Scholars' Association News
Issue 41
February 2017


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Creativity and society
Edited by Leda Bouzali

Four participants, each distinguished in his/her own field of expertise but with a common love: creativity. They met at the Onassis Cultural Centre New York on November 15, 2016 for a discussion on “The role of the artist in society”. Writer and New Yorker magazine contributor Philip Gourevitch coordinated the panel; Iranian author Azar Nafisi, American curator Nancy Spector, American photographer Eli Redd and Brazilian chef Alex Atala participated in the discussion.

Philip Gourevitch (addressing Nancy Spector): You curate contemporary art, some of it quite theoretical or abstract or avant-garde. How does that world connect to the sort of more earthy world that most people live in? How does that influence society in a more direct way than a rather small elite who obviously are tuned to it in the first place?

Nancy Spector: The question of the relationship between art and life has been researched since the 1950s if not even before in Europe, and I think that continually or in our present time artists are trying to understand how to operate in the real world and not exist within the rarified confines of the museum.

A project I did gets some of the very issues that you just described; in 2009 I worked with a German born artist named Tino Sehgal. We had the entire Guggenheim museum but there was not one object in the space. The narrative of the exhibition relied on human conversation. People would arrive and they would be greeted at the bottom level by children who would ask them what their idea of progress was. Visitors would walk with them, meet teenagers and the conversation would continue. It would go all the way up until they met with the senior citizens. Behind the scenes there was a dramaturgy; each person who was greeting the visitors had a sense of the conversation so there was a slightly uncanny quality. It was enormously moving; we had over a hundred of what we called interpreters that formed a community but the key, the connection, I think, with what you were talking about, came from a deep conviction about sustainability, the notion that the world perhaps does not need any more objects. Now, we can contest that, and I am not sure I want to throw out every wonderful art work that hasn’t yet be made but it was a very moving art work and actually the museum bought that art work and it exists nearly as an idea that can be restaged. Human energy alone is a work of art.

Philip Gourevitch (addressing Eli Reed): Your work is a representation of reality as you see it at that moment. You are standing next to it when it happens. What’s the relationship between that and the final thing, the print, the picture?

Eli Reed: Believe it or not, I am a shy person. But to address or get near to where things are happening, you have to step in there and not stay on the surface. When you get beyond the surface, that’s when it gets interesting. That’s when you tell stories that should be told.

Philip Gourevitch: The idea to be able to walk into the midst of things is obviously quite different for you as an author. At the beginning of your book Republic of Imagination, you describe an encounter which is really about the connection between the public and the artist.

Azar Nafisi I was giving a talk in Seattle and there was this young guy (an Iranian) in the line waiting for an autograph and when he came to me he said “You are wasting your time. These people” -and by these people he meant Americans- “they don’t care about the way we did about books, xeroxing hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary or Huckleberry Fin” and that sort of stayed with me. I felt that the answer I gave him was not sufficient. I had a student, Rosier, the first year I taught at the University in Teheran. She was a practicing Muslim, she wore the veil all her life, she came from a very poor family and in my class she felt absolutely in love with Henry James. Daisy Miller and Catherine of Washington Square just took her by the storm. Rosier was against the regime and so at the very beginning of the revolution she was arrested and I never saw her after they closed down the universities. Years later, another student of mine who had been in jail with Rosier told me that she was executed; but those days they spent together in their cells, they were talking Henry James and Scott Fitzgerald.

The question comes to me time and again: why would a girl like Rosier at the moment when she is encountering the absoluteness of death, the only thing she is thinking about is Henry James? And you see this happening in other cultures too. Primo Levi, after coming out of the concentration camp, said teaching Dante to his French cellmate was more important to him than his daily ratio of bread.

The reason people react like this to works of imagination is because as Mark Twain says “it is an affair of the heart”. That young man in Seattle came from that sort of environment where people went to jail for reading books; books were our connection to the world, we couldn’t come here, we were closed off from the world but our real connection was through its golden ambassadors from Baldwin to Melville. What I discovered in Iran, and I am thankful to the Islamic Republic for it, was that when you are deprived of your rights you immediately turn to works of imagination and ideas.

Philip Gourevitch (to Alex Atala): You came out of punk rock and ended up in serving perfect meals to people who are paying a lot to enjoy them in an elegant place. But you are doing it with a certain kind of energy that you are still drawing off from the past. How do those things work together?

Alex Atala: Let’s first think: What is expensive? What is luxury nowadays? Is it to pay lots of money? It could be spending a lot for white truffles or a big burger or a good wine. I am not questioning this. But we also want to be able to relax, to enjoy these things and to be comfortable. Food may help us to re-understand ourselves. Because we may be in a luxurious place, with good friends, a nice wine and amazing food but with no pleasure.

Let’s think about food and biodiversity. Twenty years ago, we used to drink just a few kinds of wine, from few regions of the world. Nowadays we drink wines from all over the world. To understand wine, we try to understand geography, geology, the climate and the different types of grapes. The more open is our pallet, the wider is our diet, the better for the planet and for our health. As human beings, we have a tremendous power of adapting to new situations. We may keep producing food, eating food or wasting food as we do nowadays. But we could reconnect to the way our grandfathers used to live and create the future; we may understand our natural resources are not infinite and take care of them. What is creativity? It is not doing something that nobody does; it is to do what everybody does in an unexpected way. What is innovation? Innovation is creativity and more utility.

Philip Gourevitch (to Nancy Spector): When you are making exhibitions, you bring forward artists who are making things that have been done before but in ways that nobody has done them. They are re-inventing the wheel and you are trying to take those people out to make the connection to a larger audience. How do you avoid making conventional what has been unconventional by simply taking it to many people?

Nancy Spector: This is a very interesting question. I think that the role of the curator is an odd combination of being a producer, a facilitator and an innovator. We are not artists but I think it is necessary that we can understand the future in a sense of extrapolating forward, to anticipate how an audience would react about the work we have selected to show.

The kinds of exhibitions that I have done, the work I have been drawn to primarily, are ones that really engage the viewer, push the limits and ask a lot of questions about what is an art work. So, there are no traditional paintings on the wall or sculptures in the center of the room. I work with contemporary artists -and it’s somewhat implicit that the artists themselves are questioning that. Looking back at my track record at Guggenheim, artists who take a form and disrupt it completely. I really look for art that will to some extent confuse people, alter the experience and then hopefully through that seduction and confusion there are really serious messages. I continually look for artists who operate in that realm.

Philip Gourevitch: When I was a kid, we were on vacation in Greece in 1973 and we went to Epidaurus, to the old amphitheater, to see the production of Prometheus Bound, a play which is all about tyranny and bondage. It was right at the climax of the Junta and the military dictatorship was about to topple. As we sat there and the dusk was falling, all of a sudden a big motorcade comes to the theatre with a substantial chunk of the Junta and their entourage. Then, out of the darkness, people start shouting words such as ‘freedom’ in response to the play, just one word (you don’t want to be detectable). It was a very intense moment. The artist had been dead for about 2,000 years, the play was in its original language from a period lost to the mist in the ages but it was as alive as it could be. I am wondering what would that be now…

Azar Nafisi: The miraculous thing about great art is how it connects to the past, reveals the present and at the same time predicts the future. And one of the most important things it does is create continuity. We may know nothing about Aeschylus or Euripides, but we have felt as someone felt 2,000 years ago writing to the present.

I feel that imagination is important not because it resists a political system. Resistance in great works of art is existential, it is not political and that is why as James Baldwin says “Art is here to disturb the world”. They are constantly posing us questions and the reason I think that art is important for our survival is two things: curiosity and empathy, the main pillars of imagination. Nabokov used to tell his students “Curiosity is insubordination in its purist form”. In order to survive human beings had the urge to want to know, to touch, to feel, to smell, to taste, to understand the natural world, to control it and to change it.

We talked earlier about abstract art and the inarticulate feeling. When you first read a poem or you look at a painting you don’t understand it, you feel it, you respond to it with something that has nothing to do with it. So, it is first curiosity coming out of yourself, wanting to “become the other” -and I am not using it in the academic sense. The second thing is ‘empathy’, a word that nowadays is so misused. Through empathy you not only celebrate difference, the uniqueness, but also you experience the shock of the recognition. As the bard said, “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” Because we all bleed; the mother in Iraq whose son is taken away from her by a bomb; the woman in Afghanistan who is taken to a football stadium and a gun is put to her head because of the way she is dressed; and the woman in New Orleans whose house has been taken away by a hurricane. Once you understand that we share the best and the worst, and that is only through imagination and ideas, then maybe you will become more compassionate, not politically correct but compassionate, and I think being compassionate is different.

Philip Gourevitch (to Eli Reed): We were talking earlier about disasters of war and the famous images by Goya which in many ways are the backdrop for a lot of modern war photography. He used all of his aesthetic and artistic power to convey a non-delightful image. I wonder how you get across bluntly the thing that people want to look away from and make them look at it without having to hammer them with the message?

Eli Reed: The pictures that work the best are the ones that connect with humanity and with each person separately. I do not claim I’m doing something heroic but I am trying to see myself inside the picture. When you can see inside another persons’ world and appreciate it a little more or connect it with your own world no matter how bad or how good it is, you know that there is a connection there someplace.

Azar Nafisi: Art is not aspirin for the soul, it doesn’t console you, but it makes you resist the absoluteness of the cruelty of man and the absoluteness of time. And so, stories, photographs, paintings, music, they all give you a sense of control, because their story is your story, even if it is full of blood, and that’ the joy of discovery. Even when you go to a Holocaust museum there is that joy of discovery and being the wiser for it.

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