Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Freedom in Mind

Above image: "The Art of Captivity, Part One," Fordham University Center Gallery, Lincoln Center

This essay is from the catalogue for "The Art of Captivity, Part One."

The premise of “The Art of Captivity” is that the breadth and depth of its theme should be accessed through both the visual and literary arts—and more important, that both our emotions and our intellects will be strengthened by thinking across these disciplines.

An artwork or novel addressing captivity is as much about its opposite: freedom. If a captive can recognize and identify her captor’s ways and means of constraint, then her awareness can give form to the possibility of assertion and choice. These are the powers of a free person. Frederick Douglass, for example, after he gains awareness of his captivity in slavery, states, “the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." Not all captives can assert themselves in this way, but freedom must begin in the imagination, in the awareness of captivity. Ideas of interrelatedness—between experiencing written and visual expressions, between the agencies of mind and body, and between freedom and constraint—resonate for me personally. As a painter, I found ways to slip from the constraints of self-limiting conventions through the study of philosophy. Entering into this text-based discipline profoundly affected my approach to the visual. I question more freely now, and more directly connect with the choices that I make in my work.

My artworks, in both Part One and Part Two of “The Art of Captivity” exhibitions, explore the theme of captivity. They also bridge the span before and after my “emancipation.” My reading over the past few years, particularly of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, has sparked a formal evolution in my painting. Kant sets out to describe how we judge beauty in a work of art. His initial requirement for this qualitative decision is that we refer to our own reactions to the actual object, which we must see in person. Furthermore, a judgment of beauty is not based on preexisting concepts. Deciding if an artwork is meaningful is a uniquely personal experience that engages both the mind and the body.

I find a reassuring thread in Kant’s thinking that I often return to, both inside and outside my studio. I can feel my way back along this thread to the idea that I am free to think and act for myself, to strive in my work to express a complete world appealing to both imagination and understanding. Following the steady logic behind Kant’s examination of subjectivity, I believe that I’ve found a way to trust seemingly illogical, even irrational impulses and reactions. This knowledge has alerted me to the possibility of choosing to be free. In her foreword, Casey Ruble notes that adhering to a discipline often enriches and expands our capabilities—thus enabling us to venture beyond it. That has been my experience.

Susan Eley selected for her exhibition my monotype, Persephone, which depicts the moment of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the god of the underworld. I printed this in 2007 before reading Kant, but during my first exposure to Leonard Cassuto’s generous and rigorous interdisciplinary academic thinking. He invited me to talk about my several of my earlier works, also based on the Persephone myth, with his class on captivity literature at Fordham three years ago. Delving deeper into the different versions and interpretations of the original Greek myth as I prepared for Cassuto’s class primed my thinking about the possibilities for useful links between written and visual concepts.

I painted Moon Water, included in the show at Fordham, as part of a new body of work first shown in the spring of 2010. On top of the formal changes I was making, the work relates to my experience of being treated last year for both breast and lung cancer. (I have learned that I should say at this point that I have never smoked.) Illness illuminates the limitations of our physical existence and highlights the patient’s social and emotional isolation. Like Persephone, I feel that I have made a round-trip to the underworld.

The cycle of the seasons recounted in the Persephone myth result from a hard-won compromise: her captivity and freedom must coexist. The two states of mind define each other and together form a new cycle of the seasons. In thinking about my own story during the last three years of sickness and health, I have benefited from the formation of new ideas about captivity—new ways of thinking, my own compromise of seasons. This cycle will continue for me.

The “The Art of Captivity” exhibitions are intended for a broad audience—not only that within the Fordham community but also outside the university. To reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibitions, this fall I will be editing an ongoing online publication of student writing from Professor Cassuto’s English classes, as well as from students from other schools and programs in New York City. In addition to the writings, panel discussions will be hosted at both exhibitions, and other related lectures at Fordham will take place. This combination of artworks, books, and discussion forums will, I hope, extend our collective understanding of the dynamics of captivity—and liberation.

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