Art That Pushes Societal Boundaries

A photo of Chinese artist Ai WeiWei taking questions from the press.

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei answers questions from the media about his work.
Photo credit: J Morc / Shutterstock

The art world is a great place to push the boundaries of what feels “safe” and to ask questions we might not be able to ask anywhere else. Whether an artist is a student or a full-blown professional, the art that’s really capturing the world’s imagination right now is the kind that dares to go outside the realm of what’s comfortable.

MFA Exhibit Eschews the Commonplace

The most recent exhibit of MFA work from PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) included a selection of works that may have appeared at first glance to be placid and serene. But underneath, they encouraged visitors to question their assumptions.

Savanna Youngquist’s Being Half and Whole, for example, seemed simple enough at first: envelopes addressed to “The Visitor” put the exhibit in the context of the artist’s relationships with her boyfriend and sister. On the installation’s blank walls, two pillows hung, dented with imprints the size of a head. Nearby, two mirrors faced each other, reflecting into each other the words “We don’t hug” and “Because hugging you would be like hugging myself.”

The exhibit challenged the viewer’s sense of comfort by presenting what was, on the surface, a mild collection of objects. But underneath, they signaled extremely complicated, unhappy relationships.

Walls in New York City

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s upcoming Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will present 17 large pieces throughout New York City depicting elements of the rise of nationalism and the difficulties faced by migrant populations. Weiwei, who at one point called the city home, is jumping into political commentary by using the city itself to cause viewers of his art to think more clearly about the state of the world.

“I’m interested in placing art in a wider context which can relate with people who might not necessarily have an arts background or even an interest in art,” says the artist. “By doing so, it’s a challenge for myself as well as for the public’s established aesthetic sensibilities.”

For natives and visitors alike, Weiwei’s work will upend preconceived notions of the city and force an entry into a new way of thinking.

“I think public art is in the public domain,” Weiwei says. “It belongs to the people who use the city’s facilities. It is open to discussion and to the public’s concerns. It will be successful for public art in an open society to generate that discourse, and it can make a difference on an aesthetic, moral, and philosophical level.”

Developing Our Capacity for Curiosity

Why does it matter that we step outside our comfort zone when it comes to art? UCLA’s Artist, Curator, and Artistic Director of the Center for the Art of Performance, Kristy Edmunds, suggests it has to do with integrity and authentic artistic expression.

“The fence line of the familiar is fixed unless we extend it, right?” she says. “If we stay within the terrain we know, we lose our capacity to be curious, to provoke debate differently, because we’re too concerned with upholding familiar, conventional, known, assured outcomes. Artists expand the possibility of the human imagination inside of their art form. They go into areas and terrain that are not yet known, and they come out acting both as a kind of advanced warning and beacon.”

This, then, might be the biggest reason to step outside our artistic comfort zones: Because it encourages us to think more broadly, to be more active citizens and consumers. In our current world climate, it’s more important than ever that we open our minds to a wider set of possibilities.

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