Political Art

Political Art

Postby CAP » Sun Mar 18, 2012 11:01 am

By the looks of it, Art Review are either too slack to approve my comments to the feature by J. J. Charlesworth on Political Art (after 10 days or so) or else they disapprove and I’m blacklisted. Neither does them much credit. Neither seems quite credible. So I’ll respond here to what is, even by Charlesworth’s lax standards, pretty flabby thinking.

J.J. goes into bat for ‘artistic freedom’ against funding bodies that reject work for its political content. He cites two cases where work is denied exhibition under sponsorship arrangements and goes on to make the case that art is the last place where such subversive or radical content can be effectively communicated. The argument is flawed from top to bottom.

Firstly, nothing has prevented the artist from making the work they desired – artistic freedom is not at issue here, merely its display under the rules of the exhibitors, which is quite another thing. Secondly, the example of Austrian artist, Oliver Ressler, whose commissioned billboards superimposed the caption ‘Elections are a con,’ upon an alpine landscape - a sentiment that understandably affronted local government for the billboard sites – is defended by J.J. for his ‘pithy’ comment, ‘riffing’ on a May ‘68 slogan from Paris. But whether the allusion was effectively presented (properly cited) and what relevance it might hold for alpine scenery fifty years later, goes unexamined. Certainly it is hard to see how such trite and lazy sloganeering can be construed as ‘pithy’ when no effort is made to show why or how they are a con, in what context this might apply to Austria, what relation it might share with France, fifty years ago. It strikes me more of a case of artists expecting to make art on the strength of their politics (but this applies to all kinds of correctness) and disappointed when political sentiment is met with political sentiment. But why should the artist be allowed to play with politics and a local council not allowed to play with art? Fair is fair. If the object was to provoke a confrontation, then Ressler can hardly complain – his work has drawn the sharpest of responses from the most keenly interested.

Thirdly, J.J. claims that 60s political art set the precedent here, but misses the point that works using magazine advertisements or billboards at the time were accepted within the context of Conceptual Art, that is, for formal values as well as political content. Not all political pamphleteering was accepted as (Conceptual) art; not all Conceptual Art was political. For artists 50 years on to cling to such well-worn moves signals, if anything, a regrettable complacency. Comfortable ‘right-on’ sentiments moving smoothly along the institutional chain are not really politics at all and no more than academic as art. The naive belief that art institutions accept if not welcome radical content is really fostered by those who want their cake and to eat it too. They want their political allegiances to guarantee their art (as forms) and they want their tired art forms to guarantee righteous content. It can only be a recipe for mediocrity and hypocrisy. There is no safe institutional retreat from which to voice radical concerns since these by their nature must undermine just such institutions. The radical political artist can either adopt a more subtle and subversive approach, which requires considerable ingenuity or inventiveness, or they can accept that their agenda must start, not just from the means of production, but the means of distribution or exhibition.

But faced with these hard options, we pretty soon discover just how radical these political artists are, how committed they are to firstly art, secondly to real politik.
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