A Conversation with Artist-Activist Dan S. Wang

by Rachel Pieciak     

On April 11, 2012, writer, printer, and artist Dan S. Wang was brought to Kalamazoo College by the Office of the President and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership as a part of a series of conversations about the meaning of public art on campus, and its ability to demonstrate, influence and create change, and what that means for the Kalamazoo College community. In his lecture Wang set out to address “the roles of students in creating social change” by visualizing Kalamazoo College as a “corridor” between local and global social, economic, and artistic movements.

Wang’s discussion of the role of public art within the Kalamazoo College community situates the college amongst a larger global network of art communities and was primarily examined through the example of the Evergood mural in the Welles Dining Hall of the College. Wang’s visit to the college and his lecture, entitled “The Case for Spelling Corridor with a K,” was advertised as a starting point for continued conversation about the arts on the college’s campus.

Background

In January 1940 Welles Dining Hall opened and the internationally acclaimed artist, Philip Evergood was invited to paint a mural for the dining hall. The muralist created what he would later call “a tribute to the ingenuity, genius and success of the citizens of Kalamazoo.” The “Bridge of Life” mural that decorates the dining hall was completed on painted canvas spanning 400 square-feet and then mounted to the East interior wall of the dinner hall. The project was generously funded by Carnegie Corporation. The “Bridge of Life” mural was dedicated on May 31, 1942. [1]

Photograph of the mural (1940) retrieved from the Kalamazoo College Archives

In the program for the dedication services for the mural, the stated purpose for the Corporation sponsorship of the mural was to “provide students of the College an opportunity [for associating] with a creative artist or work, participating in the planning, and seeing the actual stages of development of a work of art.” [2] Considering that the mural was done in the mid-1940s, a theme of social development and labor interests coincides with the now art historical interest of labor and development in murals that were commissioned and painted under the provision of the WPA. Artists became interested in illustrating the strengths of “the common working man in cooperation with his fellows, continuity with the past, and the promise of the future.” [3] The mural was interpreted by Dr. L.J. Hemmes, a professor of philosophy at the College in the program for the dedication service in 1942. In his dedication Dr. Hemmes described how the mural was meant to illustrate the “tragic conflict between life and intellect, between the smooth unhindered flow of organic vitality and the spiritual discipline of the ideal.” [4]

Phillip Evergood, Bridge of Life, April 2012. Acrylics on canvas. 400x400ft. Welles Dinning Hall, Kalamazoo College. Kalamazoo, MI

“The Case for Spelling Corridor with a K”

Wang began his lecture by providing a personal background so his audience could better understand where he was coming from. Wang described how he identifies himself as a product of the “flyover land” of the Midwest. Claiming to have a “regional focus” Wang also emphasized his global perspective that he obtains by virtue of his Taiwanese family history. In this discussion of personal history, Wang formed connections between his regional consciousness and global awareness describing his experiences in Austria and Penglai, China as important “corridors” for his realization of the importance of connectivity from a global perspective.

In his dense discussion of the theoretical framework he works within, Wang’s discussion of politics became hard to follow. As an audience member and an art history student, the lack of connectivity between politics and contemporary visual culture made his argument seem more akin to issues of social justice and political activism rather than the issue of public art and visual culture. Although I was aware of Wang’s artistic body of work (in which he explores the convergence of social activism and art), this lack of acknowledgement of Wang’s interdisciplinary interests and how those interests are productive for the discussion of public art in our community seemed to delay his argument for public art’s immediacy for political conversation and the attention to social justice issues.

However, when Wang began his discussion of the topic for which his lecture was titled: “visualization of ‘corridor with a k’,” he began to make connections between his more abstract politics and the public art he intended to review for his audience. In Wang’s discussion of the Evergood mural (1942), Wang delivered his advice for the discussion of the politics of the mural that decorates the Welles Dining Hall using a three-step regimen. Wang first made explicit that viewers should not see the mural as either inclusive or exclusive for the sake of equal representation. Furthermore, Wang cautioned his audience that the mural should not be changed, but rather recognized for its form rather than its content. Wang acknowledged that the life of the mural is preserved through the collective memory and the collective experience of the mural by those who see the mural, who then become networked within the global community. Wang ended his lecture by encouraging the momentum for discussion of public art in conversation with issues of politics and social justice. Wang identified that although the mural is static, it should not be changed due to its inability to address contemporary politics and issues of social justice for the sake of contemporaneity but rather recognized as a visual historicization of the function for public art at the time of its production.

Although I may have expected Wang to use the convergence of art and politics in his own career as a platform for criticisms and constructive advice for the future of the mural, perhaps in his evasion of providing such transformative criticisms, he offered a more important question at stake in the discussion of the Evergood mural: why is there this feeling that the mural needs to be altered in order for it to meet our contemporary understandings of social justice? If the social justice issue in the mural is one of equal representation, then does equal representation in politics demand equal representation in the production of visual culture?  When considering this question, art historian T.J. Demos comes to mind. Demos, an art historian, critic and professor of modern and contemporary at University College London, focuses on the convergence of art and politics and the ability of art for inventing strategies that challenge dominant social and political conventions. This interest in the intersection between art and politics is reflected in his response to Hal Foster’s questionnaire about contemporary art entitled “Contemporary Extracts”. This extract of Demos’ response to the questionnaire alludes to his desire to challenge this idea of societal obsession with “multicultural ‘respect.'” [5] Demos criticizes the desire for “multicultural “respect’” without criticism and how it continues to “other” the diversity of cultures that it strives to give equal representation. [6] Demos brings Fredric Jameson into conversation, drawing attention to Jameson’s argument of “the massification of all people on the planet into a reductive identity.” [7] When bringing Demos into conversation with the current questioning of the mural’s ability to be representative of the current politics and social justice issues, such as equal representation in the Kalamazoo community, it illuminates the necessity for certain criticisms: why is such a preoccupation with equal representation so important now? Without representative preservations of our history, which have not always been sensitive to issues of equal representation, how can the progress of modernity be measured?

I mentioned earlier the historical significance of the mural: to capture the innovation of the Kalamazoo community and to provide the college’s students, like myself, an opportunity to participate in the art. While I anticipated Wang answering the question of how the mural connects us to our past and motivates the future of public art on Kalamazoo College’s campus and in the greater community, perhaps students and community members must remind themselves of the original motivations for the mural and use the momentum for discussion of the intersection of public art and politics to generate more art that puts these two disciplines in conversation with one another. There must be an acknowledgement of the historicity of the mural and how it serves as a reminder for the progress of social justice and politics, and how this progress is preserved in our contemporaneous visual culture. The continued participation in discussion of the mural, which places public art and social justice issues in the community in conversation with one another, is the first step towards creating a visual chronology for the convergence of art and politics in the public sphere.

Notes:

[1] Kalamazoo College, Dedication: The Welles Hall Mural, event program, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kalamazoo College Archives, 1942.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marlene Park, and Gerald E. Markowitz, “Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal,” American Journal of Sociology 92, no. 1 (1986): 233-235. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2779745, [accessed April 22, 2012].

[4] Kalamazoo College, Dedication: The Welles Hall Mural, event program, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kalamazoo College Archives, 1942.

[5] T.J. Demos, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 79-83. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/octo.2009.130.1.3

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fredric Jameson, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue,” in The Cultures of Globalization, ed. F. Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 54–58.

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One thought on “A Conversation with Artist-Activist Dan S. Wang

  1. Pingback: Glass Mural for Kalamazoo Student Center: How do you Express your Identity in a 2 by 2 inch Square? « comment with a K

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