Friday, June 03, 2011

Don't Worry, It's Just Art || Hey! Watch Out! That's Art You've Got There

A pair of articles appearing on artinfo.com highlight the paradox of the power of art. In one article, Andrew Goldstein interviews the American cultural attaché based in Rome at the U.S. embassy, David Mees, who seems to squirm a bit when asked about the political overtones of Allora & Calzadilla's charged installation at the US pavilion in Venice. Initially Mees highlights the humor he finds in the work (including an upside-down tank with a treadmill on top of it). When Goldstein pushes a bit deeper though:
[Goldstein:] With U.S. servicemen and women engaged in a war in Afghanistan and a conflict in Libya, is there any way in which this pavilion could suggest that the country is not taking its wars seriously?

[Mees:] In my previous posting I was working in a country where we have an American navy base, and that opened my eyes to our colleague in uniform, and it's completely wrong to think of them as all gung-ho militarists. Any reasonable American sees that there are many sides to the use of armed force, and I think that it is perfectly appropriate for artists of all people to ask difficult questions, or to look at a tank from 1945 with some humor and skepticism. And this is not an in-depth political assessment of the defense department, and it doesn't pretend to be. It's an art project, let's keep it at that. [emphasis mine]
In the other article Tyler Green argues quite the opposite:
A handful of right-wing U.S. governors spent much of the spring fighting to roll back gains made by working people in the 20th century. Mostly in the rust belt, Republican governors have tried to dissolve workers’ right to collective bargaining. The strangest attack on labor, however, came in Maine, where Republican governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural from a state Labor Department building. Created by the artist Judy Taylor in 2008, the mural highlighted 20th-century social progress in Maine, including the abolition of child labor and the advancement of equal pay for equal work for women. Wildly controversial stuff, no?

With this action, LePage inadvertently made a direct argument for art’s power: By ordering Taylor’s mural removed, he acknowledged that art can afflict the comfortable and powerful, people like him. [emphasis mine]
Tyler goes on to make an impassioned case for how museums could more practically present art in ways that could, you know, actually matter to our lives.

The thing is, though, powerful tools (oh, like say television) can be used to afflict the comfortable or they can be used to manipulate the rest of us. So I would caution against assuming that unleashing art's power would necessarily lead to a better world.
A museum could as easily present a show that insinuates people don't need Medicare as one that argues they do, for example. Of course the former would have to be a god-awful, pedantic show. All of this, of course, assumes that just because artists are interested in speaking truth to power that museums should be as well. That's not been my experience, exactly.

I do know plenty of artists who try to though.

Allora & Calzadilla
are a good example of artists who seem to be speaking truth to power, but as Mees' interview reveals, do so in a way that permits the powerful to skirt around any self-implications. This to me is the real power of art...it subversive use of the slipperiness of meaning. Those of us opposed to endless war can walk away content that at least someone is speaking up for us and even smugly pat ourselves on the back for seeing what the powerful seem to be missing.

Of course, its slipperiness is also exactly why it's easy to ignore. Mees and others can focus instead on its surreal qualities and chuckle.


Well, they can after they've had some time to recover from their initial impression. The genius of the tank piece as I understand it is the sound it generates, that echoes through the Gardini...drawing the unsuspecting to it, to then reveal its metaphorical punch.

Of course, even this element is not without perhaps a final paradox (or is it an irony?). As Roberta Smith, who is in Venice, reported:
The opening gambit of Allora and Calzadilla, the artist team representing the United States, is an inverted tank, topped by a treadmill that is used on an hourly basis by an American runner. The workout activates the upended treads of the tank, and their metallic clanking echoes throughout the Giardini. The effect can be quite startling. My first reaction was that it was an aural form of ugly-Americanism and, as that, kind of brilliant. American saber-rattling evoked, rather literally, as a rattling tank. But this symbolism may quickly wear thin for the people who work in the Giardini during the Biennale’s six-month run, which opens to the public on Saturday. After the rest of us have gone home they may come to resent the American presence in a way that is a trifle too specific.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Franklin said...

A museum could as easily present a show that insinuates people don't need Medicare as one that argues they do, for example. Of course the former would have to be a god-awful, pedantic show.

I agree, but why only the former?

6/03/2011 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Personal bias, mostly. :-)

6/03/2011 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Fair enough. :)

6/03/2011 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

Good article. Art has always been powerful. If it was ineffective then there would be no political football with the NEA, and as pointed out, big murals showing social progress wouldn't be taken down by politicians who oppose it - indeed they may never be commissioned if it didn't stir up something.

Another example is when the Taliban in Afghanistan removed the ancient Buddhist statues - powerful messages that sat counter to the particular agenda of those in power, so down they came, historical or not.

But, I don't think it is possible to stand above it all objectively - it is impossible not to judge when art is involved. And we all have our preferences, prejudices, and stances on issues we all feel passionately about, and feel offense at. I wonder if anyone in the contemporary art world has ever found art that was truly offensive to them ... not the "ironic" "political" or the "edgy" types that are common in current contemporary art where you can have mere cerebral discomfort, or uncomfortable sexual or pornographic themes ... but genuinely offensive and disturbing to the point of wanting to tear it down. How jaded have we become?

6/03/2011 02:29:00 PM  

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