Friday, June 19, 2009

The Oxymoronical "Political Art" Issue (again) : Open Thread

I had a bit of a tweet-for-tat with Bill Powhida on Twitter yesterday about a topic I feel deeply but have never had any luck in convincing anyone else about: that activism and "art" (which is reflective, not proactive, in my opinion) are two different things. It's a very, very fine distinction in my mind, but it comes back to the notion that intent is crucial and that any work that intends to change opinions about a political issue falls into the category of propaganda, which has a use, and therefore, by definition (at least within the time frame for which its use is relevant) ceases to be "art."

Anyway, Bill's passionate defense of his position (that making art is a political gesture [which I maintain is different from the idea that "all art is political," but...]) stems from the same sense of helplessness I feel with regards to the situation in Iran. It's related to the sense of barely being alive I felt while watch Slumdog if we in the West, despite all the challenges we're facing, are simply sleepwalking through our lives in comparison with people in other, much more vibrant parts of the world. We watch other people revolt on TV in between sips of our McCappucinos.

Now I know that risking one's life is the surest way to feel alive. It's that adrenaline rush that drives extreme sports fanatics to leap off mountain tops or drag race through urban streets or whatever. Indeed, having been in a nearly fatal climbing accident once, I was shocked (despite how truly frightening it had been) at just how much I enjoyed the overall experience and the lingering heightening of my senses.

I drag you through this explanation as means of coming back full circle to an Iranian artist, [name redacted upon suggestion by someone asked to do same] (see this report), risking life and limb, to express his response to the election protests taking place there. See one of his street art pieces above. (His website notes that you can post any of his images elsewhere so long as you provide a link back to his blog.)

In his blog profile, the artist notes:
Maybe i am a Vandal or Anarchist But i am glad to introduce my self as one. At least i stand for my right. I am not about politics. But i am interested on social Subjects. I express through Graffiti, wall painting, stencil spray, wheatpastes and Stickers in streets of Tehran and other places i will pass in the world!
Now lord knows, I don't want to become an enemy of Bill (whom I respect greatly and own work by) ego couldn't withstand the way he'd draw me then :-), but I do think what the Iranian artist notes here is important to keep in mind when it comes to the distinction between activism and art.

It's perfectly fine by me that artists choose to be activists. I don't feel they should be objective observers of the world around them in their daily lives (they're not journalists). By all means, pick a side, get involved, make a difference. But I do feel that when it comes to art that they make better work if they can switch hats. I feel that their work suffers if they don't attempt through it to present, as honestly as they can, simply what it is they see. As soon as they attempt to tell me how to see something, I become suspicious, pull back, and cannot see what it is they're expressing. As soon as something in the work strikes me as partisan or goal-oriented, I can no longer see its "truth."

I think the Iranian artist has it exactly right. "I am not about politics. But i am interested on social Subjects." Politics is not about being objective or acknowledging inconvenient's about moving the goal posts one direction or the other. Being involved in politics, by definition, means downplaying the truth or point of view of the opposition (otherwise, why wouldn't the people who would otherwise follow you, not follow them instead?). Therefore, being "about politics" as an artist suggests you're coloring your work toward one side, purposely not including the "truth" contained in the other side's point of view, making your work propaganda, rather than "art."

That doesn't mean your "art" (as opposed to your propaganda) can't convince people. If the truth in it is as plain as the nose on their face, and you simply express it so they see that, then your work will possibly lead folks to make a political decision they wouldn't have otherwise. But it's that present the truth...that accomplishes that. Not the attempt to make a political statement via your work.

Consider this an open thread on the intent to sway someone through "art."

Labels: political art


Anonymous greg said...

Heavy-handed political commentary in a gallery both muddies the water of what art should be and fails at finding the audience that it needs to be effective.

6/19/2009 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I would like to clarify a distinction between your statement and what I think, not that we're not mostly on the same page, IMO, Greg.

There's nothing wrong, in my opinion, with political subjects in art. They can be incredibly controversial subjects, as well.

What I object to is the kind of "heavy handedness" as it applies to lopsided observations, again, purposely downplaying others' take on the issue toward a political goal. But I don't object to big issues or forceful statements about them. If someone can forcefully make an observation that resonates as true, without resorting to the downplaying or ignoring or uni-dimensional observations we see in political art, then I think that's OK...because that will have taken the entire landscape into consideration and presented merely what the artist honestly saw, letting the viewer then decide how to feel about it. Political art, by definition, is trying to tell the viewer how to feel about something, and that is the essence of my objection to it.

6/19/2009 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Advertising does it all the time

6/19/2009 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous greg said...

I'm on board with your clarification, Ed... you use words gooder than I can.

6/19/2009 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Ed

6/19/2009 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger William said...

I don't feel they should be objective observers of the world around them in their daily lives (they're not journalists). By all means, pick a side, get involved, make a difference. But I do feel that when it comes to art that they make better work if they can switch hats. I feel that their work suffers if they don't attempt through it to present, as honestly as they can, simply what it is they see. As soon as they attempt to tell me how to see something, I become suspicious, pull back, and cannot see what it is they're expressing. As soon as something in the work strikes me as partisan or goal-oriented, I can no longer see its "truth."


I'm a muckraker, a FTW (Fuck the World) artist without a specific agenda other than poking people in the eye when they aren't seeing straight. You are not alone feeling helpless witnessing the political uprising in Iran where people are risking their lives for change. I think that it also stirs up guilt for our collective inaction during our own questionable election in 2000 when we were so shocked by the failure of our electoral system and the court's intervention that we did nothing but nervously wait. Again, I'm reacting to how fervent people here are acting for what is happening in Iran, like they wish they were part of something, something that they don't believe is possible here, no matter what the campaign slogan says.

That said, I don't make politics the subject of my work, but my work is partly an (absurd) critique of unrestrained Capitalism and its effects on the market. You know this, you own perhaps my finest piece to date, the Market Crash. That's about as goal-oriented as I'll ever get, other than my own needy requests (begging collectors and such).

Man, re-post an image of Market Crash. It is journalism, I took on an 'objective voice', changed it to reflect a darker vision of the world we were operating in at the time, and tried to reveal the truth I sensed beneath the slick surfaces and shiny objects, beneath the suffocating wealth. Now, I find myself still unhappy, unsatisfied, and willing to follow that impulse, wherever it leads. It's probably not going to be very politically correct.

Anyway, I like you even more Ed, when you get back to the art, and stop being so fucking nice! You and Austin Thomas are going to get cannonized for all your hard work, honesty, and decency. In your own words, I sense something partisan and goal-oriented there, and I pull back unable to sense the truth.

Jen and I will be switching hats and working on a follow-up to your book this week, something like "How to shut down and close a Contemporary Art Gallery" or "How to run a gallery into the ground...and get away with it!"


6/19/2009 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

hear hear Ed,

great art moves people, great politics moves issues ....

I remember a story of a famous artist who once described seeing an accident and needing to choose between taking a picture of it or helping out ... he helped out

6/19/2009 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

This is an old topic.

Many people think political art is hamfisted - other pejoratives abound: stunning, powerful, interesting, really something.

Aristocratic distance requires the populace to take their lumps. Poor proles! better suicide than to bend down, better death than to lie prostrate to the mob! I will not condescend, I will not.

6/19/2009 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

“Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else.” Ad Reinhardt

Any questions ?

6/19/2009 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous jsloo said...

- Politics are responsive acts or feelings based on emotions. It seems that the only function they have in the process of making art is that of a 'roadblock'.

Great art is generated from a place of curiosity.

6/19/2009 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

thread on the intent to sway someone through "art."

Does the Sistine Chapel count? Pope propaganda pics?

6/19/2009 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Stephanie C. said...

Edward, I could not agree more. "Political art", oxymoron indeed.

I'm reminded of a Sean Scully interview with Journal of Contemporary Art, in which he stated, "I don't think there is such a thing as effective political art."

6/19/2009 04:54:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George asked, "Does the Sistine Chapel count?"

Nope. It preaches to the choir.

6/19/2009 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger patrickjdonovan said...

The art of the counter reformation sponsored by the Church was intended to enhance the power of the Papacy and to bring back those that had become protestant. As such, counter reformation art, e.g. Carvaggio, some Rubens, other Baroque artists, was not preaching to the choir. (I understand that the Sistine Chapel was prior to the counter reformation.) As such, counter reformation art is an an example of political art whose appeal endures (many would think so) notwithstanding that its political message is obsolete.

This raises the question of whether politcal art, and I would say conceptual art, has anything going for it that will last if it does not have other qualities, such as visual appeal, going for it.

6/19/2009 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the situation in iran is so much more important than art, as are many things.

i agree with the post. that's why contemporary chinese art, in general, sucks so much. hopefully, with the disappearance of the art boom, it will too disappear.

allah o akbar

6/19/2009 06:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

I meant "preaches to the choir" both broadly and literally. The audience for the Sistine Chapel frescoes were Christians, not non-Christians. The frescoes were not an obvious attempt to change anyone's mind. I say "not an obvious attempt" because of Michelangelo's secret involvement with the Spirituali (a reform group sympathetic to Protestant beliefs), and the inclusion of subtle Spirituali messages in his art. (No, this is not Da Vinci Code stuff. Look up the work of Michelangelo scholar and restorer Antonio Forcellino.)

6/19/2009 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Da Vinci Code?

Fra Angelico Paradise blog

Fra Angelico Paradise images,

orFra Angelico Paradise web

6/19/2009 11:42:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

I wouldn't pin too much on intentions, either for or against agit/prop. Good intentions do not pave a road to art or politics.

Just because something functions as advertising, doesn't mean it can't have other (more personal, deeper, spiritual etc) meanings. Do Andy Warhol's paintings of soup cans merely sell more Campbell's soup? Is a Jenny Holzer or Dan Graham billboard advertising or art?

True, socialist realism is deeply out-of-fashion, but the last time there was a depression, the state happily employed lots of artists to use just that.

Sorry to use the D word.

Is all art political? If so, only because all politics is not art. Both deal in representation, clearly, and rarely mean what they say in the press release, but politics wants results, art can afford to wait.

Art is not the most efficient way of conducting most politics, politics rarely concerns art directly. Art takes too long, life is too short. Long-term politics is really religion.

Reference in art to politics is generally freighted with personal takes and style. Like Goya, David, Blake or Daumier. There are times/places when politics cannot be avoided, without avoiding life.

6/19/2009 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

I think what Ed is arguing for is an open-endedness and self-reflexivity in art. These are qualities that can exist or not in different degrees in any approach whether it is political in nature or just purely visual.
The "effectiveness" of any art (political or otherwise) depends on the relationship the work has with the viewer and its context. In art that is considered political, this requirement and artist intent becomes foregrounded, something that is intended to "persuade" many people becomes suspect in the context of a museum attended by those who may already espouse the values conveyed or are not the appropriate audience to instill action.
But that same dynamic also exists for art that appears to be purely aesthetic. The receptivity of both depends on the particular cultural and sociological conditions of the viewer.I would like to point out that those who elevate the aesthetic over the political are doing so based on political terms of identity, exclusion, and advocacy.
ALso, some political art may be propaganda in that it is not an open-ended argument, but that doesnt mean that there isnt "art" in propaganda. That reflexivity that Ed demands of art can also exist in propaganda in the particular design elements used and how and where it is deployed.

6/20/2009 02:02:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Art is the mystery of another's thought ?

6/20/2009 02:26:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

markcreegan said "... those who elevate the aesthetic over the political are doing so based on political terms ..."

Is there no escape from politics and those who see everything in terms of politics?

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat ...

6/20/2009 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Well, I do think that I subscribe to the way Felix Gonzalez- Torres describes "aesthetics IS politics". But, I think these are based on very basic concepts of motivations, beliefs, and actions coming from self-interested or self-preservational needs. I think these merely describe the human condition in the same way that "bi-pedal" or "apposable thumb" does. I should have clarified that there is nothing wrong with making statements or finding opportunities to elevate one's own interests over others (on this small scale, at least) - it is only natural. In fact, the very first sentence in this reply shows I am "subscribing" to an idea- this naturally defines a bit of my identity and motivations. Not all of them, just a few.

But, I think we can separate that from art with explicit intentions to moralize or instruct. I think those who value political oriented art or those that prioritize aesthetic concerns (and those like FGT who see no distinction) can agree that the subtle,open-ended approach to making and presenting art and ideas is more effective. If hammers were only intended for one specific use (like only hammering 2 in. nails into 2X4s), hardly anyone would use them. The tool is effective because it is flexible enough to apply to many different situations and needs.

6/20/2009 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

self reflexivity is not art. Nor is open endedness. Nor is art political. Nor is art even art. In fact art is just a semantic trap designed to rile the populace and enrage the didactic pedants of industry.

Moralizing is of course a way of coming to a decision. Delayed gratification is Protestant, but moral ambiguity is not.

But bohemians like the youthful sense of possibility - an overrated commodity to be sure, but one that perfumes the air!

Oh self reflexive children! Ye best be leaving, for these times require didactic moons, poised to raise the tides of hope and fear! Action! Action! Action!

How those words will entertain us as we sit highly estheticized pomp.

No, action is for the people, and inaction is for art. For what is self reflexive and open ended thinking if not a bees bumble, a chicken with no head, a flock of sheep to be guided by critical barks from afar?

No, let others make the decisions, the political acts are for thieves, murderers and liars!


6/20/2009 01:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I don't understand the opposition.
There is politics and there is art. There is political arts and apolitical arts. Both are still art inasmuch as artists interested foremost by aesthetics are doing
art the same as artists interested foremost by meaning.

Cedric Caspesyan

6/21/2009 03:28:00 AM  
Blogger jec said...

My problem with most political art is not that it's propaganda, but that it rarely changes public opinion--or the views of decision-makers. At least not in any immediate way.

If I had thought that I could make a real difference through political art, I would have done so instead of knocking on doors and organizing volunteers to get Obama elected.

Politics are in my work, but only in the sense that I make art depicting what I'm doing and what interests me. If my experiences include political action, my work will reflect that.

6/21/2009 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Art only has one inherent purpose: to serve as a repository for visual quality. If you give it another purpose, you send it down a parallel track. It may succeed at this other mission or not, while succeeding as art or not.

On the other hand, no one makes art for pure reasons. Furthermore, you don't necessarily get better art by purifying your reasons for doing so, any more than you get a better salad by eliminating everything that isn't lettuce. We make art out of our messy human lives. Consequently, all art has a parallel track to its existence as art.

So you have to ask first whether the parallel mission enabled the primary one, and second, whether the parallel mission succeeded. If yes and yes, so much the better. If yes and no, it doesn't really matter - a lot of people set out to do this or that in the name of art, or in the name of something else but in the medium of art, and failed but made good work in spite of themselves. If no and yes, you may very well have an example of the heavy-handed propagandistic work alluded to above that hardly merits the appellation "art." If no and no, then the thing has failed all the way through.

6/21/2009 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Hey, I think I left a comment on this thread, maybe the day before yesterday? Am I hallucinating? Did it fail to go through, or did it fail to pass comment moderation? I don't remember saying anything that could be construed as offensive, but if I did, I'd like to know about it.

6/21/2009 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

don't recall seeing it, PL...must have been eaten by the Internets...please post again

6/21/2009 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Cedric Caspesyan said, "I don't understand the opposition."

Art that kick-starts the freedom of your eye, versus art that handcuffs your mind to its message.

6/21/2009 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

A more elaborate version of Edward's position is found in R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art.

This was written in 1938 and was required reading in mid-20th century aesthetics, although now largely discredited. It's an easy read that shares striking parallels with Greenberg's views on kitsch.

These issues clearly do not go away, for long.

6/21/2009 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Thanks Ed, I'm glad to know the mistake was technical.

I don't entirely recall what I wrote--it was something to the effect that I am inspired by the Iranians' reaction to election fraud, and far from feeling helpless I'm excited that they're refusing to back down in the face of oppression. Obama's point that we need to stay out of it for now, partly because the corrupt regime is trying to blame the protests on America, is well taken.

And as regards political art--I have had by far the best results in getting people to pay attention to my point of view when I am consciously NOT trying to change anyone's mind.

6/22/2009 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Art said...


Just wanted to let you know that in order to protect the artist people are not using his name or linking to his blog. has redacted his name, and, although I did not mention the artist's name when I wrote about his work, I did link to his blog and today a commentor asked me to remove it for security reasons.

Thought I'd pass it along since I first read about his work here.

6/23/2009 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the heads up Art...I've edited the post.

6/23/2009 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I agree with Ed and many of the commenters- the idea of political art is troubling for a number of reasons. Mostly the preaching to the choir thing. Most art (in my world anyway) never gets seen outside the white box. And the didactic nature of most of what is called "political art" eliminates free will and exploration from the viewers' experience (or tries to, anyway, mostly it's just a turn-off). I'm often asked to participate in "political art" shows and panels and sometimes I do, but mostly find them unsatisfying. People are political (or not), their art isn't. If a political person cooks, does he or she make "political food"?
-Paul Shambroom

6/24/2009 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If a political person cooks, does he or she make "political food"?


I can see a few ways it's not entirely parallel, but it's a good line for dispelling the "art making is a political gesture, therefore all art is political" meme.

What do you find unsatisfying about political art shows, as an artist (I know what I find unsatisfying about most of them as a viewer...they don't teach me anything...they're almost exclusively, as you put it, preaching to the choice).

6/24/2009 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Late on this, but to reply to Tom,
I don't see any difference between
conceptual art and political art. Both handcuffs the meaning as a priority, before being concerned by aesthetics. I'm saying art can be kick-start aesthetic and/or handcuff meaning, but not one should exist at the expense of the other. So to me it's all good. I can judge the propaganda aspect of a work. I can critique wrether that propaganda (that meaning) is very well expressed. If it is, it's art (not just aesthetics, it can be the right association of ideas). If it feels like vain harassment, it's propaganda.


Cedric C

6/24/2009 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Cedric C, thanks for your reply. I really do think there's a difference between conceptual art and political art. And that's a good thing. Because different people like different kinds of art. And different artists like making different kinds of art. There is no Art (singular), only arts (plural). To be honest, I didn't realize this until I watched Malcolm Gladwell talk about spaghetti sauce on the TED website. Both the spaghetti sauce industry and the art world make people happy (succeed commercially) when they satisfy a variety of tastes. The spaghetti sauce industry really took off when it stopped thinking in universal terms (there is such a thing as a perfect spaghetti sauce, and this is it, and that is not). It really took off when it began to understand that there are perfect sauces (plural). Perhaps the art world boomed because it followed this pluralistic model, and perhaps it busted (in part) because it slipped back into the old universal (narrowing) frame of mind (only non-traditional art by young artists is really art). Perhaps the key to revival, for both galleries and institutions, is to re-embrace pluralism. But I'm just rambling ... who knows ...

6/25/2009 12:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Regarding Tom's comment, I have long maintained that we don't have true pluralism in the art world and never have. It would make sense to put Jessica Stockholder and Jules Olitski opposite one other in a show, or William Bailey and Josiah McElheny, or Marcel Dzama and Maurice Sendak, but exhibitions like that never happen because curators are unwilling to cross ideological distinctions. A real, robust pluralism would get over the boundaries, and I agree, it would be healthier.

6/25/2009 08:53:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Franklin, perhaps the problem with political art is not the art itself, but the attempt by some, sometimes, to make political art the only art worthy of the name. It's the same as the attempt by some, sometimes, to make art by young MFAs, or art in new media, or art that's ironic - etc., etc., etc. - the only art worth taking seriously. It's the wrong-headed idea that there's a best or purest or truest form of art (or kind of artist). Wrong-headed because the idea, when pursued, results in a narrowing of art's possibilities (a narrowing that has sometimes been extreme), rather than an opening up of art's possibilities. I think the idea is promoted by some on the commercial side who hope to cash in on the "next big thing." But I would argue that's a bad commercial model for art (the "fashion" model, which is always about "killing the father"), because art satisfies taste, and taste is actually and always tastes (plural). Question is: is the "true art" idea so established in our thinking (if only in the back of our minds) that the art world will never be truly pluralistic - truly free of repeated attempts to narrow art?

6/25/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I think there is one flaw in this logic though - you are assuming that every issue has an equal and fair counterpoint, but to the artist (or activist), there can be no comprimise, but rather a single truth that is being clouded by the opposition's point of view. I feel, as an artist, it is my duty to lift the veil and show a side that I believe to be the side people should see. After all, isn't one of the purposes of art to show the world the way the artist sees things? And if you change a few minds along the way, the better. You can't call that propaganda just because there may be a specific purpose of the art. All artists have an agenda. I don't think there is such a thing as neutral art. But I agree its a fascinating topic and you bring up a great argument.

6/26/2009 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Not much to add, except it's weird that Tom H also chose a cooking metaphor to address the subject. Re: Ryan: "but to the artist (or activist), there can be no comprimise, but rather a single truth that is being clouded by the opposition's point of view." Maybe for you, certainly not for all artists (especially the ones I find most compelling). To me, nothing is simple in this world, I'd much rather engage complexity and ambiguity in my work. Maybe this is my answer to Ed's question about what turns me off about "political art" shows and discussions.

6/26/2009 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Paul said, "... it's weird that Tom H also chose a cooking metaphor ..."

Will it remain a metaphor? The art world has followed the commercial model of the fashion industry for about a century-and-a-half now. But as Jerry Saltz recently remarked, "... one of the big secrets of the moment is that the only thing that has really changed about the art world is that money is out of the picture ... We're in a period when art isn't fashion ..." Which is not saying there's less interest in art now, but only that the commercial model of the fashion industry isn't working for the art world right now - and probably won't work for it in the near future (maybe never again). Which means the art world might change it's commercial model to one that works better at all times, i.e., the food industry model - as Malcolm Gladwell explains it. (It's more about satisfying a range of tastes, than it is about proffering the latest thing.) All we can say is that things probably aren't going to be as they were (except for a boomlet or two, still to come - maybe). Following the food industry's commercial model might also finally produce Franklin's "robust pluralism" (or would that be "robusto" pluralism?). Ah well, it's all just Saturday morning rambling on my part, and off-topic too. Sorry, Ed. :)

6/27/2009 10:02:00 AM  

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