What would be more appropriate when examining art and politics than to start with one of the Alain Badiou’s theses on contemporary art: "It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent." In his short but powerful rendering of postulates of present-day arts in relation to modern structures of ordering, done in fifteen theses, Badiou proposes an engaged explanation of art’s purpose in relation to contemporaneity. The empire he mentions is not some politically established sovereign domain relative to ancient empires, although he starts his explanations by mentioning Roman Empire in particular, but a new system of structuring of reality founded on neoliberal, market capitalism. What is rendered visible by this empire and what is acknowledged should not concern artists. Instead, politics of art should be delivered through rendering visible what empire does not recognizes – the agential possibility of the so-called margins and their emancipation.
The important part in any consideration of art and politics is their historical trajectory and connectedness through different epochs. However, it is also important to note the aesthetic potential of art, as the core of its political engagement. Aesthetics, or more precisely “aesthetic regime”, as theorized by Jacques Rancière, is distinguished from the so-called ethical and poetic regimes that previously defined art. Ethical regime of images as explained by Plato relegates artworks to fickle, and untrue representations, while poetic regime makes representation of beauty and imitation as the artworks’ main purposes. However, aesthetic regime as proposed by Rancière breaks the barriers imposed by these two regimes between artistic practices and social and political spheres, and invests and engages arts with politics, society and thought.
Such approach to arts and aesthetics defines our present understating of politics and art. In what follows, a brief historical overview of this relation will be followed by a look at some of the examples of contemporary art, including an overview of the contemporary urban scene.
To observe relation between these two elements it is not necessary to look at specific period, style or artistic movement. Arts has always been intertwined with politics, even when such slogans as l'art pour l'art were professed. From mimetic to corrective tool, art served its given purpose and was influenced and shaped by different social conditions and circumstances. Artistic production never solely replicated reality. Even during Realism it had its purpose of showing the brutality or beauty of everyday life to viewers. In the Nazi and Soviet visual culture was heavily encumbered with additional meanings supportive of ideological stances. Some creatives succumbed to ideological burden and created works that glorified political regimes, while in contrast to such attitudes, alternative artistic practices developed, often confounded to groups with limited access to public domain. Historical avant-garde movements created an aesthetic coup in the first half of the 20th century, purposefully discarding not just the visual trends of the times, but with them the social and moral mores as well. Going against the dominant norms of time, avant-garde phenomenon opposed mainstream culture and traditional styles. From Futurism, Fauvism to Surrealism and Dadaism, avant-garde movements marked beginning of the 20th century and created some of the best-known works of art. Social movements were also followed by artistic expressions supportive of their ideas. Black Arts Movement was part of a broader social movement Black Power, while Feminist art came as a logical outcome of the feminist movements of the 20th century.
Today, each artistic gesture is weighted against its emancipatory potential. Art has never been just a personal reflection of an artist, unengaged from the world. It was always dialogical and confound within a web of contextual meanings. Marc James Léger argues that contemporary avant-garde exists as a counter-power that “rejects the inevitability of capitalist integration.” His statement can be easily applied to present-day artistic productions defined in more general terms as well. Although different issues and socially-engaged stances are addressed in artistic practices today, from environmental, racial, economic, and sexual, capitalist market system seem to hinge at the background of many of the present-day problems, as explicated by Badiou and his ‘empire’ reference.
The work of Ai Weiwei titled Sunflower Seeds comprises of 100 million ceramic husks created to resemble in size, color and shape their counterparts from the nature. The husks were produced for Weiwei by 1,600 artisans of whom many were unemployed at the time, in Jingdezhen, China, a town where imperial porcelain was made for over a thousand years. Upon completion, husks were transferred to a gallery space where visitors could walk on them. The work engages with stories from China’s past, but also current global industrial production and systems of inequality this production perpetuates. Created by anonymous workers, Sunflower Seeds stands also for mass production of goods in China, the vulnerability and fragility of worker’s position, and problematic cultural and economic exchange present in the world today.
Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass can be defined as a piece of Land Art or sculpture. It comprises of a massive 340-ton stone megalith that was transferred from a quarry and positioned on top of a trench made for this purpose, in the vicinity of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the La Brea Tar Pits, a resting place for prehistoric bones. The work’s simplicity, similar to Sunflower Seeds, nonetheless creates a strong statement regarding the present condition. Positioned between contemporary and ancient locations, and with the possibility given to people to walk or stand below the megalith, it signifies the burden of present-day relations between the past and the present, but also the crushing force of the nature, endangered by capitalist exploitation, which can easily destroy our delicate existence.
Perhaps the most powerful examples of political visual works can be found on the streets of urban metropolises around the world. Street visual culture emerged from the first elaborate graffiti made in the New York subways, to today’s intricate murals that form an indelible part of contemporary artistic scene. Walls of public buildings seem to serve as a new stage for protesting political injustices, and economic, and sexual inequalities. Street creatives often deploy a much straightforward approach when it comes to sending a message when compared to other artistic forms. Visual renderings of today’s problems form the main topic of many street creatives, starting form superstars such as Banksy. Fintan Magee’s mural in Stavanger, Norway, reflects on the consequences of cut in oil prices on local economy and working class, while Pixel Pancho’s graffiti in Florida, Against Monsanto, showcases two robots in the flower field, and hints at today’s disconnectedness from, and abuse of nature by humans.
Recently, a group of young creatives, students and activists from Albania created a collective Çeta, with the aim to oppose hegemonic structures of capitalism in their country. They oppose political system in Albania that exploits and marginalizes the poor, in the name of progress and European integration. The group so far finished six projects that criticize outlawing of unlicensed food sellers from rural regions, and gentrification of the Albanian capital Tirana. In Vojo Kushi is Still Alive the collective references the famous Albanian-Yugoslav partisan guerrilla fighter who sacrificed his life during the Second World War. He famously mounted a fascist tank and threw a grenade into it, losing his life in the process. Here, Çeta cites the famous representation of the hero, only now replacing tank with the Albanian Prime Minister’s car. As members of collective stated, like Vojo Kushi rose against fascism, they are now raising against neoliberalism, and corporatization of the state.
These graffiti show that visual works continue with their mission of political liberation. This liberation is constantly negotiated, and was present in different time periods, historical circumstances, and visual forms. As seen from avant-gardes to feminist movement, art in itself is a powerful political tool, and should assist in creation of new form of universality, distinct from the existing one. As Badiou contends:
“…without art, without artistic creation, the triumph of the forced universality of money and power is a real possibility. So the question of art today is a question of political emancipation, there is something political in art itself. There is not only a question of art’s political orientation, like it was the case yesterday, today it is a question in itself.”
Editors’ Tip: Art and Politics Now
A highly illustrated, accessible guide to political art in the twenty-first century, including some of the most daring and ambitious artworks of recent times, this book by Anthony Downey in eleven thematic chapters addresses and contextualizes a range of topical subjects such as globalization, labor, technology, citizenship, war, activism, and information. The book highlights the radical changes in the approaches and techniques used by creatives to communicate their ideas, from the increase in collaborative, artist-led, and participatory projects to activism and intervention, documentary and archive work. Many high-profile creatives are featured, including Chantal Ackerman, Ai Weiwei, Francis Alys, Harun Farocki, Omer Fast, Subodh Gupta, Teresa Margolles, Walid Raad, Raqs Media Collective, Doris Salcedo, BrunoSerralongue, and Santiago Sierra.
Featured images: JR - Face to Face Project, 2007. Image via robletat.wordpress.com; Jules de Balincourt - US_World_Studies III, 2005. Image via julesdebalincourt.com; Sophia Wallace - CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws, 2012. Image via sophiawallace. All images used for illustrative purposes only.