What Good Is Political Art in Times Like These?
What Good Is Political Art in Times Like These?
Waves of revolt in the Middle East and large-scale labor demonstrations in the Midwest — protest actually appears to be in the streets again, with a vengeance not seen in ages. It is hard not to be inspired by Egyptians toppling a hated dictator, or long-suffering workers in Wisconsin standing up to governor Scott "Hosni" Walker. I know for a fact that artists, generally a progressive lot, are watching these events for inspiration. (Los Angeles artist Edgar Arceneaux's ARTINFO Op-Ed of last week is eloquent testimony to this fact.) And I actually do think there is at least one important lesson here for artists, one that bears drawing out.
If it seems trivial to think about aesthetic affairs amid such epoch-shaping political events, that's actually part of my point. At the beginning of the month, in the thick of the struggle against Mubarak, Egyptian artist Shayma Kamel chided me via email when I wrote to ask about the role of the visual arts in the conflict. "It's not about artists now, it's about all Egyptians," she wrote. She was right.
Of course, many artists lent their passions to the struggle in Egypt, and have made art about the struggle — Cairo-based artist Ganzeer's series of portraits of the uprising's "martyrs" are eloquent monuments to a revolution still in progress. Some Egyptian artists even gave their lives in the fight for democracy. But the important thing amid the fury and urgency of political revolt is not art, and the most important questions are not artistic ones. This may seem obvious. But it is light-years away from how the perennial subject of "political art" is discussed in the art world.
The tradition of avant-garde political art always looks silly when stacked against the needs of live political movements. (See Julia Bryan-Wilson's recent book "Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era" for some examples of just how foggyheaded the gestures of even the most politically engaged "art workers" were during the late-'60s.) But given the long decline of left-wing movements over the last 30 years, the conversation about what it means to be a "political artist" has of late become completely compacted into the question of artistic practice itself.
"Political art" — of a certain stripe, at least — was even a sort of mainstream in the recent past. Peter Schjeldahl coined the term "festivalism" to describe the kind of facile, posturing radical art made for international art biennials and museum shows — works of abstract liberal pathos and self-righteousness directed towards an uncertain audience. It's true that such attitudinizing has become less fashionable in recent years, as "festivalism" has become displaced by the "conceptual bling" favored by the ascendant art-fair culture — but it remains important as the symbolic other pole to market-based aesthetics, soaking up a great deal of the energy of politically curious artists.
Consider Thomas Hirshhorn's well-reviewed 2006 installation of gory images from the Iraq War at Gladstone Gallery. The ironic title, "Superficial Engagement," connected to an entire theory about how Hirshhorn's art praxis represents a needed model of political activism given the "current climate of constant war and oppression worldwide," because it "keeps the argument on the surface, not giving room to pundits or politicians to equivocate." Of course, this is a) wrong, since pundits can still equivocate and are anyway not too concerned about what a Swiss installation artist thinks about the Iraq War, and b) something like an elaborate way of saying that Hirshhorn feels he should make political propaganda but is too chicken or attached to political abstractions — or secretly confused — to say it.
Maybe this type of tortured attempt to theorize some ideal political-aesthetic project has some merit in a period where there are no political movements in evidence (although in 2006 there was, in fact, an anti-war movement). But the truth may as well be admitted outright: There is no elegant fit between art and politics, no ideal meld of the two. What is needed for effective political activism relates to the needs of a living political movement — check out the images of signs from the fight in Madison if you want a glimpse of rugged street-level creativity in action — which most often does not call for something that is particularly aesthetically refined, just as what "works" best aesthetically in a gallery is not usually a slogan or a placard. This lack of fit is an ugly condition for professional artists, but it will remain with us as long as we live in a world that is as ugly as the one we do actually live in.
"The work of 'political artists' usually harms no one, and I would defend their right to make it; what I cannot support is their self-serving assumption that it 'somehow' has a political effect in the real world," the artist Victor Burgin — someone whom I by no means always agree with — said in a 2007 interview. "In a university art department, I would prefer as my colleague the artist who makes watercolours of sunsets but stands up to the administration, to the colleague who makes radical political noises in the gallery but colludes in imposing educationally disastrous government policies on the department." Expanding things beyond the university milieu, I think this is a great way to frame the question of art and politics today.
What do these reflections mean, practically? They definitely do not mean "Don't make political art." I hope that we will have much more politically inspired art — and inspired political art — in the near future. What they do mean, though, is that with actual important struggles all around, we should once and for all ditch the bad art-theory habit of looking for a "political aesthetic." Not even the most committed political art practice can, on its own, be a substitute for the simple act of being politically involved, as a citizen, organizer, and activist. This for me is a lesson that I take from the Egyptian artists and their struggle.
In a 2008 contribution to an "October" magazine issue on artistic responses to the Iraq War, Martha Rosler — an artist who has made her share of "political art," and is probably considered an exemplary "political artist" — addressed the question of what artists could and should do. Her final word: "organize, organize, organize." This was the correct starting point then, and it is definitely the correct starting point now.