Oakland, CA – The Black Lives Matter movement brought Oakland back into the political foreground in a way not felt since the Women’s March and before that, Occupy. But the granddaddy of them all was the Black Panther Party activism born and bred in Oakland. Only recently has the tremendous role of artwork in that movement been receiving its due attention. But the urgency of the current BLM activism makes newer works the full focus of attention, daily, in the same way.
Art itself is known most broadly for having two key characteristics. The first is that it can communicate universal themes across time, place and cultures. The second is that individual artists will likely either express their common affinity with each other by using similarities, or they will differentiate themselves by tending their expression away from commonality towards uniqueness.
In that light, it is both expected and surprising how artists come together to articulate, cohere, and enhance the universal theme of Black Lives Matter – its insistence on freedom from abuse of power – through a wide variety of styles.
The word “style” itself is often taken for granted. We rarely think of anything artistic as being without a style, but we also do not always consider style to be sufficient as an indicator that something is “art”. This leaves a mental space between what something graphic or visual might do to simply indicate an idea (such as visible writing), and what it might do to represent an idea (such as pictures).
The most noticed exploration of that space in the public outdoors has for decades been graffiti. We have long ago become accustomed to recognizing graffitists (aka “writers” and “taggers”) as artists, and to call what they do “work”. But for many people, the habits of art talk have actually inverted, psychologically, the relationship of the words “art” and “work”. It is for them as if Art is a primary thing in the universe of manufacture, like “meals” – and the output is called “work” simply as a kind of respectful compliment. The truth is, rather, that art is fundamentally work, before it is anything else, and a fundamental question about all art production is this: what kind of work is being done?
This is not a question about genre. Rather, the work that is called art is always effort being made to discover and display how meaning can be created, and that is precisely why we do say “the art OF this, or the art OF that”… Motorcycle maintenance, war, cooking, pitching, farming, design, conversation, composing, seduction, and so on.
Political and religious expression is work, and there is an art OF each.
Considering style again, I am reminded of how the idea of style invariably makes sense to me. I always think initially of the mark that is made on a surface with a stylus. The mark left with a stylus is evidence of a presence, an intent, and a circumstance. The more intentional the mark is, the more likely it is trying to be a sign – whether about something or to something. And the more familiar it is within certain types of situations, the more it is also a signal.
We know that signals have two functions – to alert, and to attract. These are the same two major influences of the large assembly of wall art triggered by, and made for, the Black Lives Matter movement.
The BLM movement is, by definition, a demonstration of the presence of victims, who now insist on social justice through respect from holders of power and who announce their intent to improve social equity through maintaining solidarity of allies. The works of art literally make their mark directly on the very devices and surfaces that were constructed to shield established power-holders — business interests — from harm. Once there, those marks were, and are, rallying points for the like-minded in any community regardless of location, occupation or status.
In the variety of styles and imagery, the range is full spectrum from writing to glyphs, icons, symbols, drawings, portraits and scenes, encompassing all kinds of animate and inanimate items while referencing people, places, ideas and events. This taxonomy of the imagery could not by itself predict or predispose any of the works displayed except in the fact of their diversity, of their range of explorations in how to convey the relevant “meanings” held in common by the Movement.
Easily, the most important impression made by the aggregation of the display is the implication that the works were pre-imagined independently but made with great awareness of each other. Being outdoors, the space between the works was filled with walking, and arriving at each one of them was a very typical gallery-like experience. But because of the streets being nearly empty during a fabulously sunlit afternoon, each piece radiated in the way that a performance does from a stage.
However, more importantly, there was the dual-track nature of the installations.
On one track, pieces were clearly site-specific, literally appropriating the many buildings for their different and special purpose.
On the other track, pieces opportunistically, but in large number, exploited a line of sight usually felt either from a distance or in passing. In this track, the directness of the message projected from the space simulated the presence of persons who at other times might have been on the walkways calling out or shouting.
As a result, the overall effect was that the group of works created their own environment and then populated it.
I’ve said that this was done on two tracks – but they were not really so binary in presentation. Rather, there were those two different directions on a span of effects, with many points along the way that could also blend some of one with some of the other.
Meanwhile, the messages were consistent, and clearly fashioned to be a record of testimony and witness… history made live by being told in the first-person.