frieze

Issue 87 November-December 2004 RSS

What the World Needs Now ...

Politics

22 artists respond to four questions on political art

The result of the November’s United States presidential election will have symbolic and concrete global repercussions. What cannot be seen at the time of writing is whether relief or depression will reign after the ballots have been counted. What is known, though, is that whatever the outcome, the issue of art’s political dimension and function remains pertinent – and the discussion is a fundamentally international one. What constitutes political art? Has there been a resurgence of it? What is an example of art that is politically effective? Is political art preaching to the converted? These questions are as nagging as they are necessary. frieze has asked the following artists for their thoughts: Pavel Althamer, Pierre Bismuth, Andrea Bowers, AA Bronson, Chris Burden, Paul Chan, Jeremy Deller, Sam Durant, Michael Fullerton, Emma Hedditch, Jon Hendricks, Joan Jonas, Jakob Kolding, Matthieu Laurette, Marko Lulic, Aleksandra Mir, Deimantas Narkevičius, Paul Noble, Nils Norman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Kara Walker and Gillian Wearing.


What constitutes political art?

Pavel Althamer Art is like love – we love (hate), so we create.

a) we give ourselves in to intuition – passion
b) very carefully we observe processes occurring in ourselves – calculate effects
c) a + b

Pierre Bismuth Every work of art is political, in the same way any action with a public dimension is political. Regardless of whether or not it is intended, or of whether or not one is conscious of it. But I think the term ‘political art’ is commonly used for works whose political dimension is in the foreground, becoming the label, the brand and the principal motif of the work. However, just as every work of art has a political dimension, every supposedly political work has a formal dimension, and regardless of the validity of the ideals it supports, its form may be totally devoid of interest.

Andrea Bowers All art has a political component and reflects an ideological stance towards or against an authoritative direction or control.

Chris Burden I think all art and art-making is political. Art-making is subversive in its very nature, as it challenges economic, religious and political systems. The artist works outside the system when choosing to make art and precludes what conventional wisdom would deem to be productive work. In making art, the artist becomes autonomous and self-contained, and thereby rejects society’s paradigms.

Paul Chan Something made or organized by more than one person that generates fear, anger or confusion by its mere existence and is, above all, free.

Jeremy Deller I find this difficult to answer as it begs the question ‘what is the definition of political?’ I generally see it as a wide definition, and in terms of art even wider.

Sam Durant Every work of art is political. Unfortunately it is only work that challenges the interests of power that gets called political art.

Michael Fullerton An intention – or is that a political artist? I reckon political art is determined afterwards, i.e., in its effect. I wouldn’t attempt to define political art as genre or professional category.

Emma Hedditch If we thing about politics as action or an act, something that we are doing most of the time – it could be talking, buying vegetables or making art – then I don’t think we have to constitute it, but it’s interesting and political to make some exchanges and try to find ways to express actions or at least foreground them as significant. I can’t help thinking about how to have a discussion about the terms on which we are embarking on such discussions. If I position myself as an artist who is about to engage in discussion about art in an art magazine, which from the outside I have often perceived as a non-discursive place until I was asked to contribute to it, I consider the fact that I don’t know Jennifer, the person who is inviting me, and why she is inviting me, who the other artists are or how the discussion will be presented and framed in the magazine. Or whether I am getting paid for my work. None of which should be considered cynical questions – more rhetorical. It is significant that these questions that I have, and that define my ability to act with others ad make those actions visible. I think these are things that happen in politics; we make questions about how situations are constructed, and what is the intention of the situation. I would consider these questions both in relation to art practice and as art practice.

Jon Hendricks Political art is like landscape painting or plumbing. The landscape artist depicts a poplar or a shimmering lake or the Alps, and chooses a particular way of expressing or depicting the subject – Pointillistic, Impressionistic, illusionistic, whatever. The plumber fixes the pipes when the shit goes in the wrong direction. The political artist uses as subject matter a social or political concern instead of a poplar tree – Bush’s lies, manipulations, hypocritical religious posturings and cultural genocide in Iraq, instead of an outcropping of rocks; Ashcroft’s suspension of civil liberties, instead of puffy white clouds; Rumsfeld’s directive to disregard the Geneva Conventions in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and all over Iraq, instead of a pasture of grazing cattle. The political artist selects a way to convey these concerns, choosing perhaps direct action, performance, painting, posters, newspaper inserts, leaflets from the sky, ads from magazines of newspapers, cartoons … the possibilities are endless. The job of art is to convey an idea and open the mind of the viewer to seeing the subject in a fresh, provocative way. It is the responsibility of the political artist to shake people out of their complacency. Wake up. Act.

Jacob Kolding I think it’s impossible to say. It can obviously be many things in many different contexts, but first of all you have to get rid of any notion of art as an independent space. It would have to be art that somehow relates to current issues and to some notion of context in general. That doesn’t necessarily make it political, though.

Matthieu Laurette Words added to the word ‘art’ are usually unnecessary (i.e. young British art, video art, social art, Performance Art, body art, Land Art, fax art, eat art, noodle art etc). What’s important is whether the art is interesting and relevant art or not. It is easy to say that all art is inherently political, but when I hear ‘political art’ I admit I usually think it is going to be patronizing, instead of providing tools to trangress limits and reach different audiences. I’m more interested in artists that have a social and political conscience at work that in-your-face ‘political art’. Although I don’t consider myself a ‘political artist’ I try to pay attention to context in which I exhibit. Where is the money coming from? Who invited me? Why? That is one of the reasons I developed the ‘Other Countries Pavilion / Citizenship’ project for the Venice Biennale project in 2001. I asked Harald Szeemann to write letters to the Ambassadors or Permanent Representatives of the 112 country members of the United Nations that were not represented in the Venice Biennale that year. Szeemann asked each country id they could provide me with a citizenship if, in return, I represented them in the Biennale. None of them agreed.

Marco Lulic Every work of art is political. Artists are members of society, and thus every work of art represents a statement, and an attitude, with or without political reference.

Aleksandra Mir The production of consciousness.

Deimantas Narkevičius There is a cultural tradition, i.e., a little more than a decade ago, that being apolitical for an artist was quite unacceptable. A conspicuously apolitical attitude used to be provocative and hazardous. This tradition, which is nowadays disappearing, has developed a sensitivity, which enables artists to employ subtle, thus far unexpressed in full, political nuances in the visual arts. The political statement of the other was to find a flexible, plastic form that could be hardly put into a definition.

Paul Noble Everything is and isn’t political at the same time.It is the social and economic situation of the moment that makes looking at or making art more or less political – not the intentions of the maker. To the visually excitable, making and looking at art can provide life-affirming and revolutionary moments that the memory will hungrily clear shelp space for. Beyond the tedious requirement for words to make ‘sense’, the pictorial can display dizzying concepts that are somehow proved in their materiality. From the urbane spirituality of Seurat to Valie Export’s auto-objectification, Scwitters’ and Hugo Ball’s anti-order, Smithson and Andre’s utilitarian Zen, Fahlstrom and Trockel, Bob and Barry Flanagan, and even boring Ad Reinhardt, whose different coloured blacks can tell us that we are not quite dead – art can provide some kind of freedom. The questions asked by frieze – What is political art? Is there more of it? Does it work? – have all been put because it is becoming harder to ignore that the decedant liberties of time and space necessary to be an artist come at a cost. It is for ‘freedom’ that Blair and Bush have occupied Iraq. The capitalist machine needs the concept of liberalism and democracy as a hallucinatory mask to disguise its fascist and profiteering goals. It really is a brave new world. The ultra-freedoms of art workers become no more than the freedom of a collaborator whore to choose which frock to wear. We all look different but end up working for the same pimp. Blair is the new Hitler – New Labour is the new National Socialism. Like the postwar civilain in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) who exclaims, ‘I don’t understand; before I was a national socialist, but now I’m a Nazi!’ – well the same goes for us. Hitler made two famous exhibitions – ‘Good Art’ and ‘Degenerate Art’. We would all like to think that our work would be seen as antithetical to Nazism, then and now – but the opposite is true. Now, whatever the intent of the artist, the fredom to make, to show and to see has become propagandized by the new fascist bastards in power. 

Nils Norman My favourite political art was made in the 1990s by the yBA generation, opening up new markets, creating interesting new class structures, reproducing the establishment – great!

Wolfgang Tillmans Art that encourages the viewer to question preconceived ideas of certainty and truth.

Kara Walker All work is a product of its time and can be seen as responding to politics in a general way. Political art tends to both narrow its focus to specific events and to reflect the social belief system of the artist.

Gillian Wearing There is an overt form of political art where the message and sentiment of the work clearly speak of the stance taken by the artist, and then art that has a political message within it, but the appearance of the object, film, photograph or painting does not preclude other non-political readings. For instance, I am not only drawn to the beauty and poetry of Chantal Ackerman’s D’est film [1993], a travelogue filmed in Eastern Europe, but equally I find it important as a specific historical moment, in that it illuminates how the vestiges of Communism still framed the landscape and determined social behaviour

 

 

Do you think there has been a resurgence of political art?

Pavel Althamer
a) we give ourselves in to intuition – passion
b) very carefully we observe processes occurring in ourselves – calculate effects
c) a + b

Pierre Bismuth Yes. On the other hand, I find that in many cases, this renewed interest in political art also reveals a desire on the part of the artists to escape from the field of art. This is something I don’t think was the case in the past, if you consider for example the work of people such as Lawrence Wiener or Daniel Buren where the political implications are very clear, but always integrated into the question of art. My impression is that by freeing itself from the domain of art, and sometimes shifting towards the domain of communications, this new generation of political artists accepts and implicitly legitimizes a perception of the world as presented to us by the entire information industry, which is something I personally find highly dubious, both politically and in terms of art.

Andrea Bowers There is a resurgence of interest in political art. There has always been strongly political work being produced; it is just a matter of whether magazines, curators, collectors, gallerists and trend-setters are paying attention to it. The market prefers that the political be sidestepped because it makes the product more difficult to sell. I think that the current political climate of war and the tyranny of neo-conservative values have forced the left to be more active. Therefore there is more of an interest in related issues being addressed in art. I think people in general are more politically active now than they have been in years. I am definitely more politically active than I have been in my life. I’m from the American generation who felt powerless, who grew up with Vietnam and Watergate on TV and learnt as children to be cynical of all that is political. I hope this current political awareness has encouraged more artists to feel confident in addressing political ideas directly in their work. However, as Adrian Piper stated in ‘Goodbye to Easy Listening’ (1990): ‘Aspiring to effect political change obviously is not the only function art can or should have. Art that entertains, instructs, stimulates the imagination, or privileges respite from hard realities are just a few of the other important functions we need art to satisfy. But what distinguishes all such art that is meant to be seen is its avoidance of the cultivated triviality of Easy Listing Art. Perhaps we may finally put that behind us.’

Chris Burden Because these are heightened political times and because of the prevalence of the mass media, there appears to be a resurgence of political art.

Paul Chan No. There is a resurgence in the attention given to works and artists that act as bookmarks for this peculiar chapter in history. And why ‘resurgence’? Isn’t the appropriate word ‘insurgence’?

Jeremy Deller I think that for obvious reasons there has been a resurgence in political consciousness in the last few years, and so it follows.

Sam Durant The production of so-called political art never subsided; it’s always been there. Institutions and the market are just paying a little more attention to it these days.

Michael Fullerton Don’t know.

Emma Hedditch We all know that there has been a shift in the way that politics is represented and made visible – in the UK for example, ‘New Labour’ epitomizes that shift – and a shift in the politics of representation, visual culture and visibility. That is not to say that all art or politics seeks visibility and is representable or that those shifts are directly a consequence of one another.

Jon Hendricks There seems to be more political art now than recently here in the US. There needs to be much more.

Joan Jonas We live in terrible times. Artists relate in different ways to the world around them, and so many are responding to the criminal acts of our government at this moment, just as Goya made The Disasters of War (1810) in his time, John Heartfield produced political posters in his, and Anna Akhmatova wrote the poem ‘Why is our century worse than any other … ?’ Artists are now joining the protest before it is too late. If a statement or a drawing or an action affects or moves just one other person, it is significant. Flags are forbidden. Carry them.

Jacob Kolding Or a resurgence of attention to political art? I guess you could say so, but it would of course also depend on where you are looking from – geographically and from what position within the art world. For instance, I can’t say that I have seen loads of political art at commercial galleries recently.

Matthieu Laurette I’m based in New York and I sometimes feel like Voltaire’s Candide. I’ve been watching party conventiosn on TV. I’ve seen the protests and the news: some chaneels talk more about hurricanes in Florida than about the forthcoming election and others the election and nothing else. I’ve been to many ‘art’ dinners where half of the conversation was about ‘political’ issues; I’ve been to ‘art’ parties where kids wear T-shirts with messages like ‘The only Bush I trust is my own’. I went to Annika Larson’s show at Andrea Rosen Gallery and read on the entrance door ‘Are you registered to vote?’ I keep hearing the word ‘democracy’, and it seems to mean elect Kerry and get rid of Bush. I have this cool Downtown for Democracy T-shirt I bought at Marc Jacobs. I didn’t go to the Liberty Fair but some friends told me they went and were happy because they saw Björk and Matthew Barney with their baby. I’ve been buying organic yoghurt that has written on its lid ‘your vote matters: Nearly 50% of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2000. Don’t stay home in 2004’. I’ve seen P. Diddy’s ‘Vote or Die’ slogan everywhere on posters in the street. I’ve seen MTV ads that say: ‘Choose or lose’, ‘Lara Croft can’t but she wants you to’ and ‘Vote on the MTV website PR Election and win cool stuff’. I’ve seen that Fahrenheit 9/11 has been playing in Times Square for more than three months when all the regualr blockbusters are only shown there about three weeks. Volunteers who ask me if I am registered to vote have stopped me ten times a day. Friends keep forwarding me emails from MoveOn.org. I’ve been to shows and events labelled ‘Anti-Bush’ and ‘pro-Democracy’ – but is it political art? Only very few works have conviced me of a political efficacy. Most of them were naive or didactic although some shows have a good energy and were attneded by a cross-section of people. Compared to Europe it seems that, at least in New York, there has been a resurgence of political art (and not only art). But is that what it is? Or is itan aestheticization, a commodification of politics and activism? Is it nostalgic for 1960s and ‘70s political art? I think ‘political art’ has always been around, and if it’s seen as the latest art trend according to some magazines and exhibitions, I hope it is not just because art and politics have cynically encompassed their own criticism.

Marco Lulic I can’t really tell, but in any case, I think it’s important there is art that clearly sees itself as political. I also think, however, that it is important to keep in mind that art, whatever boundaries it might may transcend or expand ‘will always end up as decor on the walls of the rich.’ (Pierre Bourdieu)

Aleksandra Mir Maybe, but the politics I see around me are more veiled and complex than simply the articulation of slogans.

Deimantas Narkevičius For decades art from Eastern Europe has been approached primarily from a political perspective.

Nils Norman No.

Wolfgang Tillmans The question itself is telling. It’s sad to think that it takes a Republican president in the White House for the art world to become more politically engaged.

Gillian Wearing Inevitably with current global politics there is going to be much more evidence of politically concerned art.

Kara Walker I don’t think political art ever went away; however, public interest and patience with overtly political work has shifted somewhat recently. I recall how angered people were by the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which was seen as a kind of Marxist cultural revolution, an anti-aesthetic bomb from which fine art would never recover. More artists coming from previously marginalized groups are being recognized and are having to weather the straits of making art for its own sake and answering the (sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting) demands of history.

 

 

Can you give an example of a piece of art you think is politically effective?

Pavel Althamer Art workshops in kindergarten.

a) nice drawing – evokes a smile on the teacher’s face
b) bad drawing or lack of drawing = ? 
it is good to learn a skill
c) a + b

Pierre Bismuth No, not if one considers that political effectiveness implies that a political action can change the course of events in the way that laws, strikes or attacks do. Nonetheless, an artwork can represent an eloquent and striking critique, awakening minds or helping to reinforce certain positions.

Chris Burden In my mind Richard Serra’s art is an example of politically effective art. He could be building ships with those huge pieces of metal, but he’s making art.

Andrea Bowers I can only speak of works that have had an effect on the way I interpret the world (these are just a few, I could create an endless list):  Hanna Wilke’s series ‘So Help Me Hannah’ (1982), Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butler (1978–81) and the series ‘Intra-Venus’(1992); Mike Kelley’s, Pay for Your Pleasure (1988); Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons (1983), Cornered (1988) and Black Box/White Box (1992); Felix González-Torres’ billboards, stacks of posters and piles of candy; Ana Mendieta’s People Looking at Blood and Moffit (1973); Gerhard Richter’s 18 Oktober 1977 (1988); Lynda Benglis’ advertisement in Artforum, November 1974, all of her pured latex pieces and the photographs of her pouring them; all of Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s drawings of corners in domestic space; Michael Asher.

AA Bronson The idea that political art should be effective is highly questionable, although this is implied in your wording.

Paul Chan When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quash the ‘Prague Spring’ (a series of economic and free speech reforms that liberal-minded Czech communist leaders enacted), the people of Prague were overwhelmed and could not resist militarily. So they did the next best thing: they painted all their street signs white. For eight months the Soviets could not arrest resistance leaders, shut down pirate radio and television stations or break up organized meetings, all because they couldn’t fucking find them.

Jeremy Deller Virtually anything by Caravaggio.  In contemporary art Guitar Drag [2000], by Christian Marclay.

Sam Durant To one degree or another all art works are politically effective; it’s a matter of whose interests they serve. The myth that some art works are neutral is what perpetuates the idea that some works are political and some are not. Readers might refer to Adrian Piper’s essay ‘Power Relations within Existing Art Institutions’ (1983) for its remarkably clear analysis of this issue, along with others of some relevance to this discussion.

Michael Fullerton Thomas Gainsborough’s oeuvre – I like the plausible deniability of his work. Politically sensitive information recorded and aesthetically camouflaged.

Emma Hedditch I think the continued practice of artists, not individual works, is political, and only that practice as reflective and in relation to a contemporary situation. Artists that have been doing this? The Copenhagen Free University, Adrian Piper, Pary Kelly, Gustav Metzger, Kirsten Dufour, Cecilia Wendt, Sharon Hayes, Barbara Steveni, Yvonne Rainer, Ulrike Otttinger, Marina Griznic, Weekend Art are some suggestions, but they are also those who are visible, and that I have read about and know.

Jon Hendricks There are many works that one could cite. I was especially impressed with Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1989) which was installed in an exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago Museum School. I think it was a great art work. It not only forced the viewer to consider how to interact with the work, but also provoked enormous discussion and activity about the issues in Chicago and even in Washington. This discussion is still reverberating today, perhaps ten or 15 years later, with, on the one hand, the President and Congress urging a constitutional amendment to protect the flag; and on the other, the Supreme Court and rational people seeing this flag as only a symbol, and the necessity To be able to use it in various forms of constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

Jacob Kolding As a relatively recent example, C.U.D.I. (Center for Urban Culture, Dialogue and Information) (2001), a project organized by Lise Skou and Lasse Lau in Vollsmose, Denmark.

Matthieu Laurette This is the second time this month I’ve been asked this. I was asked by 16 Beaver group to join them for a panel discussion for the show ‘The Interventionist’t at Massachusetts MoCA. The asked each guest to describe an art work they consider politically effective. I couldn;t make up my mind at the time, because for every art work I thought of, I found points of inefficacy. Although I tend to think there are lots of works that are politically effective, most of these are not considered political art.

Marco Lulic No.

Aleksandra Mir The Battle of Orgreave [2001], by Jeremy Deller. He is the only artist I know who manages to do thorough research on his subject matter, connect with enormous amounts of people across the board, have a distinct purpose that he can eloquently argue and the ease of letting it all go.

Deimantas Narkevičius A politically effective art is particular and target-oriented.

Nils Norman My favourite political art was made in the 1990s by the yBA generation, opening up new markets, creating interesting new class structures, reproducing the establishment – great!

Wolfgang Tillmans Any piece of art whose sale generates a lot of money for a cause or campaign.

Gillian Wearing Effective in the sense of political change belongs not to art but to the image. I can think of nothing more powerful than the images of photojournalists. In particular, Nick Ut’s (Huynh Cong) photograph Vietnam Napalm 06.08.1972, of children running from jellied gasoline in the village of Trang Bang. I was nine years old in 1972, the same age of Kim Phuc, the girl running naked in the centre of the photograph. I remember my grandmother crying when this photograph was printed in the newspaper (the only time I ever saw her shed tears). I can think of no other image that has embedded itself so clearly in my mind that I can place myself back in time to the moment I first saw it. Even when I see it now, there is no distortion to what I saw then and what I remember of it. It is the one image I can say I have photographically memorized. There is nothing more horrific than the reality of war, especially captured with a sense of distance, which is the premise of documentary photography. The Vietnam photographers, many of whom died during the war, showed images of the battle scene that no one had been prepared for, and it was this sense of shock that helped change public opinion and probably helped end the war.

Kara Walker I like to think of Donald Judd’s Marfa complex as exemplifying the strivings of White patriarchy. But that’s just me; I don’t think he intended that.

 

 


Do you think it is effective to make political work that functions within the art world, or is this simply preaching to the converted?

Pavel Althamer Political art by nature is focused on effectiveness.

 a) drawing of viewers and gaining recognition
b) ignoring viewers and recognition
c) = ?

MAYBE THERE IS NO OTHER ART EXCEPT POLITICAL ART

Pierre Bismuth Do you think it is effective to make political work that functions within the art world or is this simply preaching to the converted? Again, it all depends on what one means by effective. And in any case, I don’t imagine that all political artworks preach the same thing, besides which the world of art is immense and certainly doesn’t consist exclusively of individuals with the same political loyalties.

Andrea Bowers About a year ago I read Stan Brakhage’s book Film At Wit’s End (1991), and there was a passage that really stuck with me. He said that ‘Far-out, avant-garde searching-for-new-ways people often have the most conservative attitudes toward anything that will not fit in with their movement. Really, my experience with artists has been that, generally speaking, one half-step outside their own field and they are much more conservative and malicious than George Bush.’ (He was speaking of the first President Bush.) All I’m suggesting is that the converted are as not converted as we think. Although I’m an artist who works with political content, I’ve never seen myself as a preacher. There are options besides preaching, such as discussion, interpretation, analysis, invention and perhaps even feeling and aesthetics. Preaching to the converted is a derogatory term used to undermine all works that foreground a political subject. If you just think about it for one minute you realize it is a ridiculous criticism.

AA Bronson The notion that art ‘fuctions’ within the art world implies that it does not fuction elsewhere. What does function mean here? The wording implies that frieze considers that political art should function, but again, I believe that is a questionable position. So the process of answering the questions becomes an exercise in untangling the meanings already implicit in the wording of the questions. Perhaps this is already a political process.

Chris Burden I think it is effective to make art in the world.

Paul Chan This is a chump question; I’m not answering this.

Jeremy Deller Firstly, I don’t think artists think of their art in terms of an art world audience. I know I don’t; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. And I don’t think the art world is necessarily ‘the converted’; it is, after all, a great place to meet retired arms dealers.

Sam Durant The criticism that a work is preaching to the converted (or choir) is always trotted out to devalue and de-legitimize anything that is threatening to the status quo of institutionalized art world power. The very act of invoking it demonstrates that in fact the art world is anything but converted. Although things have improved (and precisely because of so-called political work), a simple analysis of who and what gets shown, who writes and curates, who runs the institutions (never mind who controls global power and wealth) will bear this out. Hans Haacke’s response to this question in Artforum’s political issue [2004] brings up another refutation of this hand-wringing criticism. To paraphrase him: that’s what we do in all aspects of our lives – we talk to people we agree with, like-minded people, in our religions, political gatherings and parties, social circles, etc. This is, in fact, the way we do change; preaching to the converted is the very thing that allows us to change. The same point was brought out by Cornel West in a conversation with Toni Morrison where he says that art works aren’t solely responsible for radical or revolutionary change. They are part of the struggle, part of a radical or revolutionary movement for change. So in this sense they do preach to the converted, but this not understood as a fault, rather as something to be celebrated.

Emma Hedditch I don’t think the art world is the converted; I think in terms of employment law, pay and equal opportunities the art world is far behind many other industries, so no it’s not effective, it’s vital.

Jon Hendricks The more the better. As artists, we certainly function within the art world, but in many instances that can spread out into the larger context, and we shouldn’t not do something just because it might not reach beyond the gallery walls. As artists, we must speak within our community, just as scientists or writers or teachers of conscience must speak within their communities. However, artists need to learn to speak in broader languages to reach out well beyond the safe confines of museums, galleries and art journals. The very idea of art is that it’s a form of communication or language, and if it stops at the garden gates, it’s not as effective as if it would reach into the gutters and sewers of Washington. The danger is feel-good complacency. In 1971 Jean Toche and I wrote a Communiqué from the Guerrilla Art Action Group, which might still be useful today:

TO BE INVOLVED IN USEFUL LABOUR – AS A REVOLUTIONARY ARTIST –
YOU MUST:
1) BE AVAILABLE WHEN NEEDED.
2) FORGET ABOUT IMPRINTING YOUR OWN STYLISTIC AESTHETIC ONTO THE REALITY.
3) DEAL WITH DAY-TO-DAY REALITIES, NOT FANTASIES.
4) BE ABLE TO OVERCOME YOUR PERSONAL HANG-UPS.
5) DEAL WITH ISSUES, NOT PERSONALITIES.
6) BE ACTIVE, NOT REACTIVE.
7) BE ABLE TO WORK ALONE, OR WITH OTHERS.
8) BE FLEXIBLE.
9) BE ABLE TO TAKE INITIATIVE WHEN NEEDED.
10) NOT BE AFRAID TO MAKE MISTAKES.
11) NOT BE AFRAID OF BEING INCONSISTANT.
12) BE VERSATILE.
13) BE IMAGINATIVE.
14) GET RID OF PRECONCEPTIONS.
15) CONSTANTLY REDEFINE YOUR ROLE AS REALITY DICTATES.

Jakob Kolding Firstly, I don’t think art is isolated from the rest of the world, and secondly I am afraid that it is too optimistic to consider the art world converted.

Marco Lulic  Artist, like any other citizen, can become politically active, which can (maybe) be politically effective. Art can be political, but as I don’t believe in it having a noteworthy impact beyond the field of art, I do think it’s ‘preaching to the converted’. But that has to be done, as art is a scope for development, for trying out things that you can’t try out anywhere else. Precisely because there is a difference between politics, political effectiveness and political art, it’s important that artists continue to transcend art’s boundaries, confronting art with subject matters and approaches that are not already in themselves pleasant and decorative.

Aleksandra Mir My art world is not a closet. I see the art audience as broad, diverse and growing, and so is the pool of practitioners within. Few people agree on anything, so who is to say they are already converted, and to what? Art will always be a democratic area in which diverse thought can be freely expressed, but personally, and locally speaking, I am getting more and more worried that the civil liberties which have been lost during the Bush administration will take generations to rebuild, and a second term with him in office may limit the grounds even more for artists to do research, communicate and exist.

Deimantas Narkevičius First of all, a political art work is effective within the art world. A division between politics and art will remain for the sake of ensuring that art is not converted too simply. 

Nils Norman I think art can still work in a transformative way, but this works on an incremental scale, a series of nudges or small pushes. The art world is just one of many fronts on which these micro-radicalizations can be fought. Preaching to the converted is a bad cliché. The art world is a market just like any other; the idea that the people operating in it are somehow more enlightened or liberal is a myth.

Wolfgang Tillmans Assuming the art world is all politically correct is wrong. A New York dealer friend of mine, for example, told me that half of his collectors probably vote for Bush.

Gillian Wearing Well, information is valuable. 

Kara Walker I think it is better to not try to make political art, because trying will back fire. If the personal is really political, any sensitive artist with a grain of empathy and wit will manage to blend the concerns of her material with the socio-political environment she works in.

Pierre Bismuth translated by Nicholas Grindell


frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at editors@frieze.com.

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