Art that inspires debate

Socially conscious art plays an important role in our culture. It can ask us to face injustices, inequalities, and common histories. There are many examples of public artworks that take on pressing societal concerns, and Nina Oleynik ’18 gives us a compelling one in her Sept. 28 Op-Ed in the Echo that looks at Kara Walker’s powerful sculpture A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby from 2014.

Sharon Corwin, Professor of Art; Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art and Chief Curator gives her insights on the College’s place in fostering debate around art-related topics in paper and around campus.

Perhaps one of our country’s most affecting examples of public art is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Rooted in a formal language of abstraction and minimalism, Lin’s wall displays  the etched names of the more than 58,000 service men and women lost during the war. Initially protested for its lack of a representational narrative, it was soon embraced as a deeply moving memorial. 

Sol LeWitt’s piece on Colby’s campus  is another  abstract wall—one similarly indebted to minimalism with its primary forms being concrete blocks. LeWitt’s art is neither politically nor socially charged, but rather represents a material expression of the artist’s concept, an idea executed by the H.P. Cummings Construction Company of Winthrop, ME according to the artist’s written instructions: “Seven 12’ x 12’ concrete block panels, which overlap each other at angles to form an overall length of 68’.” This resolutely abstract work dissects the space of the Museum’s east lawn, offering multiple compositions depending on the viewpoint from which it is perceived: straight on, the seven walls are seen as a slightly irregular plane; from either end, the walls collapse into a jumbled mass as the edges of each panel jut into view; and from the Museum’s east stairwell (a view I encourage one to seek out), the jagged line formed by the tops of the walls is visible.

What I appreciate most about Seven Walls, and many of the more difficult works of art in our museum, is that it encourages just the kind of conversation that  Oleynik has introduced. What do we want from public art? Must it have a social responsibility? Is there a place for abstraction and formal practice in the public arena? I hope that Seven Walls continues to provoke these types of questions, challenge our assumptions about the meaning and role of art, and force debate between its viewers. Ultimately, I cannot think of a better role for an artwork to play at a liberal arts college.

Nina Oleynik’s Sept. 28 op-ed can be found on our website with the link

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