Throw caution to the wind: What is art?

French philosopher Benjamin Constant once said, “Art for art’s sake, with no purpose, for any purpose perverts art.” The works on display at Miami Art Central (MAC) in its current exhibit, How do we want to be governed? (Figure and Ground), have an absolute definitive purpose: to provoke thought; to spark in the minds and souls of the viewers the need to question the practices we, as members of civilization, apathetically allow our government to carry out within our own society.

At first the pieces seem haphazard, unconnected and not aesthetically pleasing. A simple mind, or at least a closed mind, might even question their capability to be considered artwork. They are not “traditional art” in any sense. They are in your face and different. True, there are paintings and photographs, but there are also clothing displays, slide shows and DVDs, including one entitled “Personal Cuts” by Sonja Ivekovic. It features the artist cutting holes in what seems to be her skin, interrupted by clips of war rallies and propaganda from the early 20th century. While some of the mediums are traditional, the theme and subject matter certainly are not.

Each piece centers on the question, How do we want to be governed? A better question might be “how are we governed, and are we OK with that?” The pieces focus on oppression, injustice and revolution; some are straightforward, others less direct. Many of the pieces are by artists from countries in which the people are in some way oppressed by their government. For example, there is a beautiful piece of documentary-style art, “Tucuman Arde,” which consists of photographs of the terrible conditions workers and farmers endure in Argentina. The piece on display at MAC is a montage of photographs of the original exhibition in 1968 (a picture within a picture, so to speak), hoping to rouse the same feelings of outrage at the injustices that prompted the creation of the exhibit over 30 years ago.

There is a thread through every piece of the exhibit, interconnecting them by acknowledging government not only in its definitive sense, as the state and its administration, but rather, as MAC curator Roger M. Buergel puts it, as “actions influencing the other actions…that the way and space in which a person moves affects the way and space in which others can move.” In that sense everyone is governing every other person purely by going about life.

This idea proposes even more questions. Not only how people want or should be governed, but exactly what government is and the lengths to which it is allowed to exist. All these questions are simply part of the process. A piece created by an artist that results in a provocation of thoughts and emotions in the viewer, who has the possibility to incite or not incite a movement. Go and see the exhibit. Answer the questions for yourself. And then, if you so choose, be the change you hope to see in the world.

Danielle McNally can be contacted at