29 December 2007

Some Thoughts on Art & Politics

This post has a complicated genealogy. I started with this post at C0nscientious wherein Joerg linked to this post at Edward Winkleman, which, in turn, was prompted by this Op-Ed in The Art Newspaper entitled "Artists Are Apolitical, Leaning to the Left but Embracing Right-Wing Standards." The Op-Ed was written by Ed Vaisey who is Culture Minister in the Conservative "Shadow Cabinet" in the British Parliament. And unfortunately it seems to me that Vaisey is not far off point, even if - as I suspect -he hopes to spin that point in an unlikely direction.

Let's focus on the title of Vaisey's essay The first claim, that artists are "apolitical," or at least fancy themselves so, seems to be born out by the tepid response to Winkleman's post. Indeed, Ed himself trenchantly insists "that most political art sucks." We could likely drop the adjective and still agree with that assessment. Let's set that aside for a bit. My reply would be that many artists fancy themselves apolitical but that that fancy is itself contestable. Here, I simply appropriate a couple of comments from my sidebar:

"Can it still be controversial to say that an apparently
disengaged poetics may also speak a political language
- of self-enclosed complacency, passivity, opportunism,
false neutrality . . . ?" - Adrienne Rich*

"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with
politics is itself a political attitude." - George Orwell

As for why artists might seem to "lean left," the self-conception (and sometimes reality) of artists involves flaunting (sometimes even actively challenging) not just aesthetic tradition, but broader social norms and conventions. Here we need to be clear that what Vaisey refers to as "the status quo" is a much narrower construct - on his view it consists solely in the alleged hegemony of liberal/social democratic political views, especially the propensity to support "the idea of state control and central direction." By contrast, social norms and conventions are embodied in arrangements and practices that govern, say, domestic or race or sexual relations, religious precepts, and so forth. Criticism of or disregard for these latter arrangements and practices hardly provide auspicious grounds for a mutual embrace between artists and the political right. Indeed, what Vaisey considers a shared concern for "the human condition" masks vast differences in this regard precisely insofar as many artists (correctly from my perspective) view established norms and conventions as malleable and arbitrary, rather than natural or inevitable. Speaking of "the human condition" as distinct from "society," as Vaisey does, surely has the latter inflection.

When artists embrace self-conceptions that invoke non-conformity or iconoclasm they typically embrace a corollary rhetoric of "freedom" (what conservatives would likely deem licentiousness) even if the rhetoric typically is belied by their obeisance to the "market." That brings us to the final point, the one with which Ed Winkleman takes special umbrage. Do artists embrace "right-wing standards"? For reasons I've already stated, I think this claim is overstated. Vaisey also tries to engage in a bit of persuasive definition when he identifies artistic creativity with entrepreneurship. While perhaps second cousins, the two are not the same. But Vaisey does note that the affinity between art and commerce, the way that artists keep a sharp eye on the market, does indeed provide common ground with the political right.
As he claims: "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. The contemporary art trade is exactly that—a finely honed, global business. Artists have become brands, and their work is their product." Ed Winkleman finds this "a bit snarky." Perhaps. But not less true for that. Indeed, this claim converges with left-wing critics like Julian Stallabrass who argue that contemporary artists are especially egregious in this respect and that the rhetoric of freedom they deploy functions primarily to sustain advanced capitalist political-economic arrangements. It may be that artists do not therefore explicitly embrace conservative political views. But that said, is not as though markets respect social norms and conventions terribly much, so keeping ones eye on the market may complement artistic self-conceptions as unconventional. (Again, a problem for conservatives like Vaisey who want us to respect tradition.)

The nub comes for Vaisey and Winkleman when the former poses this query: "The question is whether artists have some responsibility to use their talent to participate in the political debate." The first thing is that we can discuss politics in a sense that is not just narrowly partisan. Politics can involve challenging and questioning and imagining, not just toe-ing some party line. I think that the aversion many artists have for being seen as "political" stems from forgetting that point. (Some part of the aversion stems too, I suspect, from keeping one's eye on the market and not wanting to appear 'political' for fear that that might be bad for business.)

By coincidence, The New York Times this week ran this story on two exhibitions of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series. The sixty panels that make up the series surely constitute political art. But they just as surely are not narrowly partisan. They are inspired by the movement of African-Americans from rural South to urban North. The picture they paint is one not of "the human condition" but of political and economic factors driving mass migration from the South and of the political and economic factors that made the North far from hospitable. I would say that Lawrence's Migration Series doesn't "suck" (e.g., [1] [2])

This suggests to me that artists can enter political debates in extremely provocative and useful ways. That they can do so by fulfilling their responsibility not to politics, but to engaging with the world and their own (or others') experience of it, in ways that place enduring issues into the public sphere where they can be examined and discusssed and argued over. That may mean looking beyond the 'art world' and its narrow preoccupations more than many artists now do. But that hardly is a revolutionary notion. Neither is it an easy task. I have posted on this in various ways on several occasions (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4]), though, so will stop for now.

* We can simply substitute 'aesthetics' for 'poetics' in this passage.


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