Art & Politics

January 15, 2003
Mike Parr, Malevich (A Political Arm), performance for as long as possible
Mike Parr, Malevich (A Political Arm), performance for as long as possible

There was a period of about a decade, starting from the early-to-mid 1980s, when every major art event had to be accompanied by an extensive series of forums. These talk-fests were often boring, and always inconclusive. Some participants gave the impression of having done no preparation whatsoever, others had written papers of impenetrable, theoretical complexity. The latter would be delivered in a drone that accelerated into a hasty muttering as the time limit was reached, then exceeded. If there were time for questions, no-one would mention these complex presentations – possibly because no-one had been listening.

The hey-day of the forum is over, although there are still occasional outbreaks, mainly at publicly-funded, ‘alternative’ venues such as Artspace in Sydney. There one might also savour an incomprehensible lecture – filled with cryptic references to interdisciplinary theory, circular sentence constructions, and banalities disguised as paradoxes. I’ll refrain from quoting examples, but can refer readers to Rex Butler’s freshly-published A Secret History of Australian Art – a collection of “lectures” that allies minimal content to maximum complexity of expression. It is a book that promises marvels, in theory, but delivers zip – except perhaps another predictable suck to that small band of artists and art writers who are forever moistening one another’s pockets. It is also a form of academic vanity publishing, because a serious-looking book is good for the CV, even if no-one reads it.

So what is the justification for all this expenditure of hot air, this waste of time and paper? When one digs down to the bottom of the pile, the underlying motivation is political. Ever since the term ‘avant-garde’ was first applied to artists, circa 1850, it has been assumed that a revolution in artistic form is also, by implication, a revolutionary political gesture. As the social revolutionary aims to liberate the masses from the yoke of a tyrant or an oppressive political structure (usually capitalism), so too does the artistic revolutionary aim to liberate art from the tyranny of conventions, disciplines and petit-bourgeois taste, that impedes the free flow of human creativity.

This connection seemed to hold true for an artist such as Courbet, who not only painted in a revolutionary “realist” style, but took a leading role in the Paris uprisings of 1870, and was sent to prison for his efforts. For this reason, he remains a kind of patron saint for all politically-committed artists. The following generation of avant-garde painters took a different tack. Cézanne said he wanted to astonish Paris with an apple, while the Impressionists painted scenes of middle-class leisure and rustic charm, albeit in a ‘revolutionary’ style. While there have been numerous attempts to read political meanings into Impressionist subject matter – particularly in the case of Camille Pissarro, an avowed anarchist – the movement has come to signify a lost, idyllic world to the gallery-going public, who adore Monet and Renoir over all other artists.

In the case of the Nabis – a group of young painters that took their name from a word meaning “prophet”, and their aesthetic cues from Gauguin – decoration assumed a kind of revolutionary significance. For Nabis artists such as Denis, Serusier, Vuillard and Bonnard, the revolt was against easel painting. Pictures were to be large-scale decorations painted directly onto the walls of houses and apartments. Since this required sponsors who were willing to pay for commissions, it could hardly be seen as a revolt against the social order. Perhaps for the first time artists found they could enjoy the privileged, paradoxical position of being self-professed revolutionaries being employed by capitalism.

With the beginning of the twentieth century one revolution in art followed hard on the heels of another, some more overtly political than others. Futurism, for instance, was closely allied to the rise of Fascism in Italy, although not every member of the group was a party supporter. The Futurists worshipped modernity and the machine, and Fascism styled itself as the most revolutionary and progressive of political movements. In Russia, the Constructivists were enthusiastic supporters of the Bolsheviks, believing that a new society required a new kind of art – a clear, hard-edged, non-sentimental art, related to architecture, engineering and forms of public propaganda. It is one of the ironies of history that the workers soon declared their distaste for this new style, and Socialist Realism became the officially-approved face of Soviet culture.

It is especially worth noting that in 1921, Rodchenko exhibited three monochromes to declare that he was abandoning the outmoded, petit-bourgeois genre of painting in favour of photography and design projects. The show was accompanied by a manifesto called The Last Painting, which boldly declared an end to the era of the brush. Ever since that day, it seems that avant-garde artists have believed they could enhance their revolutionary credentials by painting that last painting again, and again, and again. It is like the lead character in Svevo’s modernist novel, Confessions of Zeno (1923), who is continually lighting his last cigarette. The monochrome has become an academic genre in its own right, with careers and reputations been sustained by artists who specialise in surfaces with a single colour, usually with industrial efficiency.

In contemporary art, the monochrome is a sacred talisman of avant-garde respectability. It is assumed that any artist who can continue to paint something so boring and self-denying, must be possessed of the most rigorous integrity. Even if all the works are bought by museums or rich collectors, a faint whiff of the ‘revolutionary’ lingers on, although this is like ascribing subversive power to a corporate logo.

Among other modern movements, Expressionism was probably the most politically-charged. Many works by Beckmann, Köllwitz, Dix, Kokoschka and others, were direct expressions of anger or pathos. Artists such as George Grosz or the collagist John Heartfield, launched savage satirical attacks on the Weimar republic, as it lurched into Hitler’s arms. But when Expressionism returned in the late 1970s, with a “Neo” in front of its name, much of the trademark anger was transmuted into a sloppy, energetic way of putting paint on canvas. Subjects might be political in inspiration, but more often they were purely narcissistic. The Neo-Expressionists didn’t seem too offended by the sins of capitalism, and the leading artists were propelled into instant, international stardom by an art market eager for new sensations, after a long winter of Conceptual and Minimalist Art. It may be a hackneyed line, but think of Karl Marx quoting Hegel’s belief that everything in history happens twice: first as tragedy, later as farce.

Conceptual Art itself, had been born in the late 1960s as a critique of the bourgeois art market. Instead of creating expensive commodities to be bought and sold by the wealthy few, artists began making texts, ‘happenings’, and ephemeral installations that could not be hung on a gallery wall. It was, however, a very short step to the point where the documentation of these events could be bought and sold, collected and celebrated. Joseph Kossuth, one of the leading Conceptualists, had made so much money by the age of 25 that he bought himself a farm in Tuscany. So who needs commodities?

The co-option of Conceptualism into the system it supposedly critiqued, is a cautionary tale for all artistic revolutionaries. The Conceptualists had watched an earlier generation of cranky, left-wing American artists pioneer Abstract Expressionism, and then turn into media celebrities. Their work, which seemed so shocking at first, was one of America’s most potent cultural exports during the 1950s and 60s. While there was nothing overtly political about Abstract Expressionism, its very openness meant that it could come to stand for American freedoms, for that can-do, pioneering spirit. It made a neat contrast with the laborious, social realist propaganda being produced by Russian artists during the height of the Cold War.

It would be easy to analyse the political affiliations and conceits of every art movement of the twentieth century, but the basic point is that every one of them had some kind of political association – whether it was wanted or not. Artists are the fools and court jesters of modern society, licenced to say the unsayable – albeit usually within the sanctuary of a museum. There is an expectation that new art will be shocking or confronting in some way; and our usual terms of evaluation are borrowed from political discourse. Shocking, confronting art is always ‘radical’, while more conventional painting and sculpture is ‘conservative’. It is an inflexible principle that radical is good, and conservative is bad. Have you ever heard a contemporary art android praise a work by calling it “conservative”?

It politics it is not so simple. The Prime Minister proudly describes himself as a conservative, as do many other politicians and political commentators. Indeed, it would be a little weird and disturbing if John Howard suddenly began describing himself as a ‘radical’. In fact, it would be alarming. The thought of a self-professed radical with the power to send this country to war, or introduce a new tax system would probably be more than the electorate could tolerate. So why is it that artists can be as radical as they like – can run around naked in public places, mutilate themselves, exhibit their dirty underwear or samples of bodily fluids, etc, etc – and everybody thinks this is OK? Better than OK: by some magical association such acts become celebrated as politically-potent gestures.

It is tempting say this is because politics happens in the real world, and art happens in a charmed, imaginary realm we call the artworld. Rarely do these two worlds meet, although the inhabitants of the real world enjoy a clear window onto everything that happens in the artworld – that is, if they choose to watch. If they do indulge in a little voyeurism, it is reassuring to know that whatever happens in the artworld – no matter how whacky or violent – generally remains in that world, with no way of crossing over onto planet Earth.

When there is a momentary meeting of worlds, the results can be catastrophic. The political journalist, Margot Kingston, told me recently how she had been invited to talk on a forum about ‘The Art of Dissent’. She eventually walked out, after being accused by one of the other participants, artist Mike Parr, of using “crass sentimentality as a device to sell more newspapers.” Mike himself, had recently sewn his lips together as a gesture of solidarity with asylum seekers – and not, of course, as a publicity stunt.

What is remarkable about this incident is that Parr had responded to Kingston’s suggestion that, in the wake of the Bali tragedy, artists might be able to do something to help unify the nation, or help us deal with our shared outrage and grief. It seems that the mere thought that artists could do something collectively, or take part in some enterprise that addresses the entire nation, was enough to cause insults to fly. Such an idea could only lead to “sentimentality”, whereas sewing one’s lips together – or any of Mike’s previous self-mutilating antics – obviously took the right, hard-edged and challenging approach. It is as though the artist can only address politics obliquely, if he or she wants to be seen as truly radical.

The other key observation to be drawn from this story is the extreme intolerance shown by the self-professed radical artist for any other point of view – particularly an opinion on art put forward by someone outside of the art scene. To give it a name, the attitude is Stalinist. There is only one acceptable point of view, one central authority, and no dissenters will be tolerated. If that authority wants to calls itself “socialist” or “revolutionary” or “avant-garde”, woe betide anyone who comes up with a different description.

There is a form of soft Stalinism that insists everyone sits quietly and listens to some self-indulgent lecture or art forum, telling us about the impeccable radicality of artists X or Y. It is equally Stalinist to expect everyone to accept the infallibility of the great leader – whether it be Saddam, Kim Jong Il, or some hero of the avant-garde; or to treat every whisper of criticism or difference of opinion as a threat to the existing order that must be liquidated.

In his book of 1976, The Totalitarian Temptation, the philosopher, Jean-Francois Revel, looked at the pitiful way in which so many socialists and progressive liberals were prepared to turn a blind eye to the sins of communism, for fear of being labeled “reactionaries”. Revel argued that since true socialism has only ever existed as an idea, it is wrong to treat totalitarian states as though they represent some flawed left-wing ideal. Has there ever been a communist country that was not a Stalinist one? Revel thinks not. While China remains communist, it is now so committed to a capitalist market that the old political norms no longer seem to apply. Yet anyone who spends time in China knows that the Stalinist rigidities practiced under Mao are not buried deeply beneath the surface.

Just as left-wing political discourse of the twentieth century has been debilitated by its perceived need to remain loyal to supposed socialist states, so too have critics and curators felt the need to support a supposedly ‘radical’ art, practised more often by social opportunists than by socialists. To do otherwise was to risk being labelled a “reactionary” or a “conservative”. In politics this may be commonplace, but in art such labels carry weight, because the entire artworld is founded on a series of shared illusions. One cannot hope to prosper within such a world if one is seen as “conservative”, and this is may be why arts bureaucrats seem to have such relentlessly progressive taste. They look first to that art which trumpets its own radical, non-commercial, credentials, when they are making funding decisions. The system is a closed and clubbish one, perpetuated by the terrorism of fashion – the dread of falling out with the in-crowd.

The problem today, is that politics has reasserted itself so spectacularly in our everyday lives, with threats of war and terrorism, that artworld politics seems more parodic than ever. In fact it has never been immediately apparent how someone’s subversive artwork had any impact on the political sphere. Museums have been subverted on a weekly basis by avant-garde geniuses, but still their doors remain open. Millions of words have been written in catalogues and journals extolling the political power of various artists, but somehow, capitalism has continued to thrive. All those monochromes and bits of dirty underwear, shown to so little effect!

It’s not that works of art can’t be political, or cannot make
direct political points. It’s that there is something dishonest about the way virtually the entire spectrum of contemporary art is bathed in an abstract glow of political significance – even when the work is self-evidently about nothing but space, or colour, or the artist’s tortured ego.

We need to distinguish between works that do and don’t have a political ambition, and don’t simply assume that there is something intrinsically good & holy about any of piece of ‘radical’ art. If we see artists as citizens of a society rather than as seers, we might start to rearrange our priorities about what constitutes good and  bad art, and good and bad politics.

Editorial Feature for The Sydney Morning Herald, January, 2003