Last night I took my RISD video students hear superstar artist Alfredo Jaar speak at Brown University. The room was packed with hundreds of students, professors, and artists - and it was dead silent from the moment Jaar began, with the question: "How can I make art when there is so much going wrong in the world?"
The audience hung off his every word as he moved through a very structured presentation detailing his many large-scale works responding to genocide, human rights abuses, and social injustice. In between, he repeatedly showed a series of images of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach - images that moved the world and inspired at least some countries to begin accepting the desperate refugees. At the end of the talk, Jaar came back to these images to emphasize to us how very much an image can create an impact. When asked what he thinks of art that does not take on pressing social issues ("art for art's sake"), he responded that he thinks ALL art is political. All art makes a statement about that artist's view of his or her society.
Jaar often takes years to get to know the context of the culture and society where he is producing a work. At the same time, he mentioned the privilege one has as an "outsider" to a situation, referring to the proverb "The fish is the last to discover water."
My students and I found Jaar and his work super inspiring. What a great opportunity to hear from this genius first-hand.