Hands up if you have bought tickets to an art gallery as a means of escape – an hour spent in the gallery to take your mind off of that deadline, or to transport yourself to different centuries, lives, moments, as inspiration for your next creative project. Yup - I see you in the back. It’s no surprise that art has long been considered a place of solace and refuge by both observers and artists. For Saul Bellow, “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos”; Henri Matisse declared: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter [….] something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Particularly pertinent in the time of a global pandemic is Twyla Tharp’s deeming of art as “the only way to run away without leaving home.”
Between the myriad strands of the definitions of art exists a tension between art as a form of escape, and art as mimesis (representations of the real world). Looking back on 2020 with a sigh of relief that it’s something of the past, the duality of art as both a means of escape and a mirror to life seems more pertinent than ever. Murals and paintings have been deployed as a vehicle for social change in the wake of the Black Lives Matters Movement. Keisha Finnie’s artwork “Say Their Names” in collaboration with Adam Serrano, Kaya Hobbs and Kearasten Jordan, acts as a “silent protest” for the Black lives lost to police brutality. Artist Zabou’s mural “I Miss You”, painted on the side of a residential building in the UK, grapples with the reality of loss, longing, and grief, engendered by lockdown procedures amidst a global pandemic.
Zabou is a French street artist based in London and has painted over 200 exquisite murals around the world (image courtesy of zabou.me)
Benny Or’s Verdict:
If there’s anyone that can give us insight into what “art” is, it’s Benny Or. Having grown up in theatre, studied architecture at college and previously worked as an entertainment production designer, the art aficionado seeks to democratise the art world. His passion is “to make art accessible to all”, as he blogs distinct paintings, sculptures and pieces from museums and galleries around NYC to a large following on his Instagram. “I realised that regardless of whether I was doing it on social media or through live entertainment, my true passion was to make art accessible. Art is essential in our lives and it’s frustrating that it isn’t more readily available. I intend to change that through whatever means possible.”
Benny’s Instagram account @Bennyor boasts 16.3k followers and feels like an art gallery in itself (images courtesy of Benny)
In three words, Benny would describe art as: “Humans being humans”. Both the pandemic and turmoil of 2020 has solidified the role of art in his daily life and in interpreting events around him. “Every day I’m looking and thinking about art, it is a way of life at this point. Personally, I have learned so much about racial inequality this year, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement through just reading and experiencing the stories that Black artists tell through their work. For me, art teaches us to practice empathy, which I think is integral for change.”
Salman Toor lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and his paintings address questions of identity, placelessness, and “home”(image courtesy of Benny)
For Benny, finding solace in an artwork is about being present, rather than a moment of escape. “I’m a sucker for minimalism. The work of Doug Wheeler for me, particularly his environmental installations is pretty much my heaven on Earth. Similar to meditating, when I’m fully engaged in a work of art, it allows me to focus on the now.”
When asked if he sees himself in a piece of artwork, or most relates to a painting, he responds: “You know that’s a great question. I’ve spent most of my life looking at Western art and I’ve always had a hard time relating to the figures in the pictures. I don’t know if there is a specific work of art that I relate most to but lately, I’ve been inspired by the works by queer artists like Salman Toor, Doron Langberg, and Louis Fratino. For me, they authentically and unapologetically capture my experience of being a gay man in America.”
Benny held his virtual wedding in his backyard in Brooklyn (image courtesy of Benny Or )
Benny and his husband Christian’s wedding suits were hand-painted by Patrick Church (image courtesy of Benny Or)
His recent virtual wedding was its own occasion for creating art, as well as spreading a wider message of love, acceptance, and inspiration in a time of such uncertainty and chaos. “Fortunately, we have a group of incredibly talented friends that came together to help us make it happen. One of the pros of having a virtual wedding was that we could invite as many people as we wanted. Beyond of course making art out of the experience, which included hand-painted suits by artist Patrick Church and photography by Nir Arieli, we wanted to use the opportunity to connect with queer people in spaces where this kind of open celebration of love was not available or even in some cases legal. We recognized how privileged we were to be able to openly celebrate our love and we wanted to show individuals out there that love was real and that it could exist for them too. When we saw the power in that, our wedding became more than just about us.”
All in all, Benny clearly highlights the importance of art in our daily lives and as a mechanism for perceiving the world around us. “I don’t like the idea of art as a means of escapism. I think that art is a tool for us to confront and understand reality.”
He hopes to further immerse himself in the creative world as a means of inspiring those around him. “I’m about to launch a creative production studio called theHAU5 with my best friends to work with artists and brands to create impactful stories about culture. I’m not only excited about the opportunity to continue making art accessible but I’m also looking forward to creating a culturally diverse and truly authentic space for creativity within a cut-throat industry.”
The plethora of definitions behind what constitutes ‘art’ makes clear that it has different resonances to each individual. Yet having interviewed Benny, I find his response to the question “what is art to you in three words?” particularly memorable. “Humans being humans” severs the need for art to be a product of the imagination or the real. It’s simply a process of ‘being’ - something natural, innate, yet crucial.
Benny Or Instagram: @bennyor
Article By: Joori Byun
Joori is a graduate from the University of Oxford with a BA in English Language and Literature. Having grown up in the UK, but being ethnically South Korean, she loves exploring different styles, cultures and forms of expression. A keen writer, she is eager to delve deeper into art & fashion related subjects.