A Comprehensive Critique of Nicolette Bethel’s 2009 Day of Absence.
Out of absence let the new day be born. — Helen Klonaris
The response to Dr. Nicolette Bethel’s Day of Absence held for the first time on February 11, 2009, was nothing short of amazing. I had almost lost faith in the desire of Bahamians to band together for a cause, and yet here they were banding. Nicolette deserves to be commended because she did something — she threw an idea into the void and the response to that idea proves conclusively that we, as an emerging art community, need something like this to rally around.
Nicolette Bethel and I have been friends since she taught me English 120 at the College of the Bahamas in 2001. When I was in Nassau this past January gathering research for my Masters thesis she suggested that we get together and share a coffee. We eventually met at the Starbucks across the road from the College of the Bahamas. At the time I had only briefly heard about her Day of Absence, I had skimmed over the press release cum manifesto and I thought then, much as I do now, that the idea had potential. Over lattes and tea we talked about her upcoming day, the need for art in society, the inescapable nature of design in every aspect of our lives, and the fact that a place like the café in which we sat, was what it was, in large part because of the art.
The warm and fuzzy feelings left me once I read what had been written about the Day of Absence more carefully. The more contemplated the ideas as presented, the more I was bothered by the incongruities in the project. This essay is thus my odd way of congratulating Nicolette on a job well done while taking her to task for ideas that are at best half-baked. Her Day of Absence clouds over and conflates many different and unrelated ideas while advancing an awkward historical agenda and a cumbersome theory of cultural development. It is political and apolitical, about something and about nothing, clear and blurry, all at the same time. I still believe that the Bahamian art community is in need of something like this though, and if we can begin a dialogue on what we really lack, maybe we can eventually get at what it is we really need.
A World Without Art
I’m asking us all to stop — for a day, for a moment even, and imagine our country, our world, if we woke up one day and all the artists and cultural workers had disappeared. — Nicolette Bethel
This Day of Absence requires us to think about a world without art. Can we imagine our world without artists? The around-the-world-ness of Nicolette’s opening plea is, admittedly, quite compelling and gives her proposal a certain new-age sexiness. Everyone can agree that without art the world would be a pretty dull place. Unfortunately this broad net also makes the fundamental argument meaningless. Yes, it is true that everything we touch, even a mug at Starbucks, has been designed by someone. However, this generalization covers over a very important issue for Bahamian artists. (I think it is important to underline the word to remind us who we are really talking about here.) The reality is that most, if not all, of the images and products that filter our way from the great foreign cultural creators, such as the United States, have been produced by professionals who have already been compensated.
I do not feel the need to conduct a sit-in for American movie directors; or Swedish industrial designers; or the graphic designers from some ad agency. The street graffiti artist working feverishly under the bridge in some foreign city is another story, but we never see her work here. Most of the art that the Day of Absence invites us to imagine our world without has a price on it, and that price has already been paid. And if you really boil it down, our money has gone, and is going, to pay that price. Let’s not even touch the issue of the cultural imperialism that these anonymous artists from abroad are perhaps unwittingly promoting.
Once we recognize that the artists for whom we were demonstrating have already been paid, with some of our money no less, and we ask again, “how about a Day of Absence?” the underlying absurdity becomes plainly evident — we are asking the wrong question. To ask the right question is to ask what the Bahamas would be like without BAHAMIAN artists, and this is a lot like asking what 100 Jamz would sound like without BAHAMIAN music. You know the answer to that question don’t you? We artists in this country have not only had days of absence but we have had years, even decades, of absence. The Bahamian public is already aware of what their life would look like without Bahamian artists; it is the life they now lead.
Bahamian poet, Maelynn Seymour-Major, expressed the situation to me like this:
I think the public gets the absence. We [the artists] are absent to them. We exist in the abstract. Even Ronnie Butler and KB and John Cox. Those of us who have no names aren’t even abstract. We are ether.
This is the doubtless the reason that Nicolette never articulates a true Day of Absence. She instead describes it as
a symbolic day, … where artists can come together in person or in cyberspace, and blog, email, sing, act, perform, speak, or whatever they want to do, in honour of art and artists themselves.
I will say it plainly: it is necessary for Bahamian artists to come out and do something on the Day of Absence because if they stayed home one day, or even a whole week, no one would notice.
The metaphor of absence is in error. We do not need any more absence. We need to make our presence felt. The dissonance at the centre of the proposal leads to more explaining than is necessary, and the point gets lost. Most important, the metaphor misses the problem that we, as an artistic community, have. Ours is not simply an issue of being taken for granted; the roots go far deeper than that. A day of hand-holding isn’t going to get us where we need to go.