Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Political Art

Generally, I find most overtly political art too obvious and the motives of those making it far too suspect. Literally within two weeks of 9/11, we received proposals in the gallery for exhibitions dealing with the attacks. As the months went on, the proposals increased. I recall at the time thinking, I'm not even sure I know how I feel about any of this, I can't imagine any artist could have taken the time to sort out how they feel and then processed that through a rigorous process. Obviously it's silly to put a time frame on it, but I did have a sense that an artist would need longer to deal seriously with what they felt about 9/11. At least longer than two weeks.

Even by the time Eric Fischl's controversial sculpture "Tumbling Woman" was removed from the Rockefeller Center's Lower Concourse (well over a year after the attacks), it was apparent that even if artists knew how they felt about the attacks, the public was not yet ready to deal with it.

But that raises the question of whether an artist should wait until the public is ready to deal with the content of what they feel compelled to make. Perhaps the best political art forces people to realize what's happening in hopes of changing it before it's too late. But that doesn't seem to be the case here, where nothing was going to change what happened on 9/11, and images of burning towers and such simply struck me as exploitative and/or crass.

That's perhaps why I'm suspect of the artwork coming out of Iraq, where what I'd normally consider rather minor artists (in terms of the world stage) are making headlines with images that reference the abuses at Abu Ghraib:
The subjects in each of Nasir Thamer's works are trapped behind bars, real or painted. Since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the trauma of the occupation has seeped even into Iraq's artistic production.

"I used to paint scenes of traditional Iraqi life, Arab doors, mosques and letters from the Koran," says the 47-year-old artist. "This is a radical change for me but you just can't escape reality."

One of his paintings depicts an Iraqi child running away from a US Apache combat helicopter towards his mother. The corner of the canvas where the woman was painted is ripped out, revealing black bars in the structure of the frame.


I'll admit up front: I'm an awful snob about contemporary art and, based on this one image, I would wholeheartedly agree with Thamer that his metaphors are "crude" (I'm not too fond of his painting ability either, but that's another post). I do recognize the need he describes to resort to such direct methods because of the rude awakening events have forced on him (other very good artists reported the same urge after 9/11), but I reject the assertion that that all-too-human response results in art of any lasting value. Sure he may need to make it, but that doesn't mean we need to see it, and we certainly don't need to pretend it's good.

In my opinion, the artistic approach toward such atrocities with the most integrity is the "simply record" approach. Metaphors and such take reflection and time, IMO. If Thamer must paint what's happening (and I believe he sincerely feels that way), he should leave his bag of metaphorical tricks aside and just paint what he sees.

One of the best artists taking this approach IMO is the US painter Steve Mumford. Steve's usual work is as "inventive" as all get out, but when he traveled through Iraq (on several occasions) the work he made rang true because it began with a simple assertion: this was much bigger than he was. So he simply recorded it. This is about as honest a response as I believe any artist can offer to events as they unfold. Again, I'm convinced that the best metaphors require a bit of reflection and introspection. Perhaps sometimes an epiphany can provide immediate insight of lasting worth, but usually the work I see in immediate response to monumental events is trite and, in that way, disrespectful.


12 Comments:

Anonymous crionna said...

I'll leave the decision of when to create art that addresses a specific event to the artist and viewers. I really don't have an opinion on it. Although it seems that some events have different timelines. The greatest pieces of art addressing events always seem to be memorials, no? It took a while for the Vietnam memorial to go up, less time for the OKC bombing memorial to appear.

What I would like to say is how apt, to me, the metaphor of the bars in Thamer's pictured piece is to the treatement of women in Fundamentalist Islamic society.

Done by a woman, this piece could be seen as one that approves of the jet's actions in killing that within Fundamentalistic Islamic men that requires the subjugation of their women in such a way. That the male is a child represents the "development" of "men" in their views of women in comparison to the rest of the world.

In any case, IMHO, while it's not so good, at least there's no neon...

5/03/2005 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What I would like to say is how apt, to me, the metaphor of the bars in Thamer's pictured piece is to the treatement of women in Fundamentalist Islamic society.

According to the article though, Thamer is using bars in nearly all his recent work and it's a reference to Abu Grhaib. He may intend it to read as a feminist statement, but I read it more as a pull-at-the-heart-strings exploitation of the "Mother" image juxtaposed with an anti-occupiers message...

Done by a woman, this piece could be seen as one that approves of the jet's actions in killing that within Fundamentalistic Islamic men that requires the subjugation of their women in such a way.

In that case, I'd have considered this a fairly courageous attempt...at least for its complexity.

I'll leave the decision of when to create art that addresses a specific event to the artist and viewers. I really don't have an opinion on it.

I hope I conveyed that same sentiment...there's no time frame, but when, as a dealer, I'm still worried about whether I should breathe the air in my apartment, it struck me as moronic that artists were offering curated exhibitions about "what this all meant." Pet peeve, really...not a suggestion that artists have integrity time schedules.

5/03/2005 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous theoria said...

Time has little to do with it, I think. The problem, if there is one, is in the motive, which can come through loud and clear in the work itself.

In the wake of a tragedy, or in the midst of one, keen observation, documentation, reporting a truth... to wintess and to testify to that truth, is art... for me. Heavy-handed metaphors that regurgitate what we already know into a bucket and then hit us over the head with it simply add insult to injury. It's exploitative and cynical and opportunistic. Luckily, it's also pretty easy to see through.

This is also why I dislike most political music. There is no subtlety. There is no puzzle to figure out. There is no joy to be found when you aren't allowed to discover the treasure on your own.

Mumford's work does not tell me what to think. Thamer's work tells me what to think. Where's the fun in that?

5/03/2005 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There is no joy to be found when you aren't allowed to discover the treasure on your own.

Totally agree.

Although I do feel that time has something to do with it. I like my art with a sound grounding in as wide a view of the shaft being mined as possible. That's why I prefer art by more mature artists and art by those who really know their area of exploration inside out. All that takes time and reflection. I don't know how much time. YMMV. But instant reactions are seldom worth my time, I find.

5/03/2005 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous theoria said...

I agree that time can be an issue. I guess it depends on, again, the motives of the artist.

One can document, as Mumford seems to be doing (I'm aware I'm oversimplifying somewhat), without the perspective that time affords and still create powerful art.

Art that sets out to make a specific statement, as with Thamer, would benefit from the truth that this perspective would offer.

It seems as if Mumford's art benefits from the lack of perspective while Thamer's suffers for the very same reason.

I'm just cobbling this together in my head as I write. I have to think about it for a while. Thanks for making my brain work today!

5/03/2005 03:27:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

According to the article though, Thamer is using bars in nearly all his recent work and it's a reference to Abu Grhaib.

Yeah, I caught that.

In that case, I'd have considered this a fairly courageous attempt...at least for its complexity.

Which is an interesting comment in light of the OW conversation on modern art. How an interpretation can be used to make art more or less "important" or valuable. An unscrupulous dealer could bring this piece to the states, and sell it based on whatever interpretation works best for the area, of even the particular person to whom s/he's speaking rather than that of the artist. Then again, perhaps its not so unscrupulous. If it is, then where would the line be drawn? Should (would) the dealer correct someone who misinterprets a work at the cost of a sale?

Interestingly, I had something like this happen to me. I was at a show and was discussing how a painting of a woman on a beach reminded me of my sister on the east coast. Another viewer leapt in to explain how it couldn't be the east coast based on the shadows etc. Totally broke the spell the piece had cast on me (much to the dealer and the artist's dismay).

I hope I conveyed that same sentiment

You did. In the case of 9/11 art though, you are the ultimate viewer. I can certainly understand your reticence in hosting a show until you were ready. I wonder how quickly the LA market (for instance) was "ready".

5/03/2005 07:52:00 PM  
Blogger Katherine said...

I absolutely love Mumford's work. I'm a huge fan of ink & wash for one thing.

There's a pretty old cliche in writing: show, don't tell. And like Theoria I think that's the difference from Mumford's work or a Guernica and the more heavy handed stuff.

You may realize & may not mind that the truth of the story or the painting has certain political implications, but they've got to remain secondary to the truth of the thing.

5/04/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I absolutely love Mumford's work.

Yeah, it's pretty spectacular. He's in the "Greater New York" show at PS1, if you didn't know already.

A good friend of Steve's who's known in New York art circles for being a pretty tough customer couldn't stop herself from crying at the opening at Postmasters when she saw this work. I think she was reacting to a mix of the danger he was in and truth being told, but it's a pretty amazing thing to me (as a rather jaded New Yorker myself) that work can still see that sort of reaction. And it would never be the case with the heavy-handed stuff...that just shuts me down.

5/04/2005 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Political art is difficult to make assertions about. Goya's Disasters of War are amazing and painful and specific. Leon Golub's work always upsets me. So being obvious and direct can work. The problem with Thamer's is that it seems cliched. Maybe political art works only if the artist is very very talented.

5/05/2005 06:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Maybe political art works only if the artist is very very talented.

I think there's something to that. It certainly explains how quickly after the bombings Picasso reportedly completed Guernica...but that kind of talent is rare. Leon Golub is somewhere between the two (but I'm still discovering him). So far I think he was a better artist than political analyst. Kentridge is probably more my speed.

5/06/2005 09:08:00 AM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Do you really expect an artist to be a political analyst? I see art more as visual philosophy and the problem with political art is that it all too often thinks it should address ethics and maybe sticking with ontology works better. Guernica is about the nature of being.

5/06/2005 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Do you really expect an artist to be a political analyst?

I expect an artist to be a poet...the most exquisite observer of human nature, and yes that includes being a rather astute political analyst.

5/07/2005 12:01:00 AM  

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