Punk art surrealist Winston Smith, who named himself after the indelible protagonist of Orwell’s 1984, was once quoted (referring to a popular idiom), “You could say that artists are the canaries in the mineshaft. We see things before others do. We set off alarms and alert those who are distracted by other things. It’s not that we’re more sensitive or more aware…it’s just our job.” This is an allusion to the age-old practice of mining workers carrying caged canaries down into the tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine-shaft, the gases killed the canary before killing the miners.
Exemplifying Smith’s assertion of artist-as-indicator-species, this week Yoko Ono launched Artists Against Fracking, with a focus on New York hydraulic fracturing. Yesterday, just days after premiering his new video “We Want Peace — Reloaded,” former child soldier, peace activist, and hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal was reportedly beat unconscious by South Sudanese police. Currently on exhibition in London, Art of Change: New Directions from China reveals how the best contemporary art moves beyond the particular to comment on universal experience. The current imprisonment of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot has sparked outrage and protests in solidarity worldwide.
Real miners endure a more wretched fate than the metaphorical ones referenced here, meeting with shattered health, physical brutality, and even murder for corporate profit, which ultimately are also recognized as an assault to the natural world as well.