Thoughts in Progress
“Art is political”. “Not always; sometimes I just want to see something beautiful”. The previous verbal exchange was part of the final episode of Master of Photography, a recent series that was broadcast on Sky Arts. On the “arts as politics” side was Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer who has found fame for designing controversial advertising campaigns. On the “arts as aesthetics” corner was Simon Frederick, a British artist who has blurred the boundaries between photography and contemporary art.
To me they were both right, although they were both coming at the truth (their truth, more likely) from distorted angles. All art has an implicit political trait. Notice the small “p” in that sentence. This is not party-dependent art, but the type that is open to and encourages (mis) interpretation. So, on this I agree with Oliviero.
When in 2014, the artist Gillian Wearing unveiled her statue of two single mothers and their children in Birmingham she caused a bit of an uproar. Well, I say, a bit; in reality it was mainly The Daily Mail that complained about the absence of fathers in the piece. The rightwing tabloid could not conceive of contemporary art as a medium through which we could attempt to explain modern Britain. That the artwork was a fine sample of well-crafted aesthetics was also lost on the newspaper.
That is why I think that Simon is also right. In terms of conception and production, the artist is only accountable to her/himself. Whether the work is beautiful or not, is a point to be made by the public. Appreciation is the third stage of the creative process and one that does not rely on the author’s initial intention. The contestants on Master of Photography came from all corners of Europe (it was a Europe-wide competition) and they were set challenging tasks every week. Watching the programme made me fine-tune my “politics vs art” sixth sense even more. There were photographers with a very clear and obvious political agenda and this sadly came across as manipulative in their submissions. By contrast, one of my favourite photographs was one in which one of the artists placed herself in the frame, in the middle of a vast, desolate and human-free landscape. The way I interpreted it was as a statement on loneliness. A second reading made me think of man’s eternal smallness in the presence of nature’s magnitude.
When we talk about political art, we tend to think of the in-your-face type. The kind that leaves no one in any doubt as to what its intentions are. Yet, even overt political activism must have, in my opinion, an aesthetic side. I look at Picasso’s Dove of Peace and I like it for the beautiful work of art it is. Its significance is a bonus. Equally, I seek out and watch Ken Loach’s films as unsurpassable, artistically-articulated politically-charged discourses on the human condition. Failure to achieve this balance renders the artwork kitsch, in my opinion. There is plenty of art of this kind in former and current socialist regimes, including Cuba.
Likewise, the “art for art’s sake” mantra is a portmanteau vehicle for all kinds of excess and indulgences. The irony is that movements that have tried to walk away from politics (party-politics in this instance) as far as possible have ended up making political statements, whether intentional or not. The Dadaists, the impressionists, the post-modernists; they all have tried to break from the mould by making the artist and their work the central piece of their manifesto. But that small “p” politics keeps sneaking back in.
What I think Oliviero should have said is: All art is political, but not always explicit. To which Simon should have answered: Indeed, I sometimes just want to see something beautiful, even if it’s political.