Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Good Political Art

On the thread about Stephen Colbert, someone asked:
Apropos your 1st point--it's true--we all individually contain a "middle" and a "right" to some degree--even if you just look at it in terms of the milieu in which we were each brought up--and I just read your thing about purple art--somehow the work must acknowledge this bundle of contradictions to go deeper than a one-liner. Do you have a couple of examples of visual art that you think succeed on this level?
I've been thinking about that for a few days now, wanting to offer good examples that illustrate what I expect from "political art" but before I get to those choices, I want to highlight an important distinction. Over the weekend Luc Tuymans came up, and someone asked if his last exhibition at Zwirner represented good political art. Not for me. It's good art. I love his paintings, but just because the subject matter was people in politics, doesn't make the work good political art. Tuyman's exhibition succeeded more for me as an exploration of how memory works than any insightful critique of the Bush administration. Harking back to my post on Loathing Fear, there's nothing Tuyman's pointing out about the precariousness of our situation that wasn't the case before Bush came to power and before 9/11. But they are awesome paintings. For me though they're not great "political art."

I should also note that to me good political art is extraordinarily difficult. Politics is a field where the enthusiasts emerse themselves in the minutiae of every aspect of it--they know the arguments, the counter arguments, and the counter-counter arguments, as well as their weaknesses--so an artist has to know the subject matter inside out to make work that's both insightful (i.e., revealing something profound and new) and universal at that same time, which is more or less my expectation from "good art."

So who does it? The best example I can think of is William Kentridge (here's a Quicktime snippet of 6 Soho Eckstein someone put online), and why is as simple as
quoting the great man himself:

I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake. I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and certain endings; an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay. - William Kentridge [emphasis mine]
And why is political art one of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and certain endings? Because that defines the human condition that politics exist to deal with in the first place, and that's what political art must express to be good. That's why work that's all bravado, "Bush sucks, don't ya know it," and sure of itself fails. How could anything as complex as an opinion about politics be that cocksure? As Kentridge points out, the only thing that's ever certain within the realm of politics is how something ends.

Here's an current world example of why I think this all matters. It took me about two years to finally see what a wise and much older blogger on a right wing site was trying to get me to see about the invasion of Iraq. His point, through tons of abuse by me and evidence to the contrary in the papers every day, was that invading Iraq may yet play out to be seen as a grandly generous and selfless gift to the nation by our president. At some point in the distant future, school children may read in History class of how that difficult decision saved the country from certain disaster. Not being privvy to the information the president has, we honestly just don't know at this point. We can, given the information at hand, declare it was a mistake to invade (and I do), but in the back of my mind is this idea tucked away to keep an open mind, look for details about a much more dire future had we not invaded.

In the end, it's the president's job to protect this country, first and foremost. Perhaps that's what Bush was/is sure he is doing, honestly. Personally, I don't think so, but any exploration of the issue that dismisses such a possibility out of hand cannot do justice to the issue, and therefore would not make for "good" political art.

But who else? Whose political art reveals the "truth" by being as complex as the issues that serve as its subject?


Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'm going to say, very quickly and offhandedly, that I don't think politics and art mix well. Politics are local, both in time and space; and art, I believe, aims for something more universal.

Just my quick opinion.

5/09/2006 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Fiona Ross said...

I think Siemon Allen makes really interesting artworks on
South Africa's recent political history and how the nation officially perceives itself (stamps) and how other nations perceive it (newspaper articles). His work is not only about South Africa, but the works on this link (it's a little old) focus on that work.


5/09/2006 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...


I think it's possible you've got it backwards, and I’m going to guiltily nitpick a lot of what you’ve said. I feel guilty because you are almost “right” by simple virtue of asking the right questions, even if I disagree with a lot of specifics.

Anyway, Tuymans, as you admit, is producing good art. You fault it for it's lack of analytical rigor, and cite Kentridge favorably. But what distinguishes Kentridge from Tuymans, for me, anyway, is that Kentridge's work has far greater emotional oomph. Granted, his writing is eloquent and supports your case for complexity, but how does K's work provide the kind of detailed policy analysis you talked about? I'd posit that they're both political artists, and it's just that K is better, deeper, more emotional. Has there ever been a Warhol of political art? Someone who really makes you see politics in a new way? Arthur Danto has called Warhol a philosophical genius, and I can see that. But it seems like all great political art is protest art--Goya, Picasso, perhaps Leon Golub--and strike me as a protest against death itself, with the immediate political reasons as mere pretexts.

Speaking of Colbert, who is better at understanding political symbols? He provides insight, is capable of rigorous and detailed political analysis, and turns those symbols on their heads to nullify and destroy the political thought he targets. The set and graphics for his show are brilliant. Lincolnish? Grippy? Eagles? But he's not a great artist, is he? He addresses transient surfaces, but however brilliant, he stays on the surface. If insight and ideas were primary, Colbert would be a great artist. I like ideas and conceptual art as much or more than the next guy, but there’s something that keeps mere brilliant analysis from being great art. If Duchamp hadn’t made objects of great beauty (of course, I’m using the word advisedly), they’d be forgotten.

Okay, so I’m grumpy, but I also disagree with your right-wing buddy. Seeing things from a historical perspective does not mean that the events that led to the outcome in question were inevitable. Historians try to teach this all the time. If Bush is wrong now because of the his administration’s faulty thinking, he will always be wrong, even if he gets “lucky” and events, viewed in hindsight, bear him out. Did Ronald Reagan really win the cold war and break up the Soviet Union? He was an anti-Communist and the Soviet Union collapsed for other reasons, and he got the credit.

All this makes me curious about why most political art is leftist. Obviously, on the simplest level, creative people are usually politically progressive. But why is that? Is the left side of the issue always the more creative, humane, interesting, etc? That seems a little crazy. Do you have a theory?


5/09/2006 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

I struggle with this dilemma myself. The first problem is with the term 'political art.' What makes an artwork political? Political subject matter? Activism? Activism is always oppressive to the viewer, as it's meant to be. But 'purple' probably isn't much better, as it still denotes an engagement with the argument (however balanced it may appear), and therefore limits the autonomy of art by putting it in service of an issue.

Art is at its most powerful and politically potent when it exists outside the argument by embodying truth (whatever that means). That is to say, Art can take political subject matter as an impetus, but any attempt to provide commentary, no matter how sophisticated or well-considered, will always limit an artwork's ability to indict from the position of truth -- instead it becomes a player in the back-and-forth of conversation. (I think this is in agreement with what PC means when writing "If insight and ideas were primary, Colbert would be a great artist ... there’s something that keeps mere brilliant analysis from being great art."

Personally, I didn't like Tuyman's Condoleeza as political art because it seemed simplistically satirical to me (what's with that earlobe?), not because it failed to criticize the Bush administration effectively. If I want political commentary, I'll read a magazine or something -- opinions are everywhere.

BTW, I'm sure more than a few will disagree, but I would add Thomas Hirschhorn next to Kentridge on your list -- but I don't think either one of them is remotely interested in an "exploration of issues," regardless of complexity, (and I'm glad that they're not).

5/09/2006 04:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane said...


5/09/2006 05:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

dang blogger!

good post, ed. how about kara walker? her work is full of ambiguity. the characters seem to be always shifting back and forth between victimhood and collusion.

5/09/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Nice commentary Ed. I think Kentridge has to be at the top of the list. Its tough to find someone as powerful. I think Carrie Mae Weems has to be considered too- a didactic approach but not too much. There is a lot of poetry there as well - in particular her recent work of the last 3 years.

5/09/2006 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Ed, I don't know if you're considering film too or just art-world stuff, but I think the movie The Candidate is as good a critique of the complexities and problems inherent in our political process as anything out there. Don't know who directed or wrote it; Redford played the main role.

5/09/2006 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Art is judged by its formal properties. This makes any content just a vehicle for that formal exporation. If it is just a vehicle then isn't it manipulative and cruel to use real word issues as, more or less, bait to draw the viewer in?

We used to say all art is political.

5/09/2006 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger benvolta said...

Kentridge work leans political for me because of his context. I tend to think that he is responding to his personal relation to South African history more than a larger art world dialogue. or so it seems to me - I know he is not a complete outsider, but I get that outsider art meets lo tech home animation technique, meets hi powered museum and gallery representation vibe. (I think this is fine, maybe it is part of what makes his work so captivating... I think he is a really good artists regardless)

The anti-bush work in the Whitney B. made me think about making political statements in the Whitney B. more than whether or not the work was actually good or bad.

Art that overtly addresses politics maybe relies on a social context outside of an "art dialogue" a little too much. When it walks the line and you can know a "truth" or feel something beyond the immediate political arguments it has the potential to address political interests and be good art within an art history? I keep thinking of Jacque-Louis David's shifting his political stance: before, during, and after the French Revolution.

but my all time favorite politically saturated work is still Vito Acconci's Instant House

5/09/2006 09:45:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Is "Death of Marat" a political painting? It was intended as such, but does it work as such today? Who even knows who Marat was at this point? (I just read an essay online about him, so I guess that makes me an expert compared to many.)

Do we still care about the painting because it was political or because of its technique?

5/09/2006 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous h lowe said...

"But who else? Whose political art reveals the "truth" by being as complex as the issues that serve as its subject?"

Answer: Richard Ankrom

5/10/2006 12:37:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Good political art is hard because most images that try to provoke some kind of visceral response are shallow and manipulative -- the visual equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. Once work starts becoming more nuanced, it's really about the human condition, and less about politics per se.

I personally think, though, that photojournalism doesn't get enough credit as art.

5/10/2006 07:35:00 PM  
Anonymous steve said...

I've been seeing some really great political art from Whitney Lynn lately. Nice and minimal, not over the top.

6/30/2006 05:39:00 PM  

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