The Burden of History
by Deborah Spivak
Art is a window onto history. By looking at visual culture from past eras, we can gain an understanding of how an individual lived in his or her world. Not only do artists record the events and culture of their time, but also their reactions and conceptions. Perpetually being rewritten, history is never a constant. Art, however, is an unchanging record. Events that have been erased by textbook authors remain on canvas or in three-dimensional form. For example, the voices of ancient cultures, which had no written language, would be lost without the works of artists. Artifacts and other elements of material culture bear eloquent iconography that tells the history of these people. Throughout time, art has acted as a powerful primary source, a point of access into a specific moment.
With contemporary art, however, we do not have the benefit of hindsight to excavate the effects of modern life. The current events that shape our world may not be those that enter the historical record. Fast-paced technology, the constantly surging media, and political conflicts create in us a sense of instability. Which elements of our world will endure into the next generations? How do we understand the contemporary as the future history?
Similarly, the historical record that reaches us today may not be a reflection of past reality. Because history is such a powerful tool in understanding human nature, it is often altered to support a present agenda. One cannot empirically test the accuracy of written and oral histories. It is human nature to take interest in the past and question origins, and yet it is inherently elusive. How do we place ourselves within history?
Several MFA students at the University of Texas approach these problems through their incorporation of historical elements. Peter Johansen approaches the malleable qualities of history by changing the stories. He creates a dialectic between historical events and fiction through his conceptual sculptures. These works combine disparate moments in the collective American memory, questioning their validity. Similarly, Cecelia Phillips rewrites history, questioning facts learned through text. Her paintings, in a naturalistic style, turn fiction into reality and reality into fiction. Kurt Mueller asks the viewer to put his or herself within the context of the historical canon. His Ultimatums installation almost attacks the viewer, as he is personally addressed by the work. Without giving consent, the viewer becomes a part of the installation as well as the trajectory of major historical events. Virginia Yount asks the viewer to take a role in history as an explorer of her art in order to discover their own contemporary history. From a distance, Yount’s paintings seem innocuous, but upon closer inspection, cultural relics appear discarded and decaying. Joshua Welker approaches architecture as records of points in time. He deconstructs the formal qualities of architectural elements, personalizing these inanimate monuments in paintings, sculpture, and prints.