Artists as Activists

September 21st, 2015  |  Published in September 2015

Saad Ghosn’s new and superb book, Artists as Activists, is now out, with a book signing and sale that just took place at Joseph Beth at Rookwood on September 19th.  It’s a splendid offering, full of individual interview essays that Ghosn wrote himself from a selection of many of this region’s finest artists. Let me recommend up front that all interested in art, and artists who are activists, too, should buy this book; it’s not a coffee table book, but excellent reading; you’ll learn a ton and see some phenomenal art in the deal.

Saad Ghosn himself is an area phenomenon.  Just retired from teaching at the medical school, he is now free to pursue more and more of his passion, the visual and literary arts, andwe hope that he does. Ghosn’s a curator, an artist himself, something of a collector, a regular columnist (his column for aeqai, alas, ended in June: we hope he comes back). What Saad is able to accomplish is more than a summary of these various parts or roles he’s played in our region for decades: he is an idealist, a political romantic, perhaps a Utopian , but however one words it, he brings out the best in all of us, and that’s no mean feat in these most cynical and polarized of times. If, as the Prophet Micha in The Old Testament said , and I paraphrase, that we should reach for the stars, as the streams of life will slow us down, Saad Ghosn may be said to be our oarsman, our guide, our conscience, our guiding and communal guardian angel. One rarely encounters such heroic goodness in a human being.

Interviewing about fifty regional artists, whose work varies enormously in style–part of the point of the book–Ghosn is mainly interested in those artists who are the least market driven, the least influenced by advertising and consumer culture, the purest, if you will, of vision and intent. What’s often been called “political art”, since the l960s, is broadened by Ghosn in this book to include the environmental, the spiritual, the otherworldly, the prophetic. Ghosn has curated dozens of shows under the title “SOS”, which is short for Save Our Souls……and he believes that art has the power to do just that. One might suggest that Saad Ghosn is a remnant of the best of the sixties, an idealist who has not given up, who hasn’t sold out to commercial interests, and who believes in individual power and transformation (I note that he frequently references Abraham Maslow and Herbert Marcuse in his thinking and writing, two psychologists/writers/thinkers/radicals from the sixties who believed in these powers of personal transformation. So did Norman O. Brown, at that time. If one combines those movements from the late sixties and early seventies, the personal growth and transformation movements, with the visual arts, with Ghosn’s overarching belief systems, you get a splendid book like Artists as Activists. This is an art/political/transformative book that deserves a wide audience; it could be made into a series, if Ghosn has the time and possibly grant money, and recreated in America’s various regions (Northeast, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, etc.).

The artists whom Ghosn chose for this book, who range from Kevin T. Kelly, to Terrance Hammons, to Thom Shaw, to Halena Cline , Andy Fausz, Bill Ross and Keith Banner, the Phelps twins, Cedric Cox and Aaron Kent, Gordon Baer and Carmen Bush , may look at environmental and/or feminist issues, gender and or sexual identity issues, but they are all political in the broadest sense of the word, and all are seeking and suggesting visual solutions to those transformative spiritual questions which are the bedrock of the book’s premises. And each artist is portrayed photographically by our region’s superb Michael Wilson, adding another phenomenal element to the book, those many black and white photographs by Wilson: they alone are worth the book. But this is not a book you’ll just leaf through; it took me several months’ reading and full attention to do it justice, and each time you go back through it, you’ll discover images that move you, that provoke you, that challenge you: they, like Ghosn himself, urge us to become our fullest human selves, our best selves, and when we are at our finest, our most transcendentally human, with that spark of the divine within each of us, we are capable of the most marvellous acts, deeds, and Ghosn uses the making of visual images as the transcendant route to our betterment, so the images in this book are both literal and metaphoric concurrently.

Artists as Activists shows us Saad Ghosn at his finest. The book is truly splendid, and I urge you to get a copy, and keep it where you keep your current reading, as you’ll want to return to it often.

–Daniel Brown


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