Monday, April 6, 2009

Art censorship: the best publicity possible

During the 2008 US presidential election, republican candidate John McCain was opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), claiming, "This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world."  Granted this was the right decision to make, but the language McCain used to describe this arctic area as "pristine" is false.  In fact, global warming has affected every area of the globe, including ANWR, and photographer Subhankar Banerjee seeks to correct this ongoing myth that the arctic is an untouched, pristine, or remote location, far removed from human interaction.  

As a photographer this would seem nearly impossible to achieve, given there hasn't been any obviously overt environmental catastrophes in ANWR (which I now realize makes Burtynsky's task seem easy, given the mountains of tires and rivers running fluorescent red at his disposal) so I can imagine Banerjee was acutely aware that the only possible way to achieve a high level of environmental awareness in his work is to add a compelling textual component.  

Without reiterating too much of Finis Dunaway's essay "Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Banerjee has been controversial in the current culture wars, speaking out against the possibility for drilling in ANWR by showing the interconnectedness of the arctic to the rest of the world.  It is well known that without the text, his work would not adequately stand up to the issues he's trying to address (as proven with the Smithsonian exhibit controversy).  
Subhankar Banerjee, Migrating Caribou II, 2002

Subhankar Banerjee, Snow Geese I, 2002
Without the textual component, these images would be rendered not much more than serene and picturesque.  To read the text visit Banerjee's website.

I think even though Banerjee's work clearly relies on the text to become politically charged, it's nonetheless refreshing to me that art is still viewed as a powerful tool in our society.  The fact that the Smithsonian was afraid to show his work in it's entirety was possibly the best thing that could have happened because it gave both Banerjee and ANWR even more publicity and recognition.  It had an immediate affect, and that rarely happens with artists unless some sort of controversy occurs.  I know this is kind of a stretch, but this scenario reminds me of California's passage of Proposition 8, where same-sex couples no longer had the right to marry in that state which sparked a national political movement, giving rise to gay rights issues and adding more publicity than if there hadn't been a conservative backlash to gay marriage. Sometimes it takes having freedoms restricted, or in Subhankar Banerjee's case, art censorship, in order to draw attention to the political issue at hand.
Prop 8 rally in Chicago, one of numerous mass protests held nationwide, Nov. 15, 2008

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