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Back in the 80s, I was already feeling uneasy about my purpose as an artist; and authors like Suzi Gablik were beginning to articulate just where Modernism had gone wrong. At that time, there were few alternatives to the traditional art channels like galleries, museums, concert halls, theatres.

There were edgy art happenings popping up in the fringes; some centring on the damage we were doing to the environment, some focusing more on social causes. Then Gablik came out with ‘The Re Enchantment of Art’, once again, way before her time in sensing what was to come. This book documented artists working with ecological and social themes, and seriously questioning their purpose as artists.

‘Conversations at the End of time’ followed, in the 90s I believe. This was a very disturbing book about art having lost its purpose. There were a few light points, but generally the interviews with artists, critics, gallery and museum curators, documented where art was at the end of the 20th century- in a serious meaning crisis.

In these past 30 years, many artists including myself have been questioning how being in the studio making things is relevant in our times. In a past article, (I still can’t find the source, but the gist stayed with me), Gablik declares that artists can no longer make art in complete disregard for the planet.

And finally, this quietly posed question- once seeming irrelevant to so many in the art fields- is supremely relevant to everyone. With so much breaking down in the society, from the environment to the healthcare, educational, and financial systems, we are asking ourselves how we can use our art to contribute to solutions. Anyone who has worked honestly with their gift knows art’s healing and transformative power. And now, finally,  significant numbers of us are bringing these to bear on the broken world we find ourselves in.

All the small, previously invisible projects and initiatives, are starting to connect. Finally, finally! there is critical mass and something completely new is happening in the arts. All of us who have felt out of place in the commercially co-opted art world and have sensed that there is so much more we can be and do, are getting vindication. Not only that, there is a new sense of purpose in creating.

And the dreadful isolation is over, because in these new times, creating is connecting.

I’ve fallen, by grace,  into a community of like-minded people and will introduce you to them, their ideas and lives through this medium. But I have formed another blog to map these new meanderings and musings. For the moment artcalling is more focused on art process and certain questions about the role of the arts and artists now. And tendingtime is a more personal diary of the journey, meant to start and continue conversations with others in an in between place in their lives and art.

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This is the second article in the Artists Who Care series.

Milenko             Photo by Hannah Hess

The first and second parts of this article introduce Milenko and his current work, based on material found on his site and a number of online interviews. (Sources given at the end of the article.)
The third and fourth parts are an interview.

Sarah’s introduction to this series of articles

I believe that art is so much more than a commodity to hang on walls, and that the artist’s function in this society goes beyond making products to sell. Rather it is vital and transformative, and added to initiatives in other disciplines, can contribute to healing our broken society.  An increasing number of creative people are working as activists in bringing societal change through community building, consciousness raising, and other activities which directly and positively impact individuals and their communities.

I want to highlight some of them here because a lot of this activity is ‘below the radar’, ie not picked up by the media. And all these initiatives together form a surge that is growing, powerful and important.

So I’m happy to be able to devote several posts to the work of Milenko Matanovic. He has been gracious with his time and cooperation for this article and I feel what he has achieved is so worthwhile and important, I’d like to share it as widely as possible. So please feel free to tweet and Facebook copiously!!! There is enormous potential in us as artists and anyone working with creative processes to really make a positive difference. We just need alternative models, and they are out there for sure.

Milenko Matanovic    Building community through art

Recently completed 10 day project, a gathering place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- built in part with debris from a tornado which did a lot of damage to the city last year. Photo by Hannah Hess

Showing walkway with tiles made by volunteers from the community. Photo by Hannah Hess

I first met Milenko Matanovic

during a conference at Findhorn Community where I was living at the time. He was an all-round artist: singing, performing, and lecturing on art as a transformative force in the society.

His book, Lightworks, Explorations in Art, Culture, and Creativity, was published in 1985, and is still highly relevant. It is a collection of interviews with creative people of stature from a number of different backgrounds, including Suzi Gablik, John Todd, Madeleine L ‘Engle, Matthew Fox, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Glass and others.
What this diverse group of philosophers, historians, educators, and artists has in common is the conviction that the arts are crucial to cultural change and can provide solutions to the many complex problems facing our world.

I came across Milenko’s work again recently on YouTube in a video where he was speaking about art as a mode of community building, and that led to this article.

Milenko began as a conceptual artist in his home in Slovenia (formerly a republic of Yugoslavia) as a member of the celebrated OHO group. Even as his success as an artist grew, he became increasingly disillusioned with the separation of modern art from everyday concerns.

Walking out of a museum one day where an installation of his work was featured, Milenko experienced a crucial tipping point. He was so struck with the dissonance between the interior of the museum and the world outside that he literally walked away from his career as an artist.

This launched a period of re-evaluation that took him out of the conventional art world for 15 years. At the end of that period, he emerged dedicated to exploring ways to practice his art that would positively impact the world.

In 1986, he started a non-profit organization called Pomegranate Center.

Milenko:

I founded Pomegranate Center to connect community participation with art, education, and the environment because I felt that separating them into exclusive compartments was no longer productive.

By integrating art into the fabric of the community, Pomegranate Center gets people involved in creating gathering places in their neighborhoods.

To get an idea of how Milenko’s projects work and what they look like, see the video mentioned above and the Pomegranate site.

The projects themselves are inspiring and worth devoting an entire article to. But I’ve chosen here to highlight another area of his work, without which none of those projects would have even got off the ground.

This area concerns the question that inevitably comes up in any project involving the creative process, ‘How do you balance the vision with the practical side?’ And more importantly, ‘How do you manage a diverse group in such a way that the strongest idealists and realists don’t get stuck in conflicts and end up sabotaging the whole project?’

Milenko calls this, ‘Managing tensions,’ and agrees that is usually the most challenging part of any project.

continued in Part 2

Accountable art

July 14, 2012

Making art was always my calling; but making art to sell never made sense to me as a life path.

From an early stage in my career as an artist, I knew things could be different. The givens for being an artist in this society felt out of synch with who I was inside and what I aspired to, yet there were no alternatives at the time.

For years I’ve been an advocate of transformative, healing art. Standing for these ideals in today’s hard sell art milieu, one is seen as a lesser artist, as someone unwilling or unable to do what’s needed to sell one’s art, or simply as a harmless crank, irrrelevant to the ‘important’ things at hand like promoting one’s work and getting more hits and followers.

Lily Yeh in front of a mosaic mural made with volunteers in one of her community art projects (pasted from this site )

But a change is a comin’, surely it is! I recently ordered a book by a long-time art heroine of mine, Lily Yeh. She founded the Village of Art and Humanities in Philadelphia.
The book I ordered, ‘Awakening Creativity, Dandelion School blossoms’,  is about a school for migrant children in China.  Over a period of several years she developed a creative program which transformed not only the physical environment of the school but the lives of the teachers, students and their families. What lifted my heart yesterday was reading the words of the foreword by Robert Shetterly. He confirms everything I’ve known deep in my heart about where art is and where it should be going.

Many people choose careers in art seduced by the notion that art is all about self-expression and that an artist’s success depends on becoming a cultural icon. An artist tries to discover a style or a niche that separates herself from other artists and promotes her career and commercial success. This is not necessarily a bad model for an artist, but it can lead to elitism, gimmickry, and an acceptance of art being primarily valued for its ability to generate money and fame- like so much in our culture. It’s a model that pits artist against artist in a heirarchy of value…

One word we never hear used to measure art’s value is accountability. What does it do for the welfare of the community?…did it promote ssocial, economic, and environmental justice and equality? …

Lily Yeh has rejected the model of artist vying with artist for gallery space and recognition. Instead she uses her talents to elicit art from distressed, depressed, and broken people in order to rebuild community. Her art is for communal self-esteem and hope, for affirmation of the spirit rather than for commodity…  Accountable art.

We’ll be talking more about community building art and accountable art in the next months here. I have a great new ‘Artists who care’ interview lined up. And I’ll be talking about new books and insights concerning art in service of social and transformative goals.