Five Ways of Seeing the Relationship Between Art and Politics
— In a Time of Trump
There has been a flurry of activity amongst publishers, curators, artists, and others in the weeks since the election of Donald Trump. This was prefigured by a (re)turn to politics and activism in the art world in the months preceding the US election. There has been a particularly pronounced focus on the question of the relationship between art and politics within these discussions. So what are the key themes of these discussions in recent months? What initial evaluation of these thematic explorations is possible? And what does this mean for the future of art and politics?
This short essay considers these questions. It aims, in the main, to describe the content of recent conversations about art and politics, drawing on art publications (online and in print), and events and shows in Berlin and New York, from 2016. (Using Berlin and New York as bases for extrapolating about ‘the art world’ is acutely Anglo-American, of course — and almost a caricature of most modern art writing. It remains true that Berlin and New York are hubs of artistic activity, however, and I refer to art events in these centres because I travelled to these cities in September and December 2016, respectively.) What follows is, hence, primarily a work of synthesis and aggregation of existing ideas (what has been talked about?), as opposed to a piece of independent, ground-up normative theorising (what should be talked about?). I take art very broadly to be forms of expression, play, and speculation that receive public display. I understand politics, meanwhile, to be activities relating to how power should be exercised and disciplined; in particular, politics is exemplified by parliamentary political activity, campaigning and activism, and the production of ideas, theories, and proposals that might provide a seedbed for parliamentary or activist practice.
The essay draws out of this five theses on the relationship between art and politics. These are the understandings of art and politics that have emerged in recent months (though I accept that value judgments are unavoidable, and that inevitably my blindspots and biases will affect my choice of dominant understandings). Some of the theses are overlapping and interlocking; some pull in different directions. The five theses are: (i) art as representation of political injustice, (ii) art as builder of political community, (iii) art as seed of political alternatives, (iv) art as escape or haven from politics, and (v) art as complicit in political oppression.
I write this essay not as an artist or art theorist, but as a writer with some background in politics and political theory. That perspective gives me a different (and hopefully, therefore, interesting) perspective to most writing about art and politics, although it also brings obvious drawbacks. My hope is that this essay throws some light on how art and politics might be related, and also reveals some of the shortcomings in contemporary conversations about that same subject.
1. Art as representation of political injustice
Art can present features of contemporary life in stark form, highlighting injustices or suggesting trends or developments that warrant resistance. One need not be committed to a superficial notion of truth to understand the insight in Dada poet Hugo Ball’s claim that: “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”
This dimension of art’s power has been demonstrated by new art depicting the institutional racism and white supremacy of contemporary Europe and America, and the activist responses to institutional racism and white supremacy. Luke Willis Thompson’s ‘Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries’ at Galerie Nagler Draxler in Berlin presents, with powerful pithiness, the impact of police murder on families. Thompson’s show consists of two short film clips of family members of black British people killed by police. We see the faces of the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Grace, Brandon, and the son of Joy Gardner, Graeme. The 16mm black-and-white footage forces a reckoning with the steady resilience written across Brandon and Graeme’s faces. It also compels close attention to details that assume outsized importance given our background knowledge: in the buoyant pulsing of a neck, for example, we see a fierce, defiant living in the face of police violence. Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ‘Nomenclature’, represented at the Forward Union Fair in New York in December 2016, involves twenty-one images of labels traditionally attached to African-Americans: including ‘American Negro’, ‘Free Africa’, ‘Person of Colour’, and ‘Black American’. The images, framed in white and using block white letters on a black backdrop, highlight the changing and contested self-identification of African-Americans or black Americans — and there is a forthright strength in these images, which hints at the way that such nomenclature has been an empowering tool in the fight against white supremacy.
Both Thompson and Rasheed’s pieces do not just reveal pre-existing ‘facts’ about the world. They provide new perspectives on actors in political struggles — a distinct way of seeing, to crib Berger’s phrase. These installations are a reminder that Luigi Ghirri’s comment on the nature of photography — that it is less a medium for “offering answers” and is “rather a language for asking questions about the world” — applies to art as a whole. They suggest that one function of art, in the age of Trump, might be to allow us to see our society more fully, possibly in a way that prompts political resistance.
2. Art as builder of political community
Art can bring people together, around gallery openings, events, and discussions — and a further theme emerging in recent months is the idea that communities created by art can have political potential, and that accordingly artists and curators should work to create and strengthen artistic communities.
Art publications and galleries have opened their doors to audiences in the aftermath of Trump’s election, in the same way that publishing houses (such as Verso Books) have showed a renewed energy in and urgency in organising events. Numerous examples could be spotlighted, but e-flux events in New York — including the double launch of books on machines and intersubjectivity in December — have involved particularly explicit discussions of the value of artistic community for political projects. Art departments at universities have also mobilised, and have perhaps been more willing to talk in explicitly ideological terms: an interesting case in point being New York University’s one-day December symposium on ‘Sense of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, and Trumpism’, organised by Andrew Weiner, which brought together activists, art theorists, artists, and others.
Some cautionary notes are needed about this impulse towards the building of community. There is a risk that the rush to construct collectives occurs without the development of any framework for understanding events or action, and without sufficient critical reflection about who is included within ‘the community’ and who is excluded. In a brilliant essay published on thetowner.com after Trump’s election, Elvia Wilk calls for those working in contemporary art — many of whom are part of the “notorious international culture class” — to ask these critical questions. “We need to construct and maintain support networks,” Wilk writes. However, she goes on, “if we are having meetings about what we can do, we should first and foremost be using them to discuss who we are. What voices are missing in our spaces?” She comments later in the essay on the exclusive rootlessness of much of the artistic community: “We exist in pockets of mostly urban areas, and those pockets connect directly to other pockets via travel and wifi, with an often uniform set of cultural principles and hierarchies extending across them.” I return to some of these contradictions of the art community below, when discussing art’s complicity in oppression.
If these critical conversations are initiated at the same time as attempts are made to consolidate community, it would appear that gatherings of the kind described can be significant political interventions, in our world of advanced capitalism whose goal remains — in Guy Debord’s words — “to restructure society without community”. At the very least, if events and discussions can be organised in a spirit of warmth and solidarity, we might see the stirrings of the coming community to which Giorgio Agamben once elliptically alluded.
3. Art as seed of political alternatives
In addition to documenting injustice and building community, art can gesture towards new political ideas, solutions, and priorities. This perspective, that art can seed political alternatives, has also been voiced in the lead-up to Trump’s election, and in the period since 8 November.
These political alternatives, sketched in outline through art, can be more or less fully-formed. Mira Dayal offers one version of this thesis in a short contribution to ‘The Air Sheets’, a Sorry Archive publication, released in December 2016 “as a direct response to the disquiet and apprehension of the past month”. Dayal writes: “After the election, I went into my studio with the intention of making work that could convey disgust and nausea.” Her work, using rotting fruits and vaseline, and its effects, seems to call for a greater political focus on affect, emotion, and the visceral as a challenge to the arid, sociopathic liberalism that has long dominated Left political thinking. That notion, alluded to by Dayal, that political thinking should be grounded more squarely in feeling has been picked up by activists and theorists in the aftermath of Trump’s election, who have called for a politics that embraces anger, empathy, and love.
A more didactic reminder of the power of art to contribute to fresh political visions is found in Julian Rosefeldt’s ‘Manifesto’, displayed in New York, Berlin, and elsewhere over the course of 2016. The show features Cate Blanchett in varying garb and identities, including at a funeral and as a school teacher, reciting artists’ manifestos on 13 different screens. The swirl of sound, colour, and words that one experiences when viewing ‘Manifesto’ is an indication of the intellectual energy that art can produce. And the words articulated by Blanchett — from the Futurists, Dadaists, and others — showcase the stretching ambition of artists in the past, leaving open the question of whether artists should reclaim such ambition in our contentious political present.
The Hamburger Bahnhof’s ‘Capital: Debt, Territory, Utopia’, shown from July-November 2016, represents another iteration of the way in which art can seed political alternatives. The vast collection of video, sculpture, paintings, and other forms draws attention to the centrality of debt in our time. A range of theorists — from anthropologist and activist David Graeber, to economist Adair Turner — have begun to home in on private debt in recent years, with evidence emerging of the links between high levels of private debt and financial crises, and Mauricio Lazzarato in his book Governed by Debt laying the intellectual foundations to see ‘the indebted’ as the new proletariat. The Hamburger Bahnhof show directs greater attention to this problem of indebtedness. It also underscores that the art-making process and the act creative expression — about subjects like debt — could themselves be political acts. In Joseph Beuys’ words, captured in the show, “the concept of creativity is a concept pertaining to freedom while at the same time referring to human ability.”
There is some resemblance between the place of artists in this enterprise and the role of poets in giving voice to emergent political developments. The poet Don Share said after the US election in an interview in The Atlantic that “one of the things poetry is really good at is anticipating things that need discussion”. Share noted: “Poets are kind of like … canaries in a coal mine. They have a sense for things that are in the air.” The same could be said of artists — that they are canaries in our collective mine — with the 2016 works by Dayal and Rosefeldt, and the Hamburger Bahnhof show, demonstrating how artists can play this vanguard-type role in seeding political alternatives, whether that is through adopting a new approach to politics (grounded in affect), setting out manifestos, or spotlighting a particular policy issue (such as indebtedness).
4. Art as escape or safe haven
In conversations I had with writers, curators, and artists about this topic as 2016 drew to a close, one question arose again and again: how can we square discussion of an artist’s political responsibilities with the view that art ought to involve an escape from politics? The thought can be expressed in two different ways: the art-making process could be seen as a space that needs to be apart from politics, or artwork itself could be regarded as speaking a different language, or addressing different topics; in both cases bringing art closer to politics might seem to threaten something fundamental about the practice of art.
This thesis is not the same as the simplistic claim (voiced at the e-flux launch of ‘For Machine Use Only’ in New York in December 2016) that any reference to art’s being political is a slide towards Stalinism. But it does involve an insistence that art should, in some meaningful sense, be kept distinct from (at least some forms of) politics. That separation of art and politics might be a means to the end of art seeing political alternatives or representing injustice, or it might be a politically important end in itself — a way to step away from, and stand up to, the messy maelstrom of politics; to create a space for freedom of the kind discussed by Hannah Arendt and Ariella Azoulay.
A variant of this thesis is outlined by Maggie Nelson in her 2011 book, The Art of Cruelty. Nelson draws on Jacques Ranciere’s principle of emancipation: that “art is emancipated and emancipating … when [it] stops wanting to emancipate us.” On this view, art should not set out explicitly to represent injustice, build community, or seed political alternatives (though arguably this does not preclude observers from pointing out that art can have these consequences). Nelson develops the point with reference to art depicting cruelty. For her, “when things are going well with art-making and art-viewing, art doesn’t really say or teach anything.” She resists the idea that art can tell ‘the truth’ of our times: “The artist standing bravely in the face of the (inconvenient, brutal, hard-won, dangerous, offensive truth) … — what could be more heroic?” Nelson asks. But we should be more comfortable with the idea that art can’t tell us “how things are”, but instead can only give us “the irregular, transitory, and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being”. Ranciere and Nelson’s points take us a little away from art as an escape, or safe haven; but they are connected. They suggest that what art can do is produce singular insights about human experience, and that we should acknowledge that art is at its best when it seeks these insights, and is cautious about doing the grand general theorising that is customary in political writing and action.
It is important that this thesis about art’s capacity to be a safe haven from politics does not make the naïve assumption that art can be apolitical. Politics seeps into our pores, and saturates society, wherever we are positioned (and even when we aim to stand apart from society): through our upbringing, through the spectacles of advertising and media that are difficult to escape, through the registers and substance of our everyday interactions with others, online and offline. Even art that is produced in a space set back from politics cannot but be influenced by political mores of some sort. Nevertheless, as long as this depoliticising impulse is resisted, it remains possible for art to aspire to be distinct from various political developments. This posture is an important one when arguably the need for independent critical thinking has never been greater. (It is worth mentioning in passing, though, that some have argued that it is independence from art that is necessary, too: this is the position of McKenzie Wark, who claimed in his 2008 lecture, ’50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International’, that critical thought has to “take its distance” from the three “worlds of journalism, art, and the academy”, even at the same time that those worlds provide the conditions for critical thinking.)
5. Art as complicit in political injustice
The final way that art and politics have been commonly related and conceptualised in recent months is through a framework of complicity: with the claim being that art should see itself as at least partially responsible for some of the political injustices of our time. Two different approaches to complicity have been offered by Adam Curtis and the New York-based #decolonizethisplace project.
In his film, Hyper-Normalisation, Adam Curtis argues that artists’ retreat from collective projects in the 1970s, and turn towards individualism, is partly to blame for the rise of aggressive neoliberalism. Patti Smith comes in for particular criticism, though she is regarded as an embodiment of a broader trend amongst artists. In an interview for ArtSpace, elaborating on the point, Curtis says that in the 1970s “more and more people looked to art as a way of expressing their radicalism in an individual way”, and “the very idea of self-expression might not have had the radical potential they thought.” Curtis claims that self-expression aligned well with a neoliberalism guided by self-interest, and it prevented the emergence of “really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins.” Curtis calls for artists to “go into the woods at night together”, to “give yourself up to something that is bigger than yourself”, and to do more to attack the world of power. Some of this is overblown and misguided. Curtis’s denial that he himself is an artist is dubious and self-serving, and he seems to conflate the co-option of self-expression by neoliberalism and the pursuit of dissident self-expression. While his cry for a Left politics more focused on power and collective projects is undoubtedly necessary, his vision for the future of progressive politics also seems to leave little room for critical individuals (and is a little myopic when it comes to race, gender, and other forms of oppression). Notwithstanding these shortcomings in his analysis, Curtis raises interesting questions about how artists may have knowingly and unknowingly contributed to the injustices of contemporary capitalism.
#decolonizethisplace acts from very different starting points, but reaches a similar conclusion about the complicity of contemporary art, as Amin Hussain explained at the New York University symposium on ‘Sense of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, and Trumpism’. The project — an art space and network of activists, artists, and others driven by the MTL+ collective — has undertaken a series of direct actions to address the entanglement of the art world in institutional racism and exploitation, and to make the positive case for indigenous struggle, black liberation, a free Palestine, de-gentrification, and a global movement of wage workers. Husain described one prominent action organised by the group in May 2016, when activists occupied the Brooklyn Museum to draw attention to the Museum’s links to gentrification and the displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank. The ‘decolonization’ rallying cry has also been issued by student movements in universities in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States (including by the #RhodesMustFall movement in Oxford, with which I have had some involvement). Overall, the work of #decolonizethisspace in New York and elsewhere appears to be a welcome intervention, given that the world of contemporary art remains dominated by men, especially men racialized as white, and implicated in some of the worst excesses of contemporary colonial capitalism.
Different arguments can be made about what ought to flow from contemporary art’s complicity in political injustice. Perhaps what is needed is an honest reckoning with the historical and present-day narrative, of the kind that Adam Curtis attempts in Hyper-Normalisation or of the kind offered by Dan Fox in his lucid assessment of the relationship between contemporary art and class in Frieze in November/December 2016 (though we should notice, in passing, that both writers are themselves white men). But perhaps a stronger response is needed, if we are to follow the lead of #decolonizethisspace — an ending of projects that contribute to displacement, imperialism, inequality, patriarchy, and so on; and possibly even some further action to redress art’s complicity in the past. For others a logical response might be support of accelerationist projects (of the sort nodded to in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future) to speed up the end of capitalism and the current economic and social order.
Difficult questions of responsibility arise when considering what duties artists might have to take action (does ‘the contemporary art world’ have a collective responsibility for past artists’ actions?). What is clear, however, is that when we consider the relationship between art and politics, we should not view artists in some heroic light, as vanguard activists who wear the mantle of righteously leading the left-wing charge against villains, the political establishment, and the indifferent. Instead, we should tell a more nuanced story. Like everyone, enmeshed as we all are within the unjust structures of contemporary society, artists can be oppressors as well as the oppressed, contributors to injustice as well as catalysts of emancipation.
As Bruce Sterling wrote recently in Texte Zur Kunst, “It’s hard to write of momentous events in the hot, crispy, pan-fried moment in which events are momentous.” I have attempted to delineate some major threads of recent thinking on art and politics in an attempt to make sense of this messy moment we find ourselves in.
I did not plan to write this piece, after Trump’s election or later. What I found, particularly on a two-week trip to New York, was that people rooted in political activist spaces (a realm I am more familiar with) and people working in and around contemporary art (a realm I am less familiar with) were expressing an interest in, sometimes a need for, each other — and a desire to develop ways of thinking about how they ought to relate to each other. For those working in progressive politics or activism or organising, there was a sense that old methods were clearly not working, that new communities would have to be reached — and that curators, artists, and art theorists represented one such community with whom new relationships should be built. For those in contemporary art, the gravity of political developments after the election of Trump prompted a push for more engagement with individuals and groups doing explicitly political work. Those expressions set me off in my thinking about art and politics, forcing me to reconsider recent shows in Berlin as well as in New York. This slight essay represents a small effort to facilitate the conversations between these communities. It also represents an effort to bring some order and clarity to the frenzied conversations that are occurring in the aftermath of Trump’s election — though I acknowledge that the themes that I have explored are not usefully frozen in time, and will develop dynamically in the coming months and years.
I have not addressed every theme touching on art and politics that has been raised in recent months; my lack of references to the post-Internet turn in art (and its political implications), or to activities at the edge of the artistic world (in gaming and coding, for instance) may seem like significant omissions. I have aimed instead to draw out themes that have been prominent in conversations to which I have been privy; but no doubt a person with a different background and set of interests could explicate a distinct set of theses about art and politics.
I have also largely ignored historical work on the question of how art and politics should be related. These questions aren’t new, of course. Related concerns were raised at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, and discussed by theorists such as Walter Benjamin, as well as artists like Bertolt Brecht and W.H. Auden. Constructivist art sparked many similar arguments. And indigenous thinkers and artists have also engaged with the need for resistance through art in New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular.
This might be the next challenge, to circle back to an observation at the outset of this essay: discerning what is truly novel about Trump times, and what represents a recurrence of patterns of oppression or an echo of past ideological move. It is a challenge to which those working on contemporary art and those working in politics can make a distinct and important contribution.
I do not want to end with any quasi-authoritative pronouncements about how art and politics are ‘really’ related. The relationship is contextual, and may differ not just across countries but also across local communities of artists and political thinkers, depending on a variety of factors. What may be fruitful in these times when artistic and political communities have significant reserves of energy, and when there is no shortage of problems to which that energy might be directed, is simply for these communities to continue — in conversation with each other — to experiment with the different possible relationships, in a spirit of simultaneous self-criticism, boldness, play, courage, and love. What could come of these experiments and collaborations seems beyond prediction or anticipation, and perhaps in this moment we can hope for nothing better than that.