[Note: The following is excerpted and updated from my Nov. 2012 blog of the same title–one followed by more readers than any other that year. Please read on to find out why I was inspired to repeat this subject by news of the upcoming “blockbuster” exhibit at the De Young Museum.]
When I studied art history at UC Berkeley, I saw paintings which prophesized doom and hell, from Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement to Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. In our century, we studied the truly terrifying images of an evil, brutal and oppressive world by Max Beckman, centered around the World War II era.
But then – we arrived at “contemporary” art. Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Minimal and Pop Art in the 1960s left behind social evils and human brutality – just witnessed to an overwhelming degree in the lifetimes of our professors – to focus on art as entertainment and commodity. Wrought in massive scale, like 1950s Cadillacs and Lincolns, they were all “pure” – “art for art’s sake.” Shape, line, scale, color, texture, balance, no “objects.” And they all fetched high prices, embellishing the walls of the newly wealthy and comprising the “investments” of America’s major corporations.
So, what should be art’s purpose? To me, the answer is that the real thing can both entertain and enlighten. I attempted that high wire act in The Berkeley Girl in Paris, 1968. The novel describes the lives and characters of college students who are not initially radicals, but who develop new ideas and ways of coping with the social and political conditions of their era. I would like to say I revealed a “truth,” but in the end, art cannot reveal “truth.” It can deliver only a point of view – or significantly, it can open a conversation.
That conversation is monumental when the artist is Danny Lyon (b. 1942). November 5 through April 30, 2017, San Francisco’s de Young Museum presents Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, the first comprehensive retrospective of this artist’s career to be presented in 25 years. The 2012 show I wrote about was in a small room, not the main event. Now the De Young will show approximately 175 photographs and related films. Lyon documented social and political issues and the welfare of individuals considered by many to be on the margins of society. Many of the objects have seldom or never been exhibited before. We will also see the artist’s achievements as a filmmaker for the first time.
Lyon’s art is concerned with “…the welfare of individuals considered by many to be on the margins of society” and we are moved to empathy by “…his ability to find beauty in the starkest reality.”
From the museum website: “…Lyon has distinguished himself by the personal intimacy he establishes with his subjects and the inventiveness of his practice. With his ability to find beauty in the starkest reality, Lyon has … provided a charged alternative to the bland vision of American life often depicted in the mass media.”
Once more back to 1968 – in The Berkeley Girl, I tried to present more than a youthful rebellion. I am not – could not! – compare the hardscrabble, hard-fought life of poverty and racial discrimination portrayed by Danny Lyon with the privileged upbringing of middle class college students in the 1960s. But unlike their parents, many of those students could not ignore those less fortunate and more oppressed than themselves. Their new empathy sometimes made for heart-wrenching conflicts.
Where did this empathy come from? This spirit of empathy in America has continued to expand since the 60s, at least for larger segments of society than ever before in history. I believe that it was greatly fostered by the photographs and artworks by individual artists like Danny Lyon. Their courage and talent helped to spread artistic liberty across America. It also opened the eyes of Americans to the beauty of all humanity, despite the difficult reality beyond our fastened gates.