Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Few More Points on What Makes for Good Political Art

A while back I was quoted as saying that I thought we'll see more political art in the galleries this season. What I hadn't said in that interview was how that prospect makes me anxious. (I won't retype my entire argument again [you can read an earlier rant here], but, in a nutshell, if, as Charlie Finch tells us, "most art sucks" then, IMO, most political art only aspires to sucking.) So I was thrilled and relieved to read a review by Joao Ribas of an exhibition of new work by Adam McEwan currently up at Nicole Klagsbrun's that inspired this brilliant reasoning:

In contemporary art, casuistry is often taken for conviction, and a general evasiveness in regards to politics pervades. Even as artists face the moral responsibility of addressing barbarity, a lot of art concerned with the vicissitudes of geopolitics today merely flirts with the intellectual cachet of being "political." That's now virtually synonymous with being "serious."

Mr. McEwen's take on the scourge of war lays bare the callous indifference with which it's calculated. It's a political show as much about World War II and modernism as about Iraq and Halliburton — without ever having to say so.

It also confronts how art and politics still struggle to be reconciled. Mr. McEwen's response is to treat both the literal and the literary with equal suspicion. In doing so, he points to the kind of politicized art — resonant, uneasy, and incisive — that ought to be more commonplace on all sides of the political spectrum.
If there were one simple thing that could vastly improve most "political" art it is that idea of expressing a universal critique, applicable across history as well as to current events, without ever having to say so. That in and of itself is not enough to make it good art, but at least it will work toward preventing it from being disposable. To make good art, I think Joao indicates the right approach as well: "resonant, uneasy, and incisive" (with a huge ol' emphasis on incisive). I haven't had the pleasure of seeing this exhibition yet, so I'll take Joao's word for it that it does this, but as the article indicates, one measure for whether politicized work is good art, or merely an illustration of a talking point, is "Does it ask more questions than it tries to answer?" Any political art with more answers than questions is suspect, IMHO.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The perpetuation of the politic, it's continuum, lay in its erasure.

9/21/2006 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger onesock said...

Excellent points. I have thought that perhaps the best way to make political art is to not even try, that one can be intensively working for 6 months and wake up one morning with a realization of the polital nature of the activity or presentation. And perhaps the best way to experience political art is similar in that it is discovered by the viewer rather than spoon fed by the author.

But it seems to me that that quality requires the ability to grasp metaphor, and as a teacher I understand that that is a rare ability.

It seems the best polital art has the ability to wake us up out of our Matrix like slumber. Some people wake up more easily with the the subtle, soft caress while others require the cold water splash in face. And then once it has done that it leaves you to figure the new reality out on your own.

All these thoughts are accompanied by visions of works by Deborah Fisher, Thomas Hirschorn, and Michael Cambre.

9/21/2006 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

I share your anxiousness. The trouble with political art isn't that it's political (what isn't?) but that it's usually rhetorical.

And art and rhetoric, it seems to me, have always been ugly bedfellows.

Political art works for me when it is first personal, and only indirectly political. If you want to indict your leader, show me something about the state of your village, or what happened to your family, or some scar in the landscape--something irrefuteable by virtue of being your personal experience. Let me draw my own conclusions about bush or chavez or his holiness.

This approach is more likely to be convincing, to ring true, and to avoid insulting my intelligence, than an open diatribe.

9/21/2006 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

And yeah, as you said, "Any political art with more answers than questions is suspect ..."

Another way of saying art is a better medium for questioning than for spinning rhetoric.

It's worth considering that people tend to become artists based on the level at which they experience things, not on the quality of their political philosophy research.

9/21/2006 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Marc Snyder said...

Any time an artist tries to tell me what to think, instead of showing me something I haven't seen before, I question his or her qualifications for doing so. Why should I Iisten to you? I think art's strength is in creating a unique space where a type of "conversation" can take place, and the skill of the artist is in leading that discussion to places where the viewer might otherwise hesitate to go. Bringing elements together that normally aren't neighbors. Seeing something in a different light.

If the artist is making a direct political statement, trying to convince me of something instead of allowing me to rethink something in a new way, they better have really done their homework.

Sue Coe had an exhibition about chickens that made me, if not a vegetarian, at least more aware of what I was eating. Eric Avery does excellent political work, inhabiting his space between medicine and art. Leon Golub's mercenaries were both specific and timelessly awful. Good political art is out there, but I don't think it's made to cash in on the interest of the season. It requires as much commitment as any other artwork to rise above the cliched and obvious to find something new.

9/21/2006 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Superb point Mr. W, about universal critique as an improvement on political art. I'd almost argue that it's the same universality that gives all good art its enduring power to move and influence us.

It's becoming almost glib -- the language of political art is taking on a throwaway character. I'm thinking now of big cheap anti-Bush 'posters' at one exhibit last year and also a show of big plywood structures with very slap-dash cartoons drawn on in Sharpie marker. It needs also to convey that it senses its own value, I think.

9/21/2006 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Great post, Edward. I was about to say paulraphael and marc took the words out of my mouth, but onesock and bill showed some great stuff too.

The only thing I can hope to add is that war is part of the human condition. Humanity stinks, doesn't it? But we're still all human. What can I say. I don't know what to do about it. We can't rescind our membership. We're all stuck in these awful biomachines that sometimes do things, individually and collectively, that we just don't understand and don't want to admit.

Political art succeeds when it remembers that there are humans on every side of the equation, and that "there but for the grace of God go I." I don't know what to do except keep trying to understand it and hopefully work our way out of it. Political art where the artist makes some claim to superior wisdom is the least constructive to the conversation. We're all in this thing together.

9/21/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I don't usually sign my art, but when I create political art I do. All of my political artworks look like checks. I don't exhibit them them, but just sign them and put them in the mail.

9/21/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The only thing I can hope to add is that war is part of the human condition.

It does seem to be, yes.

Humanity stinks, doesn't it? But we're still all human.

But I feel that even in war, with soldiers and politicians doing their jobs to ensure we win and achieve our objectives, there's an equally important role for the opposition anti-war citizens to play, and just as forcefully, in keeping the war machine as small and in-check as humanly possible. Some will argue that makes them unpatriotic, others that it makes them appeasers. I'll argue it makes them a vital and brave part of a true Democracy at war.

None of that is directed at you personally Henry. I just think it's important to note.

Both sides should do their damnedest to affect change in the way they believe it's important to do so, but both sides should respect the other side's role, if not always their choices.

9/21/2006 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Visual artists should take a page from the best practices of writers: don't tell; show. If you can show somebody the steps that take you to a conclusion istead of just the conclusion, you stand a better chance of making converts.

However, as onesock pointed out:

But it seems to me that that quality requires the ability to grasp metaphor, and as a teacher I understand that that is a rare ability.

It makes one despair of ever making a difference.

9/21/2006 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

You're right, Ed. I think political art falls short of our expectations when it isn't about the human condition.

I'm always amazed by the human impulse to create art when bombs are falling. It's so heartbreakingly optimistic. The urge to live, to find beauty in the midst of chaos, or to express real grief is always going to be more compelling than a visual polemic about why someone doesn't like the current government.

9/21/2006 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ok great, I should not look in art to find answers.

But where should I look to find answers??

An artist who propose an answer
to something (be it purely an aesthetic resolution or his opinion about war), always takes a big risk, and the art will always remain engulfed with pretension, but that doesn't mean I am not able to appreciate this risk
and see if I follow along in this proposition.

There is the "take a stand" position that artists rarely dip their feet into, enough to make me want to reward the bravado of those who do.

I think having a concise opinion
about something and they way you are expressing that opinion are two different things. Sometimes the way you express that opinion will make people perceive you as
all-englobing and able to transcribe a singular event into an absolute synthesis of human tragedy. So maybe people think that makes good art. But in the meantime, it doesn't mean the in-yer-face blunt opinion about what is going on now and what we should do is absent nor that it is detrimental to the quality of the presentation.

What I'm trying to say, is... Are we able to judge the quality of a work of art that we "dont agree with"? To know this we first need that works of art have opinions.

Or if all art is great only when it doesn't have opinions, than...
I don't know...Is the artworld ..err...pc?


Cedric Caspesyan

9/21/2006 04:57:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I don't know...Is the artworld ..err...pc?

Mostly Mac.

I agree w/ Lisa. Art that inspires empathy has more real impact than easy polemics.

9/21/2006 05:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

It sounds as if great art should always say:

"Dear viewer, let's you and me have a discussion about....."

But where does that dialogue actually takes place?

I find many artists don't seem to
"participate" in the world. They make art but they don't have websites to discuss about it. It's mostly "their thing" and "their deals, their shows" at "their gallerists". Artists are definitely more autists than anything else. Art is often presented as a "proposition", a "vision", and we are made belief that the artist aims to engage with us but that terrain never happens. So...where is the big stretch about having a concise opinion about an event?

Ben Vautier once said that all art was about "please, love me".

I find that taking the risk to be hated because you affirm an opinion
could actually balance that.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/21/2006 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Taking the political opinion tangent is very risky in art but all I'm saying is that we shouldn't make this relevant that
open discussion or not automatically makes the art great, or not.

I think an artist can say "I hate terrorists ! I want them trialed!!! NOW !!!", and, surprisingly, make good art about it.

Let's beware of being all ruly about this thing.



PS: lol david, maybe art should be linux

9/21/2006 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

PS: lol david, maybe art should be linux

$> cd /*
$> echo "hello cedric :)"
$> end

9/21/2006 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Angela Ferreira said...

One of my latest pieces called "Give Peace a Chance” was inspired in the crisis of Middle East like an escape and an appeal to what was going on at the time.

9/21/2006 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous max101 said...

I think Cedric has made some good points. As someone who enjoys and occasionally makes political art, I wonder about all these rules.

Some of the rules have been around forever, like that old grad school favorite “art should ask questions, not provide answers.” We are supposed to make art that is purple, ambivalent, ambiguous. Often the rules are set forth in a discussion of how awful political art is (“most political art only aspires to sucking”), possibly by people who as a matter of taste do not care for political art. Even in favorable reviews of political art the rules continue to pile up – in his review of Sam Durant’s “Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions,” Jerry Saltz congratulates Mr. Durant for an idea that is “pointed without being preachy, heartrending but not mawkish.” Wow, there’s something to shoot for in the studio, I’m really feeling the inspiration.

I guess my view is that most people just don’t care for political art, and that’s fine. And the art world has always preferred its politics “light,” a whiff of politics is good but nothing too direct please, you’ll scare the horses. There are plenty of artists who can provide that, more power to them. But I hope that there will also be artists who ignore the rules and make red or blue art, provide answers, challenge ambiguity, and generally just make themselves unpopular and uncool.

9/21/2006 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

is this political art?

9/21/2006 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

1. Art is often at its most political when it is not political at all.
2. Jerry Saltz wrote a great article that should do battle with Joao's.
3. Frankly, I don't get what Ribas is getting at here:

In doing so, he points to the kind of politicized art — resonant, uneasy, and incisive — that ought to be more commonplace on all sides of the political spectrum.

And I think it's just bad use of the word "politicized", which I take as, "to turn into a political football, a black-white issue with teams, like gay marriage." But I wonder what exactly Ribas wants out of art when he asks for politicized art. Art is not for political discourse--it's for discourses about the existential experience, about being inside a specific, localized, perceiving body.

Does that art-specific discourse give folks a deeper, richer understanding of the human condition that can be brought to the table when it's time to talk about Lebanon? Hellyeah! But not if the art is about Lebanon, and especially not if the art has become a tool of politics (ie, politicized).

I haven't seen the show yet. But it sounds like he is asking for what he doesn't want--facile call-and-response that "flirts with the intellectual cachet of being political."

9/22/2006 07:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...seems there might be as many rules for what "art" is about as there are for what "political art" should be.

Or maybe, they're not rules as much as opinions, and if the sharing of opinions isn't what a blog is for, I'm at a loss to say what is.

But I hope that there will also be artists who ignore the rules and make red or blue art, provide answers, challenge ambiguity, and generally just make themselves unpopular and uncool.

They most definitely won't be making "art" if they make intentionally "red" or "blue" work, Max101. They'll be making propaganda.

We are supposed to make art that is purple, ambivalent, ambiguous.

Quite the contrary. Good purple art can't be ambivalent or ambiguous. It must be incredibly well thought out and in doing so is usually thought-provoking.

When I see a raw-meat piece of red or blue work, I immediately shut down in response. I'm passionate about my politics, but I expect more from Art. I can get all the spin and rage I can stomach in any of the zillions of partisan echo-chamber blogs. Puns and metaphors sprinkled through the biased rhetoric doesn't make it art, maudlin psuedo-sincerity doesn't either. But this is what I see in red or blue art. It fails, miserably, for me because it intentionally minimizes or ignores the opposing opinion, which isn't to say good art has to embrace opposing opinions, but there had better have been, at least, a throughough, objective analysis of the opposing opinions if the artist expects me to accept their vision as revealing some "truth." Destroy the opposing opinion in the work if you can, but demonstrate that you have done so convincingly or don't bother.

9/22/2006 07:59:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

So by that theory Hannah Hoch, George Grosz, Kaethe Kollwitz, John Heartfield are failing because they are ignoring the opposing opinion?

In all due respect I view the above artist work as a responce to the opposition of the time. Which for most of the above was facisism.

This red blue argument about political art does not resonate with me.

I like Sue Coe's work and she is very much showing one side of an argument.

So to you sir this is bad art?

Are Steve Mumford's benign Iraq paintings the way to show a war or a reaction to it as opposed to say Peter Howson, or any of the above artist?

9/22/2006 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I don't have time for a lengthy response per artist you site, so I'll just use Kollwitz to better illustate my position here.

Kollwitz did exactly what I said is effective, with regards to the opposition: she demolished their argument by demonstrating (showing!!!) what it really meant to murder millions and plunge a nation into poverty for war in excruciatingly human terms. She didn't simplify her message to a bumper sticker ("Nazis = evil") ... she let the viewer come to that conclusion on their own via the suffering she so brilliantly captured. I don't see that as "red" or "blue" at all. A personifcation of "Death" (a hairless figure often) in her work was generally the villian, not individual Germans. I've seen a good deal of her work and can't recall that she ever inserted so much as a Swatiska as an indentifier (did she?). "Red" and "blue" means idenitifying entire ideologies or parties and associating all the individuals in that group with particular acts one is opposed to, and in doing so is always an oversimplification. I don't think Kollwitz did that. It's implied, in the context of when the work was made that it's an indictment of the Nazis, yes, but her work stands up because she made it more universal than that...she made it a critique applicable across the span of time. But for all the humanity in her work, it's not the greatest work of the 20th Century, IMO, (e.g., criticisms would include that she relied too heavily on the emotions wrapped up in mother-children associations and in some of her works that seems a bit contrived...others it rips my heart out, but...)

So to you sir this is bad art?

The tone of that quip seems a bad omen here, IMO. It carries all sorts of nasty associations that suggest you're pissed off (and that I'm some sort of autocrat). My thoughts are offered as opinions on the matter, not anything you have to accept or agree with, so disagree, but please don't take them personally.

9/22/2006 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

None of that is directed at you personally Henry. I just think it's important to note.

I don't take it personally, and I hope you don't take anything I say personally. I'm just trying to figure out the world.

But I feel that even in war, with soldiers and politicians doing their jobs to ensure we win and achieve our objectives, there's an equally important role for the opposition anti-war citizens to play.... Some will argue that makes them unpatriotic, others that it makes them appeasers.

In the days following 9/11, people said we should "ask ourselves" why we were attacked. (It was said to me by a family member). If it's possible to ask why terrorists attacked the US, and if we believe America is generally comprised of an okay bunch of people, then it should be more than possible to ask why America would attack another entity, without resorting to simple "anti" statements.

"Anti" is easy. Anyone can do "anti". And historically speaking you even have a 50-50 chance of being right. But complexity is hard. After being told to "ask ourselves" about 9/11, and being told certain issues are "too complex" for simple solutions, we're treated to art that over-simplifies politics to the sake of anti-intellectualism. If one side is complex, the other side is probably complex too.

Also, if one side needs to "ask itself," then the other side should need to "ask itself" too. There might be a reason certain art or opinions are called anti-American. I'm not saying it is, I'm just saying it's fair to "ask ourselves" why. In my view certain opinions are called anti-American not because they "question" or "explore" certain views, or go against those views, but because they do not even give the opposing side a chance. If one side is complex, the other side is probably complex too.

9/22/2006 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

I'm not pissed off. Wrong wording.
Sorry for the missunderstanding on that.

Kollwitz never dealt with the Nazis as by the time they came into power she was in her 60's, she died in 45. She lost both her son and grandson to the war, pretty tragic.

I can see how one can find some of her dated, she was after all a product of the 19 century, so I think a lot of her ideas came out that. No not the greatist of the 20 century, but very good graphic artist.

I was thinking of Hannah Hoch, George Grosz, and Hartfield.

They used a lot iconography to make pretty strong anti-facist point.

But I can see your point on this, political art is a tricky world, didn't Philip Guston do some political art in the 40's.

9/22/2006 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

George Grosz was better, if I recall correctly (which, as evidenced by my misunderstanding about Kollwitz's war of influence is not always likely), in his 1920 responses to the Weimar excesses (which is ironic given he died of excessive drinking himself) than he was when he took on the Nazis. By the time he painted "Hitler in Hell" he wasn't as effective. That piece is trite.

9/22/2006 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

Grosz was at his hight in the 20's.
I think he lost steam after he was forced to leave Germany in the 30's, came to New York and became a teacher at the Art Students Leaguge.

I like Hoch, Hartfield, and some of there fellow dadist.

For my money Dix's Der Krieg is one of the most powerful works of graphic art with a political undertone.

9/22/2006 01:13:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

It seems strange to me that so many would agree that artists should not provide 'answers.' Personally, I enjoy learning and am glad that philosophers, writers, scientists, and others are allowed to provide answers by sharing their knowledge, ideas and opinions. Why should artists be excluded?

Is this an attempt to raise artists to a level above that of academia, or is it that we perceive artists as less qualified to teach? Do we like our artists dumb, and if so, why? Is art (like the popular pre-feminist view of women) better seen than heard? Is this because it's more enjoyable to collect an object that doesn't talk back to its owner?

I suspect that many of the anti-answers crowd prefer to see artists as fulfilling something like a mystical role, akin to a shaman, and that any attempt to de-mystify the role of the artist (i.e., through pedagogy) is seen as profane. I'm no mystic myself, but I can at least accept that argument as intellectually honest.

What I can't accept are those that dismiss bad political art as "propaganda," while accepting good political art as something altogether different -- as if good artworks weren't as forcefully political, only in a more thoughtful or subversive manner. This is an assertion of taste (a preference for one kind of political art over another), and masks itself as a rejection of the political aspects of art.

9/22/2006 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

Look at any propaganda art from the former USSR, Mao's China, Nazi Germany, and while it is very well done, the people who made the work are very proficient. In some caese very talented, it does leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.

9/22/2006 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What I can't accept are those that dismiss bad political art as "propaganda," while accepting good political art as something altogether different.

Let's separate out the terms here, because there's far too much confusion.

"Bad political art" is not propaganda. Bad political art is political art that's not good.

Political work that sets out to intentionally promote one idea/person/party or undermine one idea/person/party, without reaching beyond the partisan viewpoint for the truth is not "art" at all (bad or otherwise). It's propaganda.

There's potentially also bad propaganda, but at that point who cares?

9/22/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward: Well said.

[I mean in re "bad political art" versus propaganda].

9/22/2006 05:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>When I see a raw-meat piece of >>>>red or blue work....

Ok, ok, but still it was interesting to see at the exhibit Russia! (that everyone hated but me) all those communist propaganda paintings.

They did their job well, so to speak.


Cedric Caspesyan

9/23/2006 12:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...


The Mexican muralists made great art with precise political commands.

There's not much to discuss there.
That doesn.t mean there is no substance to marvel at (especially from the art being object stance).



9/23/2006 01:01:00 AM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

my man Milan Kundera offers a nice perspective:

I have always, deeply, violently, detested those who look for a POSITION (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an EFFORT TO KNOW, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality. Until Stravinsky, music was never able to give barbaric rites a grand form. We could not imagine them musically. Which means: we could not imagine the BEAUTY of the barbaric. Without its beauty, the barbaric would remain incomprehensible. (I stress this: to know any phenomenon deeply requires understanding its beauty, actual or potential.) Saying that a bloody rite does possess some beauty--there's the scandal, unbearable, unacceptable. And yet, unless we understand this scandal, unless we get to the very bottom of it, we cannot understand much about man. Stravinski gives the barbaric rite a musical form that is powerful and convincing but does not lie: listen to the last section of the "Sacre," the "Danse Sacrale" ("Sacrificial Dance"): it does not dodge the horror. It is there. Merely shown? Not denounced? But if it were denounced--stripped of its beauty, shown in its hideousness--it would be a cheat, a simplification, a piece of "propaganda." It is BECAUSE it is beautiful that the girl's murder is horrible."

--From "Improvisation in Homage to Stravinski" in "Testaments Betrayed."

9/23/2006 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

Political work that sets out to intentionally promote one idea/person/party or undermine one idea/person/party, without reaching beyond the partisan viewpoint for the truth is not "art" at all (bad or otherwise). It's propaganda.

Isn't it possible that the "one idea" being intentionally promoted or argued for is truth? Your statement would seem to imply that if an idea is knowable, and therefore capable of being argued for in an artwork, it cannot also be truth (thus disqualifying it from being art). Can't a partisan viewpoint sometimes also be the truth? Are partisans always wrong?

My point about equating "bad political art" with propaganda is that it is common to incorrectly view the term 'propaganda' as something automatically negative in connotation (probably because of its association with Nazi Germany). Propaganda is usually only identified when it's ineffective (short-sighted, inflammatory, inaccurate, etc.), while good propaganda (convincing, truthful, subversive, thoughtful, etc.) is rarely identified as such. In short, all politicized art is propaganda -- effective political art is simply known as 'art' or 'political art,' but ineffective political art is usually termed 'propaganda.'

"Propaganda has a bad name, but its root meaning is simply to disseminate through a medium, and all writing therefore is propaganda for something. It's a seeding of the self in the consciousness of others." - Elizabeth Drew

9/23/2006 08:17:00 PM  

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