Wildness in Art
“All good things are wild and free.”—Henry David Thoreau
“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lovers war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”—James Baldwin
“To be or not to be
It is obvious, we will be. It is obvious, we will be free.”—Volodymyr Zelensky to the UK Parliament
Following staggering and traumatizing recent events—George Floyd, COVID-19, voter suppression, storming of the Capitol, #StopAsianHate, abortion bans, the war in Ukraine, Will Smith at the Oscars—combined with the avalanche of microplastics, landfills, deforestation, billionaires in space, mass species extinction, and industrial agriculture, it seems to me that the destruction of freedom goes hand in hand with the destruction of nature. In 2022, it feels like all the earth, democracy, and wildness itself is endangered.
To be wild and free, in Thoreau’s world, requires space, nature, infrastructure, and support. Whether living in a cabin in the woods as a writer, roaming the jungle as a tiger, silk-screening a canvas as a painter, or sleeping peacefully like a vertical tower in the sea as a whale, the wildness of nature and the wildness of human expression require a society that believes in and protects freedoms, especially freedom of expression—the first principle of democracy. We now live in a time when the planet and the individual artist are facing unprecedented threats to their existence.
Twenty-five years ago, I lived for a year in Beijing, back when everyone rode bicycles, and I could eat a fantastic four-course dinner for fifty cents. I would go to the Chinese government-run “Friendship Store” and show my US passport to buy Oreos and Crest toothpaste. Four ladies cleaned my room every day. They weren’t really “cleaning” so much as looking through my stuff to make sure I wasn’t teaching anything about politics in my English class. I never did. I taught art, poetry, film, music, or literature—it was more fun for my students to watch Interview with the Vampire or read Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems than to discuss the government.
Luckily for me, subversive Dada poetry and the irreverent Ferris Bueller did not raise any red flags for the cleaning ladies who hadn’t been trained in Western art history or contemporary American culture. The artists we explored did more to champion freedom of expression than any discussion of the electoral college ever could. Most importantly, my students loved it—the joy, pleasure, and adventure of the arts in this mandatory class were, ultimately, freedoms of the mind.
This experience is just one of the myriad reasons why I find working in the arts to be a source of great happiness. I’m constantly bowled over by the infinite imagination, aesthetic inventions, and intellectual journeys of artists. Last year, I was fortunate to join Creative Capital, a nonprofit grant-making organization founded in 1999 (following the NEA’s decision to discontinue funding individual artists) to support artists in the creation of groundbreaking new work. Then-president of the Warhol Foundation Archibald L. Gillies, who spearheaded the establishment of Creative Capital along with Ruby Lerner, our founding president, believed that individual artists and freedom of expression are vital to our democracy. To date, Creative Capital has awarded fifty-two million dollars to 850 artists, and provided professional development resources to more than thirty-two thousand artists across the country. Most importantly, we continue to seek out, to discover, and to fund wild, risk-taking artists.
In this guest critic section for the Brooklyn Rail—the most radical, free publication in the world—I invited incredible artists and writers (many of whom are old friends or Creative Capital grantees) to share their thoughts on wildness, freedom of expression, nature, and democracy. I didn’t give many requirements, and it was an invitation for artists to say whatever they like, however they like. The diversity of approaches, thoughts, and forms are refreshing and vital, and I continue to marvel, as I hope you will, at what is possible when artists’ voices are amplified.