26 February 2011

Follow-Up on "Today, we are all Joan Miró" - On Art & Politics

Joan Miró. Plate 4 from the Black and Red Series, 1938.
Image © 1998 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on this column at The Guardian by Jonathan Jones. In the piece Jones castigates "us" as being like Joan Miró who responded to the Spanish Civil War from afar rather than like George Orwell who went off to fight with the Republicans. Here are some more questions. Does art have to be activist to be political? The two are not the same, after all. Is "activist" even the best strategy? What would Jones make of the long series of paintings Robert Motherwell made over the course of decades, all entitled "Elegies for the Spanish Republic"?

Robert Motherwell. Elegy for the Spanish Republic, #126 (1965-75).

Or what about another visual cut at fascism - Leon Golub's series of canvases on torture and interrogation? Are we even in a position to know - even post- Abu Ghraib - about, let alone intervene in, such practices? At least one can ask if we know enough detail to intervene in practices like those Golub depicts that we generally suspect are occurring.

Leon Golub. Interrogation II, (1980-81).

More to the point, should we be criticizing artists like Golub, Motherwell, and Miró - holding them up for thinly disguised scorn - because they are not Orwell? After all, they "just" or "only" used their art to depict horrors and consequences. They didn't take up arms. And so ...?

And, of course, in an era where one's adversaries are likely enough to be mercenaries (ex-military paid, say, by Blackwater or its corporate offspring) or child soldiers (who are basically trained sociopaths) would taking up arms be anything other than more or less certain and largely pointless suicide? Jones would surely flinch at shooting down a twelve year old, even if the child were armed. And in that instant the boy would have shot Jones - to say nothing of you or I - for his trouble. The mercenary would've killed Jones before he had time to flinch. Nothing personal in this. But what is it that Jones expects of art?

Politics does not generally involve violence. And it cannot require intervention or action across time or space or absent some coordinated movement. Nor can it demand that essentially individual level activity like painting generate immediate, unambiguous action. That is the remit of the propagandist. The works I have lifted for this post are attempts to raise questions, provoke reflection, give voice to emotions and to do those things in response to violence and terror. It seems to me that we are in Miró's debt - and in Golub's and Motherwell's too. And it seems to me that Jones misses the point.

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