söndag 13 mars 2011

Art & Politics

We discussed the relation between art and politics in our reading group, and afterwards I tried to sum up my thoughts thusly:

I believe that art is inherently political, because of two basic aspects of it:

  • Art is an empowering activity. By making manifest use of one's own creativity one moves from being a passive receiver (of sensory stimula, of entertainment, of norms and expectations) to being an active agent, thereby enhancing one's own freedom, and in an ideal world, the freedom of others. This has rich political potential, especially in a society where culture has been all but completely reduced to entertainment, where ideological battle has been smoothed over and where the feeling of powerlessness in face of global problems is spreading.
  • Art is a social activity. As the cliché states; art is born in the eyes of the beholder. I’d add that it’s also born in the preparatory talks and the post-exhibition discussions, but even the most ardent cultivator of the solitary genius myth must have his/her work seen by an audience for it to become art. Otherwise it simply falls outside my definition of art. Again, our current paradigm of individualism is challenged by a socially inclusive action that has nothing to gain from competition.

That definition of art, as an empowering and social activity, makes it, in relation to our world, a transformative action; and that is my very definition of politics. I believe that a lot of statements made against art being political are based on the common misconception and narrow interpretation of the word politics as including only subjects already on an official or informal political agenda. Rather, for me, the real political action is at the very origin of societal change, not in the laws or demonstrations that confirm and regulate that change. And that is also where art is one of the most effective tools; to propose a new perspective, to question an uncontended aspect of society, or just to bring people together around a creative action that is not a controlled part of the production system.

So I think art can be private, abstract, even attempting to be void of meaning, and still have political implications. Yet I wish more art would consciously address social issues, and I admire most those artists who recognize and cultivate the connection between the personal and the societal.

But this is also where it becomes difficult for me. The acute awareness of a problem often risks inhibiting creativity. One thinks one step too far, and finds oneself in front of a staggering rise of society’s ills, in face of which art seems an insufficient answer. Once again, this has to be a mistaken view. Art, like any truly political action, does not need to alone breach that wall, but only to be the fertilized soil in front of it, in which change can grow. Art should be the question that beckons an answer, it should never provide the answer.

For in some way I agree with the decriers of political art, in that the art they define as political is most often bad art. But what makes it bad as art also makes it less political than good art. That is, art that takes an opinionated stand, no matter how sympathetic, reduces its problematizing capacity, and thus becomes part of a mainstream culture that serves answers and opinions without inviting its audience to a discussion. In other words, an artwork consisting of painted skulls on the american flag to protest imperialism might be an empowering act for the artist, and it might express an opinion which we agree with, but it has all but completely lost its socially empowering aspect, since it does not open up to complex interpretation.

I think that one way to avoid this is to look inwards, and always strive to put oneself in one’s art. Detaching oneself from a problem and looking at it from ”over here”, one cannot help but form some kind of judgement and thus fall into the trap of opinionated art. Art that is born solely out of anger and frustration with the world often turns into bad political art. But as soon as one realizes one’s own part in the problem, and sees society’s missteps reiterated in one's own actions, anger and fingerpointing are replaced by investigation. Then, art will most likely come out as a question that it’s up to an audience to search for an answer to. This is why I love this quote from Ana Mendieta with which I will end these reflections:

It is only with a real and long enough awakening that a person becomes present to himself, and it is only with this presence that a person begins to live like a human being. To know oneself is to know the world, and it is also paradoxically a form of exile from the world. I know that it is this presence of myself, this self-knowledge which causes me to dialogue with the world around me by making art. (Mendieta, 2003: 1065)


Ana Mendieta, 'Art and Politics' in
Art In Theory, 1900-2000, 2nd ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2003) pp. 1064-1065

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