An Artists’ Liberation Workshop

I was thankful to be a part of the Artists’ Liberation Workshop led by Emily Feinstein in Hancock, New Hampshire, USA, this past June.

Below are some of the ideas Emily shared:

Referencing Harvey Jackins’s pamphlet The Good and the Great in Art, Emily talked about making art that presents benign reality and possibility. Good art can show a person’s or a group’s struggle, but it also helps to build understanding and awareness about the fight to overcome it. Much current art calls attention to a struggle but does so by re-enacting it with the intention to restimulate. As artists we can work through our distresses in our sessions or in the privacy of our studios and avoid using our audiences to work through them.

Art is about re-enlivening our imagination, not about escape.

Art is essential to our humanity. Emily asked us to imagine a world without any art; it’s not a world we would want to live in.

Many factors, including “mental health” oppression, classism, and artists’ oppression, set up artists to be seen as “special” or “different,” and our early hurts make us vulnerable to internalizing that. Emily encouraged us to look at where we’ve relied on feeling “special” as a way to contradict how we have been marginalized in society and feel separate from others.

Those of us who have prioritized making art, regardless of the medium, can play an important role in connecting with all people. Emily talked about how some of her favorite things in making her art are the relationships she builds with lumberyard workers, upholsterers, tailors, and metal workers.

An important goal of artists’ liberation is building a just and human world. We get to discharge and think about what role we want to play in that.

Everyone is an artist, in that creativity is part of being human. We come into the world and want to understand it, so we put things together, draw, touch, sing. These are natural creative impulses. However, many people struggle to claim the artist identity, in part because of confusion brought on by racism, classism, and artists’ oppression.

The stereotypes of artists, including the common depiction of the white male European artist, present an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the history and experience of artists. We need to work on all of the ways that oppression has limited or distorted our view of ourselves, so that all of us can claim art, and its significance in our lives.

Those who choose to be “professional” or “career” artists face challenging pieces of the oppression that are embedded in the capitalist system. There are pressures to create work for the “art market,” in which the product is valued more than the artist. Often artists have limited financial resources, so they try to fit in and be successful in the system. Working on our internalized oppression is key to forming alliances with all artists and finding creative, sustainable, inclusive ways to make art.

We get to decide how to approach our art and what role it will play in our lives. Emily said she didn’t go to art school after high school because she struggled with not feeling “good enough.” She later realized it was a good decision, because she probably wouldn’t have had the resource to withstand the constant criticism and judgment. Six months after she joined Co-Counseling, in her twenties, she decided to re-prioritize making art and organize her life around it and eventually went back to school to get her Masters in Fine Arts. After graduating, she concluded that going to art school was not necessary and that it fed into a system that wanted people to be in debt. However, there were also many benefits, including the start of building her artists’ community.

Given current conditions, artists’ oppression, and our early hurts, many of us feel discouraged and defeated. Emily emphasized working on our early defeats, so we don’t get confused about the possibilities in the present. She counseled someone on going back to face the belittlement and humiliation and deciding to get up and try again. We can resolve the early defeats “once and for all.” They apply only to those particular incidents at those particular times; they don’t determine what we get to try for now.

I also had some insights:

I noticed a difference between performance art and visual art. It seemed like most of the people at the workshop were visual artists—painters, sculptors, or designers—which meant that they often spent long hours working alone on their art. Many had done things to contradict the isolation, but it still appeared to be heavy for most.

I’m making a film and have acted. I realized that performance art—whether acting in a show, putting on a theater production, singing in a choir, or being part of a dance troupe—forces us to need and interact with other people (though it does have isolating aspects, such as many hours of rehearsing alone, or practicing an instrument to be a part of a band, or numerous rejections in auditioning). Of course distresses come up when we’re working with a group of people, but the experience of presenting our art together with others I think is re-emergent.

In terms of going back with someone to work on early hurts, a useful first step for me is to notice that someone is actually with me. I try to notice my counselor first before going back, and often the rest of my session continues to be devoted to just trying to notice the counselor. My attention often wanders away from that, and then I try to come back to it. It’s not easy, I’m not always successful, but I can tell that it’s essential.

Sometimes the most effective way for me to work on early distress is to try to move toward something. In my last support group at the workshop, I thought of three questions for myself:

  • What don’t I want to feel?
  • What is the scariest rational thing I can do?
  • What do I want my life to look like?

As a man, I sometimes have limited access to discharge, but moving toward something keeps me from feeling stuck and frustrated about that. It also changes my life. It’s like what Harvey said about “decide, act, discharge.” If I am pushing to move my life forward, I don’t have to worry about the early distresses not coming up.

Emily set the right tone for the workshop, and a part of that was inviting people to tell jokes on Saturday night. One person shared the following:

Person A: Knock, knock.

Person B: Who’s there?

Person A: Boo.

Person B: Boo Who?[1]*

Person A: Keep going.

Dan Iacovella
Fairfield, Connecticut, USA

 * “Boohoo” means loud crying.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00