You want to save a rural place, or at least help it out. Somewhere impoverished, somewhere suffering depopulation and ageing populations or any other issues of rural blight. So, what do you do? Design and art are often on the agenda. Designers come in, collaborate with local craftspeople or build something – something needed, something that will improve the locals’ lives. Intentions are high; liberal values preserved. Often these things smack of some sort of proselytizing, appealing to the improving nature of art and design. Often, too, the projects are tiny interventions that may or may not create a lasting change. They are important, but sometimes they’re just enough to make the designers feel good about themselves or to help students learn about ethics and social design.
“ART IS NOT enough” was one of the phrases coined for AIDS where so many responses to the disease were art. The phrase meant art was too pretty even when it was about ugly things. It didn’t stop the virus or arrest it or even cut the price of AZT. Art might have raised awareness but awareness was not enough. I’ve been thinking much about this because Marlene McCarty – one of the artists who came up with the phrase who was a member of the collective Gran Fury, ACT UP’s advertising and propaganda wing – lost two-thirds of her work in Hurricane Sandy this week. She’s hardly the only artist who has, and I can barely imagine the pain, only I can because I’ve seen the pictures and know her work and the photos she emailed of shuffling through a flooded basement clutching soggy tubes containing her mural sized drawings are nearly too much to bear.
September 1989: five men slip onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Sweeping in with a swarm of smokers rushing for the start of trading, they chain themselves to a balcony. As the bell goes off, they drown it out with air horns and unfurl a banner. ‘Sell Wellcome!’ Chaos ensues. Trading can’t start – the only time in history it’s interrupted. Dollars rain down on traders. Fake tens, 50s and 100s drift to the floor, emblazoned on the backs: ‘Fuck Your Profiteering. People are dying while you play business,’ and ‘White Heterosexual men can’t get aids … Don’t bank on it.’ Traders are rabid when they realize these are aids protestors. Outside 1,500 people gather, carrying signs of bloody hands and handing out the fake bills. The next day, photos of the scene make the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and, two days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowers the annual cost of the antiretroviral drug AZT by 20 percent, from US$10,000 (at that time the most expensive drug in history) to US$8,000.
HIS IS PROBABLY a mistake, and you should stop reading here. A young novelist without a published novel decides to write on Zadie Smith’s NW and “Two Paths for the Novel” in hopes of getting some answers to her own writing? Save yourself. Turn back now. Though, if you keep reading I can promise you no discussion of process (at least, none of my own). I am writing this because I am bored (read: struggling) with my own novel but also more than that with the very idea of writing novels, and because I’m jealous too, not of Zadie Smith (this won’t – at least, I don’t think it will – be a take down of her) but of artists, you know, visual artists, and how they get to think about form. Why is that question of form so rare in books? This is the reason I appreciated Two Paths, her essay which, to summarize very, very briefly, laid out the case for the novel (as an institution) between what she calls “lyrical realism” (you know, the novel with lots of description and interiority) vs. something that might be called “modernist” or “postmodernist.” Those are what she terms the “avant-garde” path.
FOR MICHELLE LOPEZ, the surface is all. It’s folded, glossy, wilting, crumpled, covered in glinting skateboard grip tape or high-luxe leather and else powder-coated. And, somehow in the surface truth is revealed, a truth that goes deeper than skin, deeper certainly than the powder-coated metal, but getting to that truth, you want to know your art history. She quotes the past, questioning it and subjecting it to an elegant dialogue and a rather brutal debate – sometimes involving her own work.