10/22/2010 04:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Cow of Art

A beige canvas. In the center a long gaping slit, maroon―like a pointed petal, a sideways smile, it's ... you know what it is. Inside the dark shape are two small marks. A dot resting above a curve: a semi-colon. Women are filled with language.

The projected image is splayed across the wall of the small, white-washed auditorium in the basement of The New Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The slide is part of a talk hosted by the museum, an event with one of the longest titles I have ever heard. "How to Paint, Write, Teach, be an Activist, and Generally Try to Stay Sane: A Conversation between Carrie Moyer and Mira Schor." The word that hooks me is activist. It's why I'm sitting in the front row watching Moyer, swathed in a hot pink top, and Schor, in a somber black and burgundy ensemble, running a projector.

I'm not a painter. I'm not a visual artist of any sort, as everyone else in the auditorium seems to be. But I'm an actor and a writer. And lately I've been having trouble remembering why―when I can barely pay my rent, let alone health insurance, when a part time restaurant job is harder to come by than a TV audition, when my immediate goals are some version of just-getting-by―why I do what I do. And I am one of the lucky ones.

How on earth are we supposed to be moving forward? Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in The New Yorker, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," on how social media is not actually aiding real activism like that of the 60's but distracting from it, made the question feel even more urgent. When so many of the battles we are facing as a country are the same as they were two years ago, or 20, optimism is a slippery fish.

I used to believe in the transformative power of art as a form of action. These days I've been having trouble remembering why I need to get up in the morning.

But when the image of Schor's '94 piece Slit of Paint flashes up against the wall, that feeling begins to stir in my chest. It's a cross between pleasure and curiosity, as though my fingertips were brushing something familiar yet just out of reach. It's the way I feel when something moves me.

As the self-chosen title of their talk highlights, Schor and Moyer are colorful characters to discuss art and activism. Schor's work has been visible since the 70's, Moyer's since the mid-80's. Both have grappled with questions of feminism in art―how to balance form with content, how painting can be used to achieve change, and how the struggles have shifted over the years. Perhaps the more transgressive of the two, Moyer's work in the 90's best captures my romantic view of activist art. From '91-'04, Moyer was half of a two woman-group, Dyke Action Machine!, which subverted traditional advertisements with lesbian imagery. DAM! would infiltrate public spaces with their posters, cutting into these traditionally straight spaces to reach all sorts of viewers. Unfortunately, one of the reasons DAM!'s work feels romantic is that it doesn't seem contemporary.

Both Schor and Moyer acknowledge a dubious trend of digital art as the new frontier. "We're being told not to make things!" quotes Schor of her grad students. Like Gladwell of Twitter, both are sharply skeptical; however, the question remains―what comes next?

A painting Schor created this summer pins the mood of the moment. The painting is a stick figure reading in the shade of a tree. Hanging off the tree is a square labeled "space where painting used to be." The book the stick figure reads is marked "post." Of course we're not really post-painting any more than we're post-feminist―both ideas as disheartening as they are offensive. Still, when the receded economy lays bare just how unequal and intolerant our world still is, it's hard to hold onto traditional art as necessity, not extravagance.

But then Moyer offers a simple idea. "Art is like micro-finance," she says,

A painting is like a cow, not a bottle of milk. A work of art is a tool for its viewer, not just a finished product. Every piece is not a "revolution," but small changes do add up. To make art we give a part of ourselves. From creator to viewer there is a gift, a connection. It sounds lofty, and maybe a little pretentious. It's also true. We like art because we connect to it. It "moves" us. Movement is change.

When Moyer compares a work of art to a cow, I feel something I haven't felt in a while: a sense of possibility in my own work. Very few single artistic acts shift the fate of the world. "One moment of interiority, though," says Moyer, "that is something."