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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

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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.

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#1 Day of Absence 2010: Introduction on 12.31.09 at 9:46 pm

[…] it’s generating some pretty solid critique. Over on Mental Slavery and on Bahama Pundit, Ward Minnis has taken apart the idea pretty thoroughly. In a nutshell the core of the critique is that (a) the concept is ill-founded and muddled, and the […]

#2 Day of Absence 2010: First Response – Clarity on 01.02.10 at 11:25 am

[…] critique(s) offered by Ward Minnis about the Day of Absence concept on his blog, Mental Slavery, and on Bahama Pundit, are both comprehensive and impressive. And he’s right, in several […]

#3 Day of Absence – Second Response: Quality on 01.02.10 at 6:26 pm

[…] by Nicolette Bethel on January 2, 2010 … 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? … 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. Ward Minnis, “Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents”, p. 2 […]

#4 Day of Absence ‘10: 11 February 2010 on 02.06.10 at 5:32 pm

[…] The critique interrogates that very idea of respect. Articulated by Ward Minnis just in time for the new year, it questions the call to respect artists, particularly in The Bahamas, when artists themselves appear not to respect their craft as they should. It also questions the idea of absence, suggesting that good art, conscious art, art that challenges rather than anaesthetizes is already absent enough in our nation, and calling for a Day of Presence. And it queries the political resonance of the title of the day, resisting the parallel with the place of African-Americans in the pre-civil rights era. Here’s just a taste of it (but to fully comprehend it, you must go and read the whole thing on his blog Mental Slavery): […]

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