Thursday, December 27, 2007

Do the Visual Arts Need a More, er, Visible Role in World Politics?

Following up on the ever so pleasant conversation that this post led to, today we can reveal that The Art Newspaper offered a slightly uneven, but mostly entertaining, op-ed by the UK Shadow Minister for Culture [a Conservative], Ed Vaizey, titled "Artists are apolitical, leaning to the left but embracing right-wing standards." Making the argument that today's high-profile artists embrace many of the central values of right-wing conservatives ["If you take “right wing” to mean support for commerce, free markets, trade, indeed all things capitalistic, then of course modern art is right wing."], Vaizey expresses surprise that there isn't more art defending right-wing positions. Readers with long memories might recall I seconded Zach Feuer's belief that high-profile right-wing artists were coming (perhaps not as quickly as we had expected, but...), but Vaizey's complaint is much more specific than an apparent absence of right-wing star power. Discussing a debate hosted by The Art Fund and titled “Is modern art left wing?” he noted:
Cultural commentator Munira Mirza, who participated in The Art Fund debate, pointed out that none of the country’s recent political disputes has been engaged from the perspective of the right. Where, she asked rhetorically, is the play about the banning of hunting? Here is a community, rooted in a centuries old past time and tradition, whose way of life was eradicated by an authoritarian government. Substitute aborigine for fox hunter, and one would have seen plays, and canvases, galore.

The debate becomes even more sensitive when one discusses the rise of religious fundamentalism, and how it is treated by artists. Contrast the defence of free speech when Christians picket Jerry Springer, say some on the right, with the muted reaction to the murder of Theo van Gogh or the riots outside the theatre putting on the play “Behzti” in Birmingham [which depicted a rape in a Sikh temple]. Not so, say the Birmingham Rep, who point out that far more edgy plays criticising the Muslim community have played without incident. “Behzti” was an exception, closed for specific reasons. But still, the feeling pervades that right-wing views are easier to attack and the outrage of the left is rarely challenged.
I'm on record as noting that most political art sucks and that which does (suck) does so precisely because it fails to consider the issue it's tackling from all perspectives. So in that way, I'm sympathetic with Mirza's position. I suspect the political art coming from left-leaning artists would be much more acute and insightful if there were right-wing rejoinders challenging it, sharpening it. Oh, there are right-wing condemnations all the time to left-wing art, but those are generally dismissed as the screechings of Philistines (which is often an irrelevant response).

The one criticism of the left I feel deserves more light is the silence greeting the death of Theo van Gogh. Had he been murdered by Christian fundamentalists there would have been no end to the outrage expressed by the left. He deserved better from the arts community than he received (and I include myself in that).

Vaizey ends with a challenge of his own to artists:
Where does this take us? For a Conservative politician, frustration, perhaps, with how the arts establishment leans to the left, and accepts Labour governments in far less critical ways than it does Conservative ones. It is left only to political cartoonists to use visual art to criticise all politicians, from the left and right, without fear or favour. For artists, the debate highlights the need to engage with current political discussions, and, paradoxically, to challenge their own small “c” conservatism in dealing only with issues with which they feel comfortable.
It's here, in his assertion that artists are "small 'c' conservatives," that I think Vaizey's argument is a bit weak. Specifically he argues, a bit snarkily:
The contemporary art trade is...a finely honed, global business. Artists have become brands, and their work is their product. ‘Twas ever thus of course, from the Medicis onwards. Artists have always relied on rich patrons, it’s just surprising to find the system in such rude health half a century after the state supposedly stepped in and took over. The right, however, might not wish to be associated with such red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. Even Conservatives acknowledge that it has its unacceptable face.
Relying on rich patrons and embracing Conservative values are not one in the same (indeed most of the wealthy collectors we work with lean unquestionably to the left). The implication that artists are even more enamored of "red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism" than Vaizey's party is a considerable leap here as well. He is correct in that it 'twas ever thus (the branding of artists...the capitalist nature of their projects), but he leaves out that the appeal for the Medicis et al. was a mix of bragging rights and (in most cases anyway) actual intellectual/spiritual/aesthetic enrichment and ennobling. There have always been other ways to wear one's wealth on one's sleeve than art.

But we've been all over that before. Vaizey's central question remains: "[W]hether artists have some responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate." "Responsibility" seems a bit strong to me. We don't ask whether bankers have a responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate. Further, having watched
Shut Up and Sing last night (a documentary about the Dixie Chick's tumultuous ride after Natalie said she was ashamed that Bush hailed from Texas), it seems clear to me that in this country at least most people are content to have their artists remain out of the political arena. But if an artist is truly engaged in effecting societal change, joining into the debate would seem a natural extension of their project, so....questions linger.

I'm going to pledge to keep my personal feelings out of this conversation (as well as do my damnedest to not comment on what I suspect are other people's motivations for their statements) and ask anyone else participating do the same. I know things tend to get a bit heated here when politics are discussed (hell, that's half the fun of discussing politics), but I'd like to try staying on topic and see how folks feel about whether artists have some responsibility to participate in the political debate, through their work (one assumes is the question).

Labels: politics


Anonymous Charles Browning said...

I agree with you Ed regarding the “responsibility” of artists to participate in political debate. I do think it is important to distinguish between the individual and the art community. Not every artist is equipped or inclined to handle political subjects, nor should they feel obliged to, but it is disturbing when it seems that the community as a whole turns its back on important political issues.

It is the rare artist that can effectively contribute to current political dialogue without being either a shrill one-note or a cartoon, lacking complexity to effectively address the issue. I like cartoons, but I seem to see far more of the former. An artist has a responsibility to present their work with clarity, intensity and an awareness of context. That context includes the current political environment, but does not necessarily require the artist to directly comment on, say, the Iraq war or the Iowa caucus.

Then again, sometimes seeing the political in an artist’s work just means looking a little deeper – politics sometimes lurks in unexpected places.

12/27/2007 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Hear, hear, Charles.

An artist in fact holds a public position, and that entails responsibility. I don't think that's too big of a word. Now, we're not authorities, as some artist's like to (have liked to) think. But, we are presenting positions, and those should be made as conscious as possible before exhibiting.

That said, I do think outwardly political work tends to be boring, and I'll say futile, unless some metaphor is mixed in. In my mind, metaphor, and also contrast, is key.

12/27/2007 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't disagree, but "metaphor" seems rather specific...can you elaborate?

it is the rare artist that can effectively contribute to current political dialogue without being either a shrill one-note or a cartoon

which shouldn't be surprising, I guess, given that it's a rare human being who can contribute without the same result.

12/27/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

My definition of metaphor is a bit loose. What I mean is?: talking about something indirectly, through seemingly unrelated means. So, you see something, but it suggests something else, it can stand for something else, and by being indirect, room is given to meaning. Dimensions become possible.

I think Sharon Hayes's performance/audio piece at the New Museum now is a good example. She reads love letters out on the street, pronouncing the words as like a speech at a political rally.

12/27/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

PS: But, this indirectness has to be mostly deliberate.

12/27/2007 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12/27/2007 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger joy garnett said...

parsing the following paragraph from the Art Newspaper article:

But what is hard to deny is that, despite these commonalities, contemporary art is not engaged in contemporary political debate. Mark Wallinger is often cited, but he is the exception that proves the rule. Great art, while it may nod to the political disputes of the day, tends to survive because what it says transcends temporary, even temporal concerns. The question is whether artists have some responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate.

I agree that "contemporary art is not engaged in contemporary political debate" -- it's the debate part that bugs me -- if only because the binary, oppositional approach required for "debate" is what art usually succeeds in avoiding when it functions as art. I also agree that "Great art...tends to survive because what it says transcends temporary, even temporal concerns" -- and that examples abound (think Guernica, Manet's many renditions of the Execution of Maximilian... Goya's 3rd of May)
Artists usually detect the line drawn between pushing propaganda (even if it's their own) and that larger, deeper, more generous something else: over the long run, we learn not to dumb down our work or shorten its shelf life by deploying it in the interests of a single message or cause. Our failures teach us not to do it. The proposition that art can or must be educational or politically instrumental is flawed. However, folks whose primary focus and activity is politics -- from Howard Zinn to Rudy Giuliani -- tend to see art in the same black and white terms as everything else: You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem. This is where art, if it is to function as such, must part ways with sound bytes from Eldridge Cleaver et al.

As for "The question is whether artists have some responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate..." It rankles me when I hear "art" and "responsibility" employed together in the same sentence; usually it denotes disappointment, someone's expectations not being met. Therein lies the problem, or part of it: art has its own agenda. And so it should. As an artist friend of mine recently asserted on a panel, addressing an audience of righteous anti-capitalist free software hackers (etc): our art is the only "freedom" we have, complicated and compromised as that may be. For an artist, art is where the agendas of others -- political or otherwise -- count least.

12/27/2007 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

I aspire to the freedom you're talking about, Joy. It's just that there's a ripple effect to an artist's freedom, and therefore, she should consider that. That's a responsibility (although maybe that's what you call complicated and compromised freedom).

12/27/2007 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are far more effective means of advancing a political agenda than visual art which is still a rarified experience, and anyway art is most interesting when the politics of the artist seeps in around the edges.
-jonathan podwil

12/27/2007 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous joy said...

hey jonathan! I like your image of the "seepage" -- please elaborate.

12/27/2007 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

Charles B.: Long time no see!

"without being either a shrill one-note or a cartoon, lacking complexity to effectively address the issue."

Funny you should mention it, cuz I just wrote a post today about the latest issue of World War 3 Illustrated, which is a set of political cartoons that neither lack complexity nor depth. Of course, there are a few clunkers in there, but the best ones use art and poetry to personalize the political (which I think is art's greatest strength when dealing with politics).

Another example of good political art that comes to mind is the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art. It's not meant to be strictly political, per se, but themes of social and political conflict permeate throughout nearly every work on display there. And for those looking for what might pass as anti-Leftist art, there are plenty of anti-Castro sentiments on display.

Regarding the notion of an artist's responsibility to participate in political debate -- I'm not so sure about that one. But this is only because the responsibility lies with every individual, not just artists. I don't see why artists bear the burden of furthering freedom, justice, and equality any more than anyone else. That is, it's what we all should be doing, as often as possible, for both ourselves and for others. Nevertheless, artists need to understand that all works of art presented for a public are inherently political, and that sometimes doing nothing may actually be furthering a political agenda that one is opposed to.

One last thought. I was reading A.O. Scott's NY Times review of 2007 films, and his comment about why so many political documentaries suck really hit home: ". . . too few grasp the difference between stating an opinion and making an argument." I think this is an even bigger failing than artists who "don't consider the other side." That is, that too many artists aren't even trying to persuade you at all, they're just yelling at you. That said, I don't mind the occasional artwork that resorts to shrill bluntness -- especially when it comes from someone who's trying to remove an oppressive boot from one's throat, and may have few other modes of expression available to them.

12/27/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

by "seeping in around the edges" guess I meant it's a question of tone rather than explicit manipulation. Great work is always more than the sum of its parts...

12/27/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always am surprised that anyone describes artists as capitalists. We do make a product, but if we were really capitalists, we would declare bankruptcy and produce something more lucrative.

There is a difference between truth and politics. I like to think that art, good art, is always about exposing truth. Sometime that truth coincides with political agendas, but not always. ML

12/27/2007 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger joy garnett said...

I agree that letting the chips fall where they may -- allowing things to resonate -- is important, a la tone and seepage... I think what I'm seeing more clearly lately is a tug-of-war between the explicit manipulators and the more laissez-faire types, and this always extends to "message" and political contwent: it's a control issue, whether to let people come to their own conclusions (even if those lie outside the artist's intentions), or to keep a very tight leash on context. you knwo where I'm coming from ;)

12/27/2007 02:47:00 PM  
Anonymous sharon said...

Someone already said it but artists don't bear the burden of responsibility to get involved any more than others. It's not like artists share the same privilege as celebrities who can use their fame and money to political advantage. It's not like folks who are neither shouldn't get off the couch and participate as much as they can as well.

I agree the best political art is subtle, but if more of the work were didactic, we'd become desensitized-- aren't we already?

12/27/2007 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

When Sartre wrote about the committed writer, prose won over poetry for its action-oriented response to a situation, and for its purposeful effect. To my knowledge, the two artists who have stood behind their practice as geared to yield the greatest effect are Kruger and Murakami, the first as a graphic propogandist of a critical left, and the second as the marketer of cute, boastfully striding Loius Vuitton. I wonder about this.

I don't think you can conjecture about the role of politics in art, it either is or it isn't. It is usually seen in curated shows at the non-profits, such as Land Grab at Apex, or shows like "The Disappeared" at Museo del Barrio.

The strongest that I have seen was curator Tanya Leighton's "In the Poem About Love You Don't Write the Word Love," exactly a year ago at Artist's Space.
The work in this show jogged everything out of the register of "effect" that Kruger and Murakami exploit.

12/27/2007 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The visual arts (gallery art etc) are a useless tool for effecting political change. At best they might serve as a form of historical record for future generations a la Goya etc.

On the other hand, the mass media arts, film and video have the potential to effect social and political change.

Whatever has caused this dialogue to occur now, is suspect to me, it should have occurred 5 years ago. The lack of political response to the direction of American, policy as directed by the current government, is representative of a total failure on the part of society to stand up in opposition. I am not specifically talking about political position, left or right, but the rampant violation of constitutional principles and the outright corruption of the current administration.

The conservatives have become a pawn of their own government and in the process have lost, or shall lose, their opportunity to lead and offer an alternative position or viewpoint. There is a difference, a huge difference, between liberal or conservative and corrupt which is a failure available to all.

12/27/2007 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Carla said...

If an artist does bear such a responsibility, then the creative process, and the universe of human experience gleaned from this process, has no merit.

12/27/2007 08:33:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Where does the responsibility lie for expressing political discourse in art? It's not that the work isn't being done. It just isn't validated. Vaizey decries the lack of expression of the conservative viewpoint because that viewpoint is not validated in the current arena. There is someone, somewhere, expressing every political or social viewpoint.

Art is an affirmative transaction between the viewer and the artist. Nobody has to examine something that they don't agree with; they can just walk away from it.

12/27/2007 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Something just occurred to me in light of my previous comment. While I think the visual arts are relatively ineffective in terms of swaying public opinion when compared with other forms of mass media, the artist’s response may have an effect in a subtler way.

It could be that the an artistic response might function as a way of signaling to the rest of the culture that someone cares and is opposed to the current political activities. From this point of view, the issue of ‘artistic merit’ almost does not matter, it is the act of opposition (or I suppose support) which could provide a psychological seed for the rest of the culture.

In other words, it appears that often individuals are afraid to be first, that they need some sense of correspondence and support with others in the culture. Almost by definition, the far left or right will be ignored as ‘extreme’ and therefore dismissable.

The artistic community can be viewed as sensitive to, and probing the edge of society, an early warning system, like the canary in the coal mine. In all cases there seems to be a need for a certain critical mass of support, concern or interest in order to bring an issue to the forefront.

With the present administration, it appears that the events of 911 and the reliance of 911 as an argument by the administration, was effective is subduing opposition until it was effectively too late.

12/27/2007 09:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

first a clarification. Political does not equal partisan. The former is a much broader category than the latter. And politics is in large measure about asking questions and raising challenges speaking up in dissent (regardless of the partisan character of the "administration"), where partisan activities require instead a certain amount of certainty. So, I think Ed is a bit off target when he says that political art suck, when it does, because it does look at things from various persepctives. Instead it sucks when it is didactic and seeks to tell audiences what to think instead of simmply trying to get them to think (itself a political act in times on somnabulance.)

Second, a set of questions. I am unsure who above said (roughly) "We don't ask if Bankers have any particular political responsibility." Maybe so, but we do ask if they are meeting their fiduciary responsibilities. What is the analogous duty (or set of duties) of artists? And, perhaps this 'for instance' was ill-chosen, but it seems interesting to wonder if placing artists and bankers on the same footing here doesn't invite charges of rank commercialism of the sort Vaisey relishes. (And he is not alone. There is, after all, a persuasive line of criticism of contemporary art from the left - e.g., Julian Stallabrass's art Incorporated that makes much the same point as Vaisey in this regard.)

Finally, if artists have no particular politicala responsibility are they therefore by definition ir-responsible? If so, why can they claim our attention? Where does all the high seriousness come from? If not, perhaps we need a more subtle discussion that moves beyond art as political or apolitical?

12/27/2007 10:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S.: I forgot to add that in thinking about the effects of art or of politics a useful resources is Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark.

12/27/2007 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guitar guy said, ... does its own work for whoever will look. It dispenses with the repertoire of knowledge and experience that is presumed to be required to appreciate.... It replaces the elite, intellectual pleasure of "getting it" with the egalitarian fun-house pleasure of disorientation; of trying to understand something that you cannot. By refusing to set us apart in our relative levels of visual mastery, ** *** makes us one in our anxious, enjoyable failure. More beneficially, as we stand before ** ********* that resist our understanding, we introduce ourselves to our unconscious selves. We become aware of the vast intellectual and perceptual resources that await our command just beyond the threshold of our knowing. These, of course, can only be inferred on the rare occasions when they fail to serve our purposes. ******* *** provides those occasions.

12/28/2007 05:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is so boring.....

12/28/2007 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


This is so boring.....

Irony enters, pursued by a bear.

12/28/2007 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Quirk said...

I think that some contemporary art should reflect the times that it is created in. Unless you are hiding your head in the sand, it’s difficult to ignore the war and violence that is caused by politics of one sort or another. That being said, it’s an individual choice to speak out on the issues or not. As futile as it might seem, I hope that in some small way my artwork will have an effect on the larger discussion about war, pollution, exploitation, corruption, etc… and maybe change peoples’ outlook in a positive way.

12/28/2007 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late for this but since its the holdays...yes, artist should be more involved with politics and society in general.

12/28/2007 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger Pedro Velez said...

pedro velez

12/28/2007 08:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oldie but goodie Ed. I'd like to add some thoughts even though I'm VERY late on his topic.

Contrary to what Jerry Saltz has suggested on his Facebook page I think that conservative minded artists do exist. Having taught at a few colleges I can tell you first hand that there is always a few art students who explore conservative themes.

Saltz recently suggested that there is no 'good' conservative themed art. He implied that the all artists exploring conservative themes are mediocre. Mind you he deleted his statements within a day.

My point is that one reason you don't read about or see conservative themed art directly is due in part to art professionals such as Saltz. As intelligent as he is he can't sit his own political bias aside long enough to consider that maybe, just maybe not all artists walk the same social and political path.

Saltz is not the only one. Almost every museum director and curator I've known happens to be far left and they tend to rally toward far left artists. It is like a politically driven buddy system.

Saltz has suggested that political bias in the art world does not exist. If that were the case I would think we would be seeing exhibits devoted to criticism of President Obama as we had seen with Bush.

Not one gallery in NYC, Chicago, or Miami explored the death of Theo... even though that could have been perfect ground for at least poking an intellectual stick at under-lining conservative thought.

Maybe some gallerist will be brave enough to explore conservative themed art at some point in the near future. Personally, I think the first major gallery that does will receive a wide range of press for it.

Imagine if Gagosian put on an exhibit called Obama Lied. Think of the buzz that would create.

2/05/2011 09:07:00 AM  

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