Art and Empowerment: The Performance of Memory Through Artistic Expression

Last semester, I went to the event Professor McCoy and Steve Prince organized on Main Street, where students, faculty, and community members alike were invited to create woodblock prints that were then arranged around one that Prince had created. The focus of the piece was trauma and healing, inspired by the trials and tribulations of Emmeline the bear, who was run into by cars multiple times. As such, I immediately recognized Prince’s art style when confronted with it in class in the piece Katrina’s Veil: Stand at Gretna Bridge, pictured belowPrince Katrina's Veil Stand at the Gretna Bridge .jpgImage Credit

Prince’s work deals with remembrance: in the case of his project at Geneseo, remembering trauma and moving on from it, and in his series done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, remembering and bearing witness to the atrocities caused by the hurricane, but also by those in power that we are supposed to trust, namely the police and the government.

This brings me to the quote from Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone” that has so vexed and fascinated the class: “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory” (34). What does it mean to “empower the living?” More importantly, how can we both forget and remember?

I think that art, especially art created in response to a problem or an event that the artist feels is important to address, is one of the best lens through which to interpret and view this statement. The function of art when it is made is to remember and incite change, especially in the case of Prince’s work, but also to assimilate events into a social consciousness and provide relief from trauma.

Image result for third of may

Prince stated that he was inspired by Goya’s Third of May, pictured above. This is a perfect example of the cultural tendency to both witness and forget, and art’s ability to empower. The painting, along with many of Goya’s other works, depicts atrocities committed by the French during the Spanish Civil War. During the time that it was painted, and for a period after, Goya’s work carried an important specific message: we have seen these horrors committed by the French, and we do not forgive, and we do not forget. His work shows the innocence of the Spanish and is a reminder of the event itself. His work is a denunciation of war crimes, and an empowerment of the victims in the denunciation.

Over 200 years later, Goya’s work carries a different meaning. The Spanish Civil War has been almost entirely forgotten, but Goya’s artwork is still an important act of remembering atrocities committed during war, and a reminder not to let it happen again. Even without the context of the specific event the piece was a reaction to, the art carries a universal message of remembrance and empowerment.

The same is true of Prince’s work: it remembers the specific events of racial violence and police brutality in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but it also has a universal message denouncing that same racial violence and police brutality in all locations and time. The scene depicted of police shooting at innocent poor people trying to leave the city may very well be from New York City during Hurricane Sandy, or any other instance of racially¬† motivated state violence. Long after Hurricane Katrina is forgotten, Prince’s work will be an act of remembering the pattern of racial violence, and a warning to future generations not to let it happen again, much like Goya’s Third of May.

Art such as Prince’s is an example of the public tendency to both forget and remember, as brought up in “Echoes in the Bone.” Through the study of art, empowerment through memory is possible, though the specific historical context of that piece may have been forgotten.

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