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A PLACE FOR ALL ISSUES
by Sean Thornton
The exhibition "Private Identity, Public Conscience" at the Museum Fine Arts, Houston exemplifies the difficulties of applying aesthetic
sensibilities to real world problems like racism, environmental degradation, and AIDS. The exhibition includes work from sixteen artists,
all taken from the permanent collection of the museum We are told in the exhibition notes that these artists possess a "passionate
commitment to communicate the issues of our time." Artists, just as other responsible members of our society, have both the right and
the obligation to speak out about those issues which are closest to their hearts. Art exists in a difficult space within our society; artists
often find themselves in the precarious position of wanting to affect social change and yet still needing the existing power structure to
make themselves heard. The difficulty of reconciling the need to pay rent and the desire to speak out can create odd bed-fellows. "Private
Identity, Public Conscience" provides a disappointing example of the results of such a union.
As a curatorial premise the idea of showing art which deals with "issues" offers us far more insight into the politics of the art and museum
world than it does into the work of any of these artists. The MFA, like other museums in this country, has been making a concerted effort
to become a institution which reflects the entirety of the community; witness the catch phrase "A place for all people". Unfortunately,
the reality of the privileged social status of these institutions cannot be changed by simply altering programming strategies. Art museums
are, and probably will remain, the realm of those wealthy enough to collect art and attend board meetings. Both "Private Identity, Public
Conscience" and the larger exhibit "Songs of My People" appear to be the attempt of an empowered and established institution to
ingratiate itself with communities who have little reason to believe that this newly found social commitment is anything other than a
passing fad. or more cynically, a thinly veiled plea for public funds.
The work in this show reflects varying degrees of commitment to specific issues and events. Some, particularly those of Vicki Meek and
Adrian Piper are truly didactic. Others, like those of Madeline O'Conner and Jeff Cowie, require the gentle assistance of gallery notes
to convince us that they are not the dry formalism they appear to be. The exhibition as a whole suffers from the context in which it is
seen and conversely, individual work suffer from a lack of context. In most cases we simply don't know enough about the lives of these
artists to arrive at an informed judgment about their commitment to these issues, nor are we told how they feel their artwork helps to
solve the problems they are concerned with. As I left the museum it occurred to me that after this exhibition was nothing more than a
line on a resume; we would still have racial tension, still be destroying the environment, still be infected with AIDS, and few would will
remember that the MFA did a show about "issues" in 1994.
Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/. Accessed February 6, 2016.