"The hope of a secure and liveable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood."—Martin Luther King, Jr.
On January 21st, 2013 we celebrated the second inauguration of President Barack Obama and the work and spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.
This Set asks one to consider how and where King is present in today's world and posits that like King himself, many artists are "disciplined nonconformists." They strive to encourage engagment with histories and presents that may be heartbreaking, taboo, sublime, commonly known, or hidden from most. The following artworks were chosen by people as echoing the concept of the disciplined nonconformist and tapping into:
AUDIENCES: Educators may present this Set in a classroom to accompany a facilitated discussion of the themes above. Additionally, this Set serves a general art patron interested in connecting art and visual culture to the work of MLK, Jr.
CONTEXT FOR 'Asking Art' SETS: This Set is part of Asking Art, a series of resources that connect works of art to the lives we live.
Note: apart from the quote included at the top of this slide the quotes integrated throughout this Set were found on the King Center's website.
Peace, fragility, quandry, restraint
In this artwork by Yoko Ono, a nail protrudes from a steel plate, and a hammer made of hollow glass hangs alongside, attached with a chain. The objects come into context when the artwork's title is considered: Painting to Hammer a Nail In. By considering Ono's instruction to hammer the solid steel nail with the fragile glass implement, the viewer conceptually completes the impossible action. Equipped with only a tool made of hollow glass, how are we to hammer this nail? If force is not the way, how do we effect change? The enigma in this artwork can be seen as humorous, tragic, absurd, beautiful—or possibly all these ways at once.
Ono and Dr. King are both figures of the 60s who sought to achieve social change through nonviolent means. Ono did so as an artist and King did so as a preacher and leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Ono and King demonstrate a remarkable ability to be authentically invested in real-world conflicts while maintaining a sincere hope for world peace.
"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue..." (excerpt from King's Letter from A Birmingham Jail)
Belonging, identity, confrontation, reconciliation
Gary Simmons takes familiar items such as chalkboards, running shoes, or in this case, bathrobes, and gives them new meaning, often using the power of words to make us think. By doing so, he addresses issues of race and the feeling of being on the outside looking in.
At first glance, the cozy-looking robes in this work look like the one you might have at home or the kind worn by professional boxers, but the addition of text shows that Simmons had more in mind. The opposing labels “Us” and “Them” embroidered in gold lettering on the back of each challenge us to think about who each garment may belong to and which one we might choose to wear. Or, after looking at those two short words, we may get a powerful feeling of not being included at all. Could the robes imply a hope for cleansing—washing away destructive categories in the interest of reconciliation?
Faith, commitment, action, collectivity
Like Beuys' Coyote, this work by Francis Alÿs is also action-based. We experience the artwork as a story told through video recordings, drawings, and relics. The story's essence is even told in the title iteself, When Faith Moves Mountains. The saying that "faith moves mountains" is a common figure of speech. But in this artwork, Alÿs consdiers the phrase in a literal sense. He located a sand dune in Meixco, organized hundreds of local residents, equipped these volunteers with shovels, and orchestrated a march across the cone-shaped mountain. Translated from Spanish, here is a quote from a volunteer participant: "It was weird ... trying to get a straight line to move across a cone. But a group of people, on the base of faith, can do things that otherwise would be impossible."
One readily sees parallels between this work of art and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life work and leadership. Both King and Alÿs challenge our assumptions about what is possible and what is impossible. They inspire us not only to work together against adversity, but to see profound meaning in moments when many work as one. Both King's teachings and Alÿs' action describe faith as a motive force, a unifying element, and the foundation of human strivings.
ABOUT THIS SET: This Set is part of Asking Art, a series of resources that connect works of art to the lives we live. This Set was built around artists/works of art that a small group of collaborators feel resonate with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. by,
COLLABORATOR-AUTHORS: Abbie A., Philip B., Courtney G., Tracy H., Debbie K., and Claudia S.
USE THIS SET AS A MODEL: This Set was built collaboratively. Adapt the following co-creation activity for your group of learners: Participants use Art Finder to choose works of art that resonate with their personal experiences of a specific occasion. (In this example Set, the occasion is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.) Participants write statements to support their selections and share their reflections with others.