The Artist and Socitey
The Day of Absence is not about withdrawal, about begging, about making money or getting jobs; it is about respect. — Nicolette Bethel
One of the most striking images to appear on the Day of Absence facebook page is that of a young woman — we will assume that she is an artist or cultural worker — with the words “Respect Me” written on the masking tape that covers her mouth. The image is entirely unforgettable.1 Now, the Day of Absence tells us that society should respect artists. Just because they say they is artist. But are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect?
The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? This not to say that all Bahamian artists produce bad work. Far from it. However, we do not gather seagrapes from shepherd needles, nor cocoplums from love vine. It is as the good book says: by their fruits you will know them. Therefore, if someone jumps up and says to me they are a poet deserving of my respect, I need to see the proof. Show me the poems. Likewise a PhD in painting means nothing to me until I see the portfolio. Then I get to decide whether or not I give that person kudos or not.
Of course, this brings us face-to-face with the argument that the Bahamian visual arts community has deployed since B-CAUSE in the early 90s: the problem is the people. It is THEY who do not get what we do! While this absurdity alone needs its own essay, I will boil it down to this simple question: Who are we trying to reach here? How can it be that we as an art community have completely missed our target audience for all these years? Are we really trying to reach the people, or have we been aiming at something else? Pandora is nervously clutching her box as she reads this and I am aware that
this is a loaded and emotionally charged issue. Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good. So, as we go about proclaiming a day for ourselves, we should perhaps contemplate what the latter conclusion, if true, would do to claims of inherent respect.
I alluded to a more complicated answer to the question of whether or not all Bahamian artists are worthy of respect, and here it is, albeit in a roundabout and complicated way. In a blog post expressing her solidarity from afar with those celebrating the Day of Absence, Helen Klonaris gets at the nut of the dilemma. She talks of the need to create
the kind of society… that values the life of the artist, the role of the artist, (the artist who knows how to make life out of her body, his body, life that the community needs and most of the time doesn’t know it, can’t appreciate it, and can’t live, really live, without)
As articulated by Klonaris, the artist’s role in society involves making ‘life.’ This metaphor represents that essential soul of a people that it often does not want to confront, but that it needs for existence to be meaningful. Perhaps we should use the word ‘truth’ instead of ‘life’ to better see what she is getting at. Regardless, it remains that if part of the artist’s job is to present society with what it “can’t appreciate,” it will be exceedingly difficult for the artist to demand respect from that society. Therefore, when the Day of Absence invites us to imagine a Bahamas that values the artist, we are being asked to imagine a country that enjoys having its favorite delusions challenged, burned and blown to bits; a community that wants to confront its innermost demons and then thanks the artist for pointing out its flaws. The desired place is utopia. In the real world, no one thanks you for making ‘life.’ Calling a spade a spade has never been a safe proposition. In essence, the Day of Absence is asking from society something that it is perhaps incapable of giving.
Of course, we could define the role of the artist differently, but in any case we do ourselves a disservice by suggesting that all artists deserve respect. It is true that all people deserve respect as human beings, but that principle does not apply here. Being an artist requires work, being a human being does not. We Bahamian creatives should not be engaged in a project to make society respect us, we should be trying to be real artists. Whatever follows that process of becoming will be a natural consequence and will be well earned. Whether that consequence is disgust, indifference or the Nobel Prize should make no difference. Seeking respect before it is due and other such nonsense is putting the cart too far in front of the horse.
Shrewd observers will note that there is still an inherent contradiction between my simple and complicated answers. Respect is given to those who earn it, and society is probably not capable of respecting artists who do their jobs well. Personally, I see this incongruity as more of a paradox than a catch-22. It is an issue that each artist must grapple with for themselves. Still, that our society does not respect us does not explain why they do not know we are here. That is our fault.