Art is Freedom
Welcome to the second issue of White Enso, a home for all types of art inspired by Japan.
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I once stood before Rothko’s Orange and Red on Red in awe of the painting’s simplicity and spellbound by its blistering intensity. Its warm tones wrapped me in promises of comfort while simultaneously exciting the passions raging through my 18-year-old self. The object of those intense passions stood at the center of a group of fellow high school classmates and said, “Why is this even here? I could paint that.” He waved his hand in the air as if holding a brush and joked, “red, red, red, orange.” My fellow classmates laughed aloud at his antics.
Had I been older, perhaps I would have “seen red,” but at 18, I felt stupid and ignorant for feeling so strongly about something that was apparently worth nothing but ridicule. Yet, that moment is testament to the power art has over us. The relationships with my friends faded, the influence my young love had over me faded. But the emotions that emerged when I looked at Rothko’s work took on a life of their own. They ended up being a path towards discovering art’s influence—positive, negative, comedic—over our lives. Some works spoke to me: the humanity in El Greco’s subjects was unforgettable, and the dark tones in all of his work mirrored my own troubled life; Klimt’s Tannenwald invited me for a peaceful walk in the forest when I needed time to think; while Caravaggio’s Judith, who decapitated the trope that women must be submissive and dainty, gave me permission to be myself. Terry Gilliam’s art elicited pure, joyful, laughter.
Forty-four years later, as I edit another issue of White Enso, my thoughts turn to the pandemic, art, and freedom. During the pandemic, as our freedom to move about was limited, what helped us fill our days? In one form or another, it was art. Movies and television shows, online art galleries, limited release dance performances and concerts. Many people took up painting or decided to write that novel they always planned to. Others turned to art to embrace those aspects of the human spirit that art provides, especially in troubling times.
Art is freedom. Art is the purist expression of individualism, and that is why artists are so often silenced during revolutions, why politicians attack art they don’t understand, and why moralists attempt to ban art they disagree with.
Art programs are often the first to be cut from education. The reasons given are budgetary, although art is crucial to a country’s economic health. In 2017, the arts contributed 4.5% to the US’s GDP, more than typical indicators like construction and agriculture.
I believe art programs are no longer considered a crucial part of public education because art encourages individuals to question rules and to push boundaries. From the earliest period of our lives, we are told to color within the lines, that trees are green and the sky is blue, and that there are certain givens in our world that are not to be questioned.
Art has the power to defy those absolutes. It encourages exploration into our imaginations and whatever our inner selves find interesting or important.
Rothko’s work, which hangs in public spaces worldwide, is a prime example of art as freedom. It broke the rules, and while it spoke to me, not everyone relates to it. That is also the freedom of art. What you bring to art and what you take away from a work of art is yours alone, and it is right no matter what anyone tells you.
Cover design and photo by Linda Gould
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