“War is peace/ Freedom is slavery/ Ignorance is strength.” These slogans echo through the paranoia-drenched pages of George Orwell’s 1984, a novel that’s beginning to feel more and more prophetic with each passing week of 2003. Displayed on a small white card in a corner of the Swords into Plowshares Gallery, Orwell’s haunting oxymorons are like a voice-over commentary on “Wisdom and Compassion,” the group show that couldn’t have picked a more fateful month to address issues of art and social activism.
As the military-industrial buckaroos with the white hats and steel horses prepare to wage war for peace, to fight terrorism with terror, whole segments of our population are wondering about all the unanswered questions echoing through the vastness of medialand. But tucked among a row of storefronts between Comerica Park and Woodward Avenue, where it looks out onto the quiet snowdrifts of Grand Circus Park, Swords into Plowshares seems more than ever like a voice in the wilderness.
“Wisdom and Compassion” brings together works by 16 Detroit-area artists to make a powerful statement against the mindless cruelty of war, no matter who is wearing the uniforms. In a culture where violence is major box office, from the NFL to Cradle 2 the Grave, Eric Mesko’s assemblage sculpture Road to Baghdad (pictured) sheds light on the hubris of warmongering. Mary Herbeck’s sculpture, Torpedo Rainstick, invites viewers to interact, to touch and rotate its central cylinder that resembles an artillery shell. And then, once we’ve committed to the act, it makes us complicit in the sound that results. The huge agitprop puppets of the anti-war, anti-imperialist group Women in Black, displayed in street demonstrations, are here too, contrasting dramatically with Mesko’s SCUD-missile satire, Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Does all this sound wise and compassionate, relevant to the struggle for international understanding? You bet. Trouble is, Swords into Plowshares is so obscure. Without faulting either the artists for their visions or the gallery for its efforts, one can still wonder about the effectiveness of art shown in a space that has so little traffic.
But then, where else in the metro-sprawl could we expect to see such a show? At the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its thousands of square feet of gallery space? When asked if there were any plans for an art and peace show at the DIA, vice president of museum programs David Penney says, “Not that I know of … the curators may have discussed the issue among themselves, but there’s nothing in the works.”
According to Penney, the arts flagship’s biggest concern is overcoming a state budget cut of $2 million, and keeping the impact on museum visitors to a minimum.
Then what about the Cranbrook Art Museum, that bastion of postmodern sensibility? Any concerns about art’s relationship to politics there? Greg Wittkopp, the museum’s director, responds, “We’re an institution that hasn’t shied away from difficult and sensitive issues. And I often chide my colleagues that if we’re going to retain our edge and relevance, we can’t program too far in advance. But the fact is that we’re solidly booked until fall of 2004. What’s great about a gallery like Swords into Plowshares is that they can respond to vital issues within a few months’ notice. That’s their important role.”
The one large Detroit institution to address the impending war and its fallout through the language of art is the University of Detroit Mercy, a school with roots in the Jesuit and Sisters of Mercy Catholic traditions. “Voices of Peace,” an exhibition featuring artists from Armenia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Romania, Senegal, Syria, Venezuela, the Muskogee tribe and the United States, will be on view through March 29 in the Genevieve Loranger Exhibit Gallery of the university’s Warren Loranger School of Architecture.
It appears that exhibitions for the foreseeable future at local museums and galleries alike will be grouped under the heading of “business as usual.” State arts funding took a major hit (down 50 percent) in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s recent budget proposal. So merely maintaining art’s existence in a bloodthirsty society might seem like political commitment enough. Except that artists and museums (as well as citizens in general) might consider the stakes from another, more selfish angle. Aside from the cost in lives and suffering, the war will suck up hundreds of billions of dollars — and, if the economy falters further, funding for the arts, education and other social services could dry up entirely.
Swords into Plowshares, meanwhile, is doing what it has always done. April will mark the gallery and peace center’s 20th year of dedication to the human bottom line: the freedom of individuals and societies to go about their affairs without fear of bombs, bigots or demagogues. It’s a thankless task and sometimes, when the war machine boils over, it might seem hopeless.
But another look at “Wisdom and Compassion” gives us an indispensable jolt. Mesko’s Road to Baghdad, in which Bush Jr. on a white horse leads a cavalry charge, is a bitingly ironic work. Anyone who saw Mesko’s brilliant show last year at Oakland University’s Meadow Brook Art Gallery will understand why he’s the perfect artist for the present circumstances. His no-holds-barred, no-bullshit approach confronts the terminators head-on.
In comparison, the works of a few artists here — such as Christine Hagedorn’s beautiful Night Remnant (a fabric made of metal washers) and Grace Serra’s tragically poetic pieces recalling frescoes — have a more oblique connection to the show’s theme. Others that include slogans like “No War” in their compositions seem arbitrary or facile.
In the end, the Swords into Plowshares keynote gets rung by Mesko in a piece almost hidden away in a backroom gallery. Constructed of a series of postcards, it reads, “24/7, The Power of Love vs. The Love of Power, 24/7.”
You said it, brother.
“Wisdom and Compassion: Art as Social Activism” is at Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery (33 E. Adams, Detroit) through April 5. Gallery hours: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. or by appointment. Call 313-963-7575.
Opening ceremonies for the “Voices of Peace” exhibition at University of Detroit Mercy are 4-8 p.m., March 15. Call 313-993-1254 for information.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]