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.
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.
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.