suzi was a student in 1951. She referred to “a defining moment” in her life, “an experience that transformed [her] perception of art in a similarly liberating way, moving it beyond the frame of stylistic “isms.”
In 1984, I had published a provocative book of cultural criticism, Has Modernism Failed?, questioning and challenging the artist’s role in society. At that time, art was viewed as a narrative history of styles, each one becoming dominant for a while, only to then be overthrown by the next one, mutation after mutation: Impressionism followed by Cubism, and then by Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. Within this chronological panorama, art was cantilevered out into thin air, isolated from any social role or moral purpose.
I decided to quote more from Suzi’s speech not as a way to aggrandize myself, but to emphasize that her daring challenge to the established limits placed on art was revolutionary. Her work and discussions about art are historical, and many of my artist friends and colleagues revere Suzi for expanding the role of art.
But I am most grateful for Suzi’s words about my own art. She expressed so well what I try to do, and she said it in a most personal way. She wrote:
It was not just the undertaking itself that moved me. When I read the descriptions of what she felt while engaged in [her] activity, I wept. But what I also recognized in Dominique’s river project was the possibility of a whole new spiritual and moral imperative for art. I decided to make her work the centerpiece of my talk [at a College Art Association panel discussion on “The Moral Imperative in Art”], even though I knew that, in the eyes of many people who would be there, what Mazeaud was doing in the river would probably not be taken seriously as art at all. It would never make huge sums at auction, never be exhibited, and could not be comfortably accommodated within the narrative of stylistic “isms.”
At the conference, as I listened to the other presenters—all of them important artists, critics, and museum curators—they all uniformly made the same unblinking argument: namely, that there is no moral imperative in art, because for art to play a useful or moral role in society would make it a tool, no longer a valuable end in itself. The only moral imperative for artists, they argued, was a dedication to making the very best art they could. This was vintage, art-world modernism: a philosophy of autonomy and separateness well summed up by the sculptor Louise Nevelson, who once said: “If They blow up [the world], that’s not my business. My business is to work.”
I still weep, even now, more than twenty years later, when I re-read these words, slivers of artistic defiance that exerted no significant influence on the culture at large, because what my friend was doing in the river had neither star power nor commercial value. And yet, as I saw it, she was engaged in what Thomas Berry has described as the “great work” of our time: moving from a devastating presence on the planet to a benign presence. As I think about this now, I am struck by how, in the ancient world, ritual repetitions are seen as the yoga of love and devotion, and thought to be essential to maintaining the world.
As I read my friend’s words aloud that day, I was expecting at best a decently polite response, some faint applause, so what actually came back from the audience was truly shocking to me: it was a standing ovation. In retrospect, I recognize this was a defining moment for the future direction of my life as a writer and cultural critic. I realize I had deliberately and soberly changed my mind forever about what is really important. Art with a moral purpose, rather than professionals looking to galleries and the market place for validation, became the blue guitar on which I would subsequently improvise my own personal song of the world.
I imagine that many of my friends and colleagues were present at this College Art Association conference. It is for them and the younger generations that I decided to generously quote Suzi's words. Suzi’s words best express the effect I hope my art and my book have on others.
Suzi, rest in peace. We will never forget you.