Art Is . . .
by LUCY LIPPARD, 1988
One of the most effectively Janus-faced artworks of the last few years was Lorraine O’Grady’s float for the Afro-American Parade in Harlem. The title, “Art Is…” was emblazoned on the side of a huge, ornate, gold frame that rode on a float. The artist and a group of other women, dressed in white, hopped on and off the float as the parade progressed and held up smaller gold frames to children, cops, and other onlookers, making portraits of the local audience as the big frame made landscapes of the passing local environment.
The direct message of course was: Art is what you make it; Harlem and black people are as worthy as any other subjects for Art. On a more complex level, O’Grady was commenting on the artist as manipulator and reflector, and the participatory role of exchange in culturally democratic art. The piece was about “framing and being framed,” to borrow a phrase from corporate critic Hans Haacke. The initially simple idea opens up the field of art to include what has until now been peripheral vision, rarely projected on the centralized screens of galleries and museums.
With each of the four rooms of the present display, O’Grady explores a different set of answers to the question “What should we do?” and its correlate, “What is there time for?” Her language here uncannily echoes, yet subverts, the mythic aspirations of Paul Gauguin’s famous title, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? — which designates a work that has been described as “a self-conscious masterpiece,” an attempt “to embody a total philosophy of life, civilization, and sexuality.” The Gauguin work was prominently hung in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which O’Grady visited on school field trips as a young girl.
The cheekiness with which she yokes the earnest “What should we do?” to the mundane “What is there time for?” however, belies the production of masterpieces and “total” philosophies. In a text piece created at the time of the present exhibit, she vowed: “I’m keeping my options open for the Millenium.” ( … )