Opinion: Resolving the Depths of Conflict Through Art


“We are at the extremities now. At the end of this tunnel of darkness, however, there is invariably a light, which we already divine, and for which we have only to fight to ensure it’s coming. All of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism.”

—Albert Camus, The Rebel

By Billy Fried

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution. On the one hand, we have the neo-fascist movement, telling us we need to return to a mythical past. That things were better then. And to ram home their point, a militarized response to peaceful protests is beginning to look more like Nazi Germany than America.

Of course there are plenty of marauders foisting chaos and vandalism upon the movement, and it sadly trivializes and obscures what’s actually going on.

Black Lives Matter is an easily digestible, three-word assertion that has spread around the world. But it’s become so much more. It’s a movement of awakened youth who are facing a nihilistic future of despots, science and climate deniers, health crises, discrimination, seismic wage discrepancies, and a ruthlessly oppressive and individualistic winner-take-all economy. Yes, capitalism has failed them.

How will we resolve these depths of conflict and misery? The same way they’ve been conquered for years. Through art. Through a full-throated renaissance of ideas that unite us in the power of brotherhood, sisterhood, equality and love. As the philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote, “In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.”

It was Emerson and Thoreau who first refused to accept slavery and American Imperialism. It was Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age that predated Teddy Roosevelt’s attack on the plutocrats. It was Picasso’s Guernica that expressed the horror of war. And it was Bebop music and beat poetry of the 1950’s that led to Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights movement.

Which brings me to the rather milquetoast state of art in Laguna, where saying pretty much nothing is the norm. Take the recent $100,000 grant money allocated by the Arts Commission, where $1,000-8,000 will be awarded to “resident artists to create artworks for the benefit, enjoyment and economic revitalization of the community.” A noble cause under the title “Fostering Creativity in a Time of Crisis.”

One would think this was an ideal forum to express a personal vision to reflect back what is happening around us through an artist’s lens. In fact, Arts Commission Chair Adam Schwerner states in a video, “We have an opportunity to be brave, think creatively and do what we do best.” But apparently, what we do best is pretty pictures of marine life and landscapes.

Artist Jorg Dubin, who has spent his working life here and has created a multitude of political art (including his last city commission, the award winning 9/11 memorial Semper Memento which was installed in Heisler Park in 2011), was specifically asked to submit something, Anyone who knows Jorg knows he will not shy away from controversy, as he sternly believes that is the role of the artist.

Jorg came back with a sculptured steel silhouette of a man kneeling while a police officer lunges at him with a nightstick and another cop stands by passively. Does that make Jorg anti-police? Of course not. This is the guy who did a portrait of fallen officer Jon Coutchie and donated it to the Laguna PD.

The Commission rejected Jorg’s submission, without offering an explanation.

They then asked for another submission, and while irked, Jorg complied, this time sending in a silhouette of five people of all colors from black to white, kneeling with their fists in the air. A striking expression of the solidarity happening everywhere around us. Except here. Rejected, without explanation.

Who are these judges and why are they engaging in censorship? At a time when so many cities are emboldened to stencil giant “Black Lives Matter” on their streets, we don’t have the will to allow one of our most esteemed artists to express his point of view in a temporary installation? It’s antithetical to a community that was built on the back of subversive artists who stepped out of the Festival of Arts to create the Sawdust Festival.

The Arts Commission should be ashamed that they are perverting the unique power of art and the role it plays in society. Don’t be afraid of the future, commissioners. Embrace it. With real art.


Billy Fried hosts Laguna Talks Thursday nights on Laguna’s KXFM radio.
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