Up next on Flash Points, we introduce the topic of Art + Politics. Yes, we unashamedly admit, this is a timely topic riding the wave of excitement of Barack Obama becoming the nation’s first African-American President. But more broadly, the subject of art and politics has created countless books, symposia, exhibitions, and activist projects. Over the next six weeks we’ll explore the diverse ways that art and politics intersect, inform, overlap, and challenge each other. It is our hope that a discussion here on Flash Points will provide additional insight into the role of art in this particular moment in time. Is art inherently political, regardless of its intentions or motives? What role has political art played both in the history of art but also in the broader context of history? Can and will art participate in this new mandate of “change,” and if so, how?
Artists often deploy their work strategically to engage viewers in critical inquiry of social, economic, and political issues that define a particular moment. The 1970 work MoMA Poll, by Hans Haacke, asked viewers to answer the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not voting for him in November?” Museum-goers could vote and the results were visually represented in transparent ballot boxes. The artwork served as a form of political engagement in two ways. Not only did it function as a political poll, testing the unpopularity of Vietnam, but it also served as a form of institutional critique, as the Governor also served as a trustee of the Museum.
Defining movements in our national history like the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Gay Liberation Front, Feminism, Black Power, immigrant rights, and labor movements have greatly impacted our collective political and cultural memory. These social organizations and the significant issues they have addressed have provided additional opportunities and strategies for artists to work towards specific goals. In the 1980s, groups like the Guerilla Girls, Gran Fury, Group Material, and Colab took issues that were not seen as particularly political, such as the lack of female representation in museums and the AIDS crisis, and politicized them through dissemination of provocative images and information. Silence=Death, created by Gran Fury and adopted by the activist group Act-Up, is still a well-recognized icon now synonymous with HIV/AIDS activism. Both of these collectives waged media wars through art to draw attention to their causes, but they also battled with the Reagan administration and the political system as well. These are just two examples, but does art have to be partisan to be political?
Art consistently toys with notions of power, whether to comment on the horrors of war, as evidenced in the work of artists such as Richard Serra (Season 1) as well as other Art21 artists including Nancy Spero, Alfredo Jaar, and Jenny Holzer (all Season 4), or to pay homage to powerful figures, as reflected in more traditional forms such as monuments, presidential portraits, and religious imagery.
On the other hand, art can also serve the controversial function of propaganda, looking back upon court painters like Jacques-Louis David and Diego Velasquez to today’s Venice Biennale positioning contemporary artists as nation builders. What are the ties binding art, power, and patronage? Below is a recent portrait of George W. Bush that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. with a caption that reads, “. . . Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001 which led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office.” After much protest, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont persuaded the Smithsonian Institution to remove “led to” from the caption.
To get the conversation started, here’s a recap of some of the questions we’ll be exploring in the coming weeks. Please help us frame the discussion by leaving a comment below.
- Is art inherently political, regardless of its intentions or motives or does art have to be partisan to be political?
- What role has political art played both in the history of art but also in the broader context of history?
- What ties bind art, power, and patronage?
- Can and will art participate in this new mandate of “change,” and if so, how?
Since this column gets posted on Wednesdays (and believe me, I didn’t arrange it this way), it’s been my pleasure to contribute posts directly after the November 4th election (see Hope and Change) and today, after the thrilling inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President.
Throughout President Obama’s speech, I kept thinking about ways we can teach students about being truly productive citizens- citizens that contribute, think critically, offer service, and teach others. It got me thinking about artists in the Art21 series who can help teach about these things in a variety of ways….
First, Krzysztof Wodiczko can certainly teach students that speaking out can not only be something done in a newspaper editorial or part of a speech, but it can also be a part of the art we create. Wodiczko helps voices literally project themselves and allows viewpoints to be shared in ways few artists approach.
Nancy Spero can teach about protest and history, and how protest can take many forms- somehow avoiding violence yet simultaneously picturing it.
Jenny Holzer offers students the opportunity to think critically about the text she uses in her work and then relate that to what it means to be a “good” or “productive” citizen. Her recent work with declassified documents can open up meaningful discussion about what citizens should know and be informed of.
Mark Dion can teach students about teaching others through art. Whether it’s work inspired by literature or installation inspired by natural elements, Dion shares with students that the work of contemporary artists can educate and inspire discussion about things such as sustainability, recycling, and preserving natural resources.
Lastly, I want to mention Robert Adams‘ photography. Through his quiet and intense pictures, students can reflect on the things we must do to save and reclaim the parts of our landscape that are devastated by greed and carelessness.
Have you used, or are planning to use Art21 segments and resources as part of your post-inauguration lessons? Please share them with us!
Pictured above: Jenny Holzer, “Benches”, 1989
Installation: Dorris C. Freedman Plaza New York, New York.
Our City Dreams, a new documentary by Chiara Clemente (daughter of artist Francesco Clemente), will debut at Film Forum, Feb. 4-17, 2009. Filmed over the course of two years, this “love letter” to New York City strings together self-told narratives by five women artists, ages 30 – 80: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith (Season 2), Marina Abramovic and Nancy Spero (Season 4). Each artist has a passion for making art that is inseparable from her devotion to New York.
Clemente captures significant moments in these artists’s lives, including Swoon’s first solo exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York, Ghada Amer’s return to her Egyptian homeland, Kiki Smith’s traveling retrospective, Marina Abramovic’s week-long series of performances at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Nancy Spero’s preparation of a new piece for the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Ronnie Scheib in Variety writes that the film is “exquisitely crafted” and “ranks as a work of art itself.”
Nancy Spero‘s Un Coup de Dent opened this week at Galerie Lelong, New York. The Season 4 artist exhibits an early body of expressionistic works referred to as the Black Paintings, as well as related drawings created between 1954 and 1965.
Made while she was living in France, the Black Paintings are somber works-on-paper, images of lovers, mothers and children, and bestiaries that allude to “existential oppositions and emotional turmoil.” Spero worked on these paintings over a long period of time and often at night, haunting them with the romantic, nightmarish, and mythic sensibilities of the bewitching hours.
Un Coup de Dent runs through February 21st.
I started thinking about the word “difficulty” in relation to controversial art because the things in art which grab me, even shock me, rarely line up with the scandal that art produces. The first time I saw Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, I was shocked by its color-saturated beauty and then totally freaked out by the beaver shot-butterflies, which I only understood as porn clippings when I was within a couple feet of the canvas. It’s a chilling and eloquent visual comment on colonial desire—on the art world’s hope of “discovering some new form of Hottentot” (in the words of Rebecca Harding Davis).
Controversial art often challenges the production and regulation of pleasure in museums and galleries. We are taught to expect very specific forms of pleasure from visual art. And the range of feeling allowed the spectator in the museum seems much narrower than that which we enjoy in other spaces. Artworks can be difficult in their affective intensity—in other words, when they describe and provoke “bad feelings” like sadness, anger, or anxiety.
Why are we prepared to accept the value of “feeling bad” when we read a novel, but not when we go to our museums? Why is it “easier” for us to watch an upsetting movie than it is to keep company with contemporary art that makes similar emotional demands on us? Continue reading »
In the next few days, two high school classes I’m working with will be creating paintings inspired by the multiple meanings and interpretations of POWER. Three Art21 artists – Nancy Spero, Laylah Ali and Cai Guo-Qiang – will serve as starting points for developing student ideas and adding to initial sketchbook work.
To begin the unit, we went through a fairly intense period of organized experiments using ink, watercolor, and tempera paint. Students were encouraged to not only review concepts learned in previous years regarding color mixing and brush technique, but were also encouraged to make the various media do things that were unexpected and new. This re-familiarization of what was learned combined with making new discoveries has set the stage for working with a variety of ideas in the upcoming paintings.
In preparation for our active viewing of the three artist segments, students are currently working on sketchbook drawings that interpret the idea of power literally, symbolically and abstractly. More to come!
Cai Guo-Qiang (Season 3) has been awarded the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize, which comes with a solo exhibition at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. Opening October 25th, the commemorative exhibition focuses on Cai’s activities themed on the destruction of the atomic bomb and subsequent regeneration. The works will be comprised of a massive (4x 45 meters) gunpowder drawing, new large-scale, site-specific installations, and a black fireworks performance that will also open the event.
Established by the city of Hiroshima, Japan in 1989, the Hiroshima Art Prize acknowledges the achievements of artists who have contributed to the peace of humanity within the field of contemporary art, and who through their creative activities “spread the Spirit of Hiroshima,” a message of global peace. Past recipients include Issey Miyake, Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Spero (Season 4) and Leon Golub, Krzysztof Wodiczko (Season 3), Daniel Libeskind, and Shirin Neshat.
Cai recently served as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. The Guggenheim Museum in New York held a retrospective of the artist’s works this past spring. In 1994 Cai produced another project in Hiroshima, an outdoor event about requiem and rebirth titled The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No.16.
For a full program that includes a panel discussion moderated by the exhibition’s curator Yukie Kamiya, please go to the museum website.
Whichever candidate succeeds this November, there will be a discernible effect in art. The last eight years have seen a resurgence of politically motivated art comparable to that produced during and after the Vietnam War. Characterizing the nature of art made now is, of course, a quixotic and thankless task. Contemporary art is far too multifarious and globally produced, experienced, and consumed to be bracketed into an “ism.” However, an art born of outrage revitalizing art’s shock tactics has emerged within the last few years, and may be seeing its twilight in the run up to a new administration.
Political outrage can blast the subtlety out of artmaking, and not all attempts to articulate it have been successful. Too often, real events throw artists’ discontent into stark relief. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Superficial Engagement at Barbara Gladstone in 2005, nail-studded, gnarly, and startling, looked mute and minor in relation to the Abu Ghraib revelations. A new show of work by veteran minimalist and performance artist Robert Morris at Spruth Magers in London has a pre-emptively archaic look to it: all inverted American flags, big black eagles, and screaming skulls in relief: theatrical, even camp in its outrage.
However, some works have addressed contemporary history with a lucidity and thoughtfulness that has asserted the importance of art as a forum for non-mainstream discussion. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain installation at Tate Britain was a rare example of a poised and poetic response to the curtailing of civil liberties that have taken place during the Iraq war, and is one of a number of more oblique responses to contemporary events that drag the discussion into the realm of art without compromising their efficacy as works of art (Alfredo Jaar‘s and An-My Lê’s works operate on similar levels). And Maypole (Take No Prisoners) (2007), by fellow Protest artist Nancy Spero, might be this generation’s Guernica: a howl of pain and anger distilled into a direct visual language that feeds into a historical continuum of the human cost of war—the visual articulation of horrified disbelief. Graphically simple paintings on paper of human heads–screeching, wailing, vomiting–radiate suspended from blood-red threads around a maypole, conflating historical circularity (the pole itself recalls the grotesque folk ritual dramatised in The Wicker Man), the theatrics of warfare, and raw human emotion.
The example of Spero is, in fact, instructive; the best political art has always been able to be comprehended in mass-media contexts. It’s significant that Goya’s Third of May and Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa–both produced on the cusp of the mass-distribution period that produced Guernica, a painting that replicates the striations of newsprint–retain their visual currency in political cartoons. Conversely, successful photographic icons of wartime have a pictorial quality that links them to the heritage of painted protest. Staged propaganda photographs from the American Civil War and photographs of atrocities from Abu Ghraib share a compositional quality that taps into a subconscious compositional sympathy (Art21 guest blogger Emily Liebert has written succinctly and fascinatingly on the role of photography in wartime here).
The revival of protest in painting has re-engaged the connection between painted mark and emotional intensity muffled by the generation of post-Richter distanced photorealists. Increasing mistrust of mainstream media coverage and the euphemistic language of contemporary conflict may turn out to be art’s gain; we may return to it as the basic language of human understanding and communication. Whether or not that continues to be the case will, in part, depend upon what takes place in six weeks’ time.
EXCLUSIVE: Leon Golub’s Gigantomachy II (1966) and Nancy Spero’s Maypole: Take No Prisoners (2007) in her New York studio.
A pioneer of feminist art, Nancy Spero’s work since the 1960s is an unapologetic statement against the pervasive abuse of power, Western privilege, and male dominance. Executed with a raw intensity on paper and in ephemeral installations, her work often draws its imagery and subject matter from current and historical events such as the torture of women in Nicaragua, the Holocaust, and the atrocities of the Vietnam War.
DISCUSS: What do you think about this video? Leave a comment!
Art and activism have been intimately engaged throughout contemporary art history, reiterating the notion that the personal is political. In 2007, Art:21’s Season 4 addressed activist strategies (in particular, the politics of war) in “Protest,” which included Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jaar, An-My Lê, and Nancy Spero. A new investigation of art and activism (in this case, the AIDS crisis) can currently be seen in SIDE X SIDE, an exhibition curated by Dean Daderko for Visual AIDS on view through August 3, 2008 at La MaMa La Galleria in the East Village.
With works from the 1980s to the present by Scott Burton, Kate Huh, Nicholas Moufarrege, Martin Wong, and Carrie Yamaoka, Daderko’s project is rooted in the history of the 1980s in New York City where more than 10,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Between 1986 and 1991 there were numerous exhibitions, conferences, and artworks about AIDS in New York, while activist groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Visual AIDS worked to educate the public and insist on medical research and treatment. Art21 artist Oliver Herring (Season 3) has also made works related to AIDS, in particular A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger (1991) a tribute to the performance artist who committed suicide in 1990 after discovering that he had AIDS.
One of the most noted exhibitions about the politics of AIDS was Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (a 1989 review of the show can be found in the New York Times on-line) organized by artist Nan Goldin at Artists Space in 1989. The show highlighted a group of artists living in the lower east side of Manhattan who were directly affected by AIDS. Daderko’s project is a sobering reminder of this history as well as a tribute to those who have been lost to this vicious disease. Further details and upcoming events related to SIDE X SIDE can be found on the Visual AIDS website.