The link between the art world and the Black Lives Matter movement may not be obvious at first, but every time a young black man dies at the hands of a police officer, I hear from artists first. Following the video release of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago policeman, the social media feeds of artists in the city exploded with powerful, unfiltered commentary. I was taken aback by one account in particular, that of artist and critic Pedro Vélez.
On December 1, Vélez wrote this on his personal Facebook page: “Chicago is home to one of the most relevant artists in the world: Theaster Gates. Mr. Gates works closely with/for the city (the State) and is strictly involved with not only political art but politics…We had a thousand articles on Chi-Raq [Spike Lee’s new film], what are we waiting for to elevate the conversation and debate with one of our own?”
Gates declined to comment for this story and has not made a statement regarding the video, but Vélez raises an incisive question: Why do some artists feel compelled to respond to topics such as McDonald’s murder while others stay silent?
“What one shouldn’t do is to remain mute and thus reinforce the status quo,” says photographer Dawoud Bey, who shamed the City of Chicago on Facebook for the five-million-dollar settlement with McDonald’s family. Reached for comment, Bey says, “Artists are citizens before they are artists. Being an artist does not negate the responsibilities of citizenship. Artists should use [their] voices and [their] capacity for expression to make meaningful noise and rebuttals in these troubled times.”
And many artists are making their opinions known (though none I interviewed have created works responding to this yet). Echoing the sentiments of 650 French artists in an open letter fighting racist statements made by their country’s politicians, Chicago’s artists are making their opinions known. “My response to the cover-up is rooted in my love for my city,” says James Jankowiak, a former graffiti artist turned painter.
“I have no option but to respond,” says Kate Ingold, a textile artist. “The situation is dire and desperate and I have to do what I can, which as an ally is to listen, learn, and stand in solidarity.” Filmmaker Jennifer Reeder says that in responding, artists can help shape change: “I believe that the people who have the ability to alter the shape of this cruel world are artists.”
The painter Robb Stone has kinder words for those who don’t feel compelled to make a public statement. “I don’t blame artists who don’t speak out and invite the kind of backlash and general conversational madness that attends some of these critical issues,” he says. Stone himself doesn’t hold his tongue on topics—he recently showed works depicting U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Afghani citizens during the War on Terror—but notes “being a public figure is not for everyone.” He admits that his own attempts to critique racism and other issues can fall flat, “but standing up and being as fearless as possible is my responsibility as an artist and a citizen.”