Art Versus Politics, 2012

Three Voice critics debate the issue in the age of Occupy and Ai Weiwei

Everyone today, evangelical or freegan, agrees on one thing: The country's economic and political system needs to adapt to survive. But what about our art?

Throughout history, art and politics have mixed mostly like motor oil and Perrier water. In our age, though, the union of these ideas seems downright unavoidable. Recession, unemployment, the ubiquity of social media, and the increasingly Victorian split between the 1 percent and 99 percent all prove crucial collective challenges. In consideration of this, three art critics from The Village Voice (Martha Schwendener, R.C. Baker, and yours truly) got together to jointly ask: If an artist had something important to say about the world, would anyone really listen?

Baker: Let me throw out the first pitch. The idea of political art has always seemed a tough sell because it has so little bearing on real-world politics. Artists use politics as a concept or a goad. The art component of Occupy Wall Street, for example, is a sideshow when compared to the movement's impact on the country's larger political discussion. Or take the Art Workers' Coalition in the 1970s—they at least won free museum nights for the public. Now that's money in people's pocket, which is serious politics.

Margolles's Muro Baleado (Culiacán), 2009
Margolles's Muro Baleado (Culiacán), 2009

Schwendener: That free museum night is called Target® Fridays today. MOMA originally canceled the idea when too many people showed up.

Viveros-Fauné: As much as everyone celebrates the Art Workers' Coalition today, I can't help but see free Fridays at MOMA as token politics. On Bob's point: You say that art can't have political impact, but you're wrong. You're specifically wrong in terms of an artist like Ai Weiwei, but you're also wrong generally in not looking at art beyond the U.S. Contemporary art has been far more political in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere for decades. My problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it decanted into Occupy Museums, and Occupy Museums is totally boneheaded. That group insists on protesting transparent, accountable institutions like MOMA and Artists Space. They shouldn't be called Occupy Museums; they should be called Occupy Sotheby's. If they keep getting the target of their protest wrong, they'll wind up with the same token victories the Art Workers' Coalition got back in the Nixon era.

Baker: While too much political art is preaching to the choir, I do agree that Ai's installations have been viscerally brilliant.

Schwendener: Let me jump in here. The principal thing to consider with Ai Weiwei is his blog. In the Western world, we think artist and activist. Over in China, they think: What's the difference? If you're an artist, you're an activist. It has been that way for hundreds of years. Ai Weiwei has pushed his activism to the limit. When his blog got shut down, he went to Twitter and critiqued the government in 140-character messages, which is how long most of Mao's pronouncements were.

Baker: So back in the day, the Art Workers' Coalition got free museum nights, and now that has been turned into Target® Fridays. In the U.S., capitalism swallows everything and monetizes it. Maybe it's easier, then, to be a political artist in a repressive society.

Viveros-Fauné: It certainly makes the options starker. But conceptual artists have made work similar to Ai Weiwei's since the 1970s. For figures like Joseph Beuys and the Argentine group Tucumán Arde, the distinction between art and activism didn't really exist. What artists were good at then and now—besides making beautiful objects, which should never be sniffed at—was symbolizing change.

Baker: Absolutely, Beuys brought the social goods, and he never lost sight of aesthetics—I'm thinking of his felt-covered piano, a heartbreaking evocation of throttled hope. But who's doing gorgeous activist art like that today?

Viveros-Fauné: In Russia, there's this group Voina that's nuts enough to go around turning over police cars and calling it art. There's Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist living in New York, who—with the help of the Queens Museum—has put together Immigrant Movement International, a fully registered political party that is also a work of art. There's Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist who has turned the "business art" model away from making people rich and toward redeveloping entire blocks of cities like St. Louis and Detroit. And then there's Teresa Margolles. Now, there's an artist who urgently deserves a one-person museum exhibition in this city.

Baker: Why?

Viveros-Fauné: Because her art is fundamental to the issues we're talking about: poverty, injustice, global crisis. She works with the gristle and the grime and the blood found in Mexico's killing fields. She makes haunting, beautiful, intensely urgent work. She has also become a public figure. Like the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, she receives death threats but persists in making art at significant personal risk.

Schwendener: Working here, working there—we have a global art world. I think what we're talking about, in a nuts-and-bolts way, is a level of morality. There are people like Damien Hirst and others who want to game the system—like derivatives traders—to make a ton of money and get famous. And there are other people who are willing to put their ass on the line for principles larger than money. I want to head in a different direction. Art exists in a context, right? So look at two of the three women who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. One of them, Leymah Gbowee, rallied Liberian women in a sex strike that helped end that country's civil war. Another, Tawakkul Karman, lived in a tent in the main square of Yemen's capital as a protest against the regime. These are symbolic acts lifted straight from the art-world playbook, but we in the art world seem to have forgotten how to deploy them. Artists have these skills, but I think somehow our system has pushed them in the wrong direction.

Baker: That sounds right: Art should ring in new directions in the culture.

Viveros-Fauné: I really think you've got something there.

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Thanks for this interesting and helpful piece. I hope you'll consider doing something more in-depth.

Many of the greatest artists throughout history have expressed a great deal about political issues. Off the top of my head and in no particular order, one could talk about Alfredo Jaar, Anton Vidokle, Banksy, Cao Fei, Carl Andre, Critical Art Ensemble, David Cotterell, Goya, Graffiti Research Lab, Gregory Sholette, the Guerrilla Girls, Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, Joseph Beuys, Judy Chicago, Keith Haring, Leon Golub, Liam Gillick, Mark Lombardi, Martha Rosler, Mel Chin, Nam June Paik, Nancy Spero, Paul Villinski, Picasso, ®TMark, Shepard Fairey, Temporary Services, The Yes Men, Trevor Paglen, Walker Evans, Yoko Ono, and many more.

Sure, there's "bad" political art, just as there's "bad" non-political art; but personally, I take it as a good sign if a work shows evidence that it was generated from a larger, integrated understanding of the world that includes the political.

And I believe that great art, including political art, does indeed have profound and far-reaching effects; and not only on "culture," as narrowly defined. There's a reason why Queen Elizabeth I censored a production of Shakespeare's Richard II, and tyrants fear artists.

So, thanks again, and I hope to see more on this subject.

Greg S.
Greg S.

There are two types of art. That which represents and fortifies the status quo (ranging from decorative to propaganda) and that which critically challenges it (let's for the sake of argument call it 'real' art). Real art resists commodification (although never totally), is often fleeting or ephemeral, and can rarely be disassociated from its socio-political impetus. I know that a lot of activist art is cringe-worthy (which tends to drive a lot of mid-career artists away from it and into the monied sanctuary of the white cube), but there is art connected to (and inseparable from) socio-political movements that is truly profound and necessary. Quite often this is not the sort of art that is done after the fact or merely to show ones stripes, so it can disappear without trace.Many years ago I was involved with a protest against the exploitation of labor in Chinatown. Without boring you with the details, we discovered that the most effective way to have an impact (and not just make a still-born statement) was to strategically and creatively employ sound and props. These did highlight the issue (and eventaully played a part in a hard-fought victory), but they also added cultural significance to it. They made us see ourselves differently. We were not just the downtrodden (or supporting the downtrodden), we were creative beings that did not have to rely solely on a teleological outcome sometime in a fantastical future. Every day was a minor victory against 'boredom and oblivion'. This is, of course, not so different to the interventions into everyday life ('smashing spectacles') that were made by the Situationists and Fluxus (although these interventions for their own sake can become pretentious and pointless, but less so than white cube art that has the added attraction of possibly becoming valuable).

Greg S.


I'm glad to see this discussion happening, but I wish it went much further. Even the internal contradictions of the discussion could have generated something much more interesting. Let's take Occupy Wall Street for example.

Viveros-Fauné: My problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it decanted into Occupy Museums,...Schwendener: In the Western world, we think artist and activist. Over in China, they think: What's the difference?... Another, Tawakkul Karman, lived in a tent in the main square of Yemen's capital as a protest against the regime. These are symbolic acts lifted straight from the art-world playbook, but we in the art world seem to have forgotten how to deploy them.

First, how did OWS get "decanted" into Occupy Museums except through a narrow critical lens. But the more interesting question is: If, as all three panelist seem to agree, Tawakkul Karman living in a tent in the main square is seen as an effective art tactic to deploy in a political way, how was hundreds of people living in tents in the main square not an effective tactic?

"In the Western world, we think artist and activist. Over in China, they think: What's the difference?"

George W. Bush
George W. Bush

This interview is way too cute. "I really think you've got something there." Give me a bag into which I might puke please thank you.

You youngsters do seem to want to do something more than what you're doing though. I give you points for that. I think all you've got to do is to do your job properly--do your job better. Look and look and think.

All the artists you talk about are very chic and exotic. It sounds like you've been educated. I bet Lisa Phillips would give you a drink. Roberta Smith might give you a job. You fit right in. I'm VERY impressed.

But I think Stephen Colbert is a far more important as a political artist today here at home than the artists you talk about. Figuring out how to talk about him is no easy task. And then there's Bruce Gagnier. He's way way more Chinese than anybody on your list, but you've got to look to see his work--and think.

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