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Art and politics

Post #934 • January 9, 2007, 10:22 AM • 36 Comments

CultreGrrl, who deserves commendation for her fruitful foray into artblogging, has been thinking about politics and art lately. On the 7th she noted the press release from the Fogg for a show called "Dissent!," featuring a great range of printed matter that expresses a sentiment of protest. (Expect something from me on this in the next couple of weeks.) Rosenbaum commented:

At a time when commercial careerism seems to be the driving force for so many young artists, a few concerned curators are pointing the way towards a different path.

Yesterday she reported on the upcoming arrival of Botero's "Abu Ghraib" paintings at UCal Berkeley. For anyone unfamiliar, the painter recently applied his corpulent motif to historically faithful renderings of the atrocities committed by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility. She noted:

Can it be that U.S. artists [as opposed to Botero, a Colombian expat] are less interested in creating works that are intensely felt but, due to their sensitive subject matter, "not for sale"? Or are they too isolated in their studios to deeply engage in disturbing, politically charged subject matter?

This is a notion that you see off and on in art - that it should do more than merely serve an aesthetic function, that it should get out and engage the world somehow. It implies that art that goes beyond being aesthetically valuable and serves a social purpose has greater force or relevance than art that doesn't. (From my graduate thesis: "Claes Oldenberg said, 'I want to make art that does more than sit on its ass in a museum,'/And I could only agree him...") Actually, only artists whose talents lie in that arena, and mobilize to full effect given a political topic to chew on (Kathe Kollwitz and Ben Shahn come to mind), ought to comment on current events in their work. Everybody else, by doing likewise, is all but guaranteed to make art that falls below the rest of their output. Outrage may demand political expressions from otherwise apolitical artists, but quality hardly ever does.

ArtsJournal recently linked to a Guardian piece in which John Elderfield, after a nod to the Saddam Hussein execution, discussed the events depicted in Manet's Execution of Maximillian. Writers, of course, love looking at art this way. I don't mean that as a criticism. If they adored facts, narratives, and characters less, they might have gone into another medium. Few of them are purely visual creatures. (I suspect something conversely related is going on in my attempts to write fiction - I have trouble getting anything to happen.) Say what you will about the Maximillian, would anyone argue for it as Manet's masterpiece, over Bar at the Folies-Bergeres or the Dejeuner?

Usually someone brings up Picasso's Guernica in regards to this topic. The Guernica is not a trifle, but it has significant shortcomings, and I believe it is widely thought of as Picasso's masterpiece for two reasons only: it's big, and it's ostensibly about a specific bombing by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War (again, the idea that art achieves more by reaching beyond aesthetics into current events). This is not, however, so much a political work as an allegorical one, with Picasso's usual dramatis personae - minotaur, horse, weeping woman. It doesn't evoke Basque Spain, Franco, or the Luftwaffe so much as the archetypal agony of armed conflict. Except for the electric light and the newspaper textures, the scene might as well be out of the Iliad. Picasso, constitutionally pacifist, felt compelled to protest war again with Massacre in Korea, a work that referenced Goya's Third of May even more closely than Manet's Maximillian. It's an awkward, bland mess that makes me wish he would have left this kind of thing to Max Beckmann, although even he had given up such overt references by the '50s.

The contemporary exemplar of protest art is Richard Serra's Stop BS. Again, would anyone take this over a Torqued Ellipse?

And yet, over chez Ed_ there was some discussion about art about art, in response to the recent Roberta Smith piece. As I pointed out on that thread, "about" is a vague catchall that causes conversations about what art is about to head towards an entropic state in which art is found to be about everything. Art derives from other art. That's fine; it has to. It could, however, choose to depict content that matters to someone besides an in-crowd obsessed with banalities. Dipping a ladle into the fouled sluice of contemporary art reporting pulls up this paragraph:

In true DIY fashion, the black-and-white prints featured an eccentric mix of crude drawing, witty appropriation, and clever wordplay. Lipkin's reproduction of a Wal-Mart ad he found in Vogue was disarmingly funny, as was artist Michael Paulson's readymade list of the twenty-five things that make people laugh, despite the fact that there's something about a formula for jokes that really robs them of their punch. (Paulson may have put it best when he said "humor is desperate, pathetic, and ... just not funny.")

And really, that's just what I encountered in the top post - it's not some particularly unflattering selection. With entirely too much of this kind of thing in the world, I think it becomes meaningful to ask why so few artists are dealing with the headlines in an effective manner. It's too much to hope for a political masterpiece, and I think that the great majority of practicing artists have no business bothering with the problem. Nevertheless this kind of moral weightlessness justifiably makes one wonder about careerism, isolation, and maybe pandemic immaturity in the contemporary art world. Philip Guston famously remarked about his switch from abstraction to content: "The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man was I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?" What kind of people are we, indeed? The question is well worth asking.

Update: CultureGrrl follows up.




January 9, 2007, 10:45 AM

As a rule, political content tries to fill the void left by the lack of art.

If artists feel guilty about not changing the world they should leave the studio and go out and change the world.



January 9, 2007, 10:58 AM

I should add, perhaps, that for most people the right answer to Guston's question will be to go back in the studio and adjust a red to a blue. I still think it's worth considering. It certainly was for Guston.



January 9, 2007, 11:21 AM

Does it depend on how much of a reflection of the world there is in one's work? Adjusting reds to blues is heroic in its way, but for some artists the wider world shows up more blatantly in their work.

Also, I sometimes draw though things, bad ugly thingss, to get to the other side. I know they arent going to be good, but they have to be made for me to keep going. So maybe Serra and others felt they had to do something, even if it isn't anywhere close to their best effort.

Then there's Steve Mumford, whose watercolor drawings I find stiff and boring, but thinking of him riding around a war zone drawing (drawing!) at least salvages the idea of them. He should have read more Sacco before he went over there.

A word about Guernica - for all its shortcomings, it still kicks ass because its still powerful, which is why Colin Powell had it removed from the UN room where he was delivering pre-war lies about Iraq.



January 9, 2007, 11:51 AM

So maybe Serra and others felt they had to do something, even if it isn't anywhere close to their best effort.

I do this too. Probably every creative professional has to generate a lot of crap in order to get to the decent stuff, even apart from politics. And like I said, outrage may demand some kind of expression. There's nothing wrong with that per se.

Mumford is one of the great living illustrators. He's not making great art, but as an illustrator he's beyond reproach.

I'm not familiar with that incident with Powell and the Guernica. You know, of course, that the painting is in Madrid - is there a copy at the UN?


a dead marat

January 9, 2007, 11:56 AM

Yes. opie. go adjust your pink or green oilsticks. Artists have no business referring to the world as it is.
Paint pushers are just that:paint pushers.
guston was right. what kind of people are we to go adjust that red or blue without relating the red or the blue to the world beyond out foggy studios.??
opie: always predictable.
nice piece, franklin.



January 9, 2007, 12:08 PM

I agree Mumford is a great illustrator but those pieces didn't, and maybe couldn't, ever match up to the scale of what he was drawing. Again, I name-check Joe Sacco. I would never question Mumford's guts though.

That Guernica thing is a tapestry copy in the UN in NY:



January 9, 2007, 12:39 PM

When you are wrong you can be wrong a hundred different ways, Marat. When you are right you are always predictable.



January 9, 2007, 12:48 PM

The only thing I want and care about from an artist is great art, regardless of subject matter. Either it's good enough as art or it isn't, and if it isn't, I'm not interested--again, regardless of subject matter. Artists can still make art about whatever they damn well please for whatever reason(s), but that's their affair. I have no obligation to bother with any art that does not satisfy me as such.

As for Botero, whose reputation (in certain circles) is at least as inflated as his pneumatic figures, his burst of outrage over Abu Ghraib seems a tad suspect, not to say opportunistic. Atrocities of every sort have been daily fare in his native Colombia for decades, yet I'm not aware of any overt "protest" work from him on that score. Charity begins at home, or should. And of course, the US government is considerably less risky to attack in paint than trigger-happy drug lords.


Marc Country

January 9, 2007, 1:31 PM

I'm entirely with Franklin on Steve Mumford.

That Serra print (drawing?) is puzzling? What's "B S"? Bullshit? Whose bullshit? I'm confused... what does the text mean in the context of the image? It's unclear.

Is a depiction of horror scenes of Abu Ghraib necessarily an attack on the US government?...

I received something with a unappetizing mix of 'art' and 'politics' in my inbox this morning:


"... Pootoogook began drawing in 1997 with the encouragement of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. Unlike many of her peers, Pootoogook's work challenges conventional assumptions made of "Inuit" art. Like her grandmother, she is a chronicler, and her drawings of domestic interiors and modern outpost camps reflect the disparate social, economic and physical realities of today's Canadian North. Annie Pootoogook recently won the prestigious Sobey Art Award, Canada's pre-eminent prize for a yound Canadian artist..."

I wish I was 'special'...


Marc Country

January 9, 2007, 1:32 PM

I'm entirely with Franklin on Steve Mumford.

That Serra print (drawing?) is puzzling? What's "B S"? Bullshit? Whose bullshit? I'm confused... what does the text mean in the context of the image? It's unclear.

Is a depiction of horror scenes of Abu Ghraib necessarily an "attack" on the "US government"?...

I received something with a unappetizing mix of 'art' and 'politics' in my inbox this morning:


"... Pootoogook began drawing in 1997 with the encouragement of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. Unlike many of her peers, Pootoogook's work challenges conventional assumptions made of "Inuit" art. Like her grandmother, she is a chronicler, and her drawings of domestic interiors and modern outpost camps reflect the disparate social, economic and physical realities of today's Canadian North. Annie Pootoogook recently won the prestigious Sobey Art Award, Canada's pre-eminent prize for a yound Canadian artist..."

I wish I was 'special'...


Marc Country

January 9, 2007, 1:34 PM

Sorry to stutter... "internal Server Error", or some such thing...


Marc Country

January 9, 2007, 1:35 PM

Sorry to stutter... "internal Server Error", or some such thing... Hey, it happened again!

"The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.

Please contact the server administrator, and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.

More information about this error may be available in the server error log."



January 9, 2007, 1:47 PM

Marc, I get this a lot when I am contributing. any time it takes a long time for the comment to load or i get an error message I simply quickly copy my comment and check to see if it has been uploaded. 9 times out of 10 it has.

Jack, re Botero, well said!



January 9, 2007, 1:51 PM

Marc, any time you see the phrase "challenges conventional assumptions" just stop reading right there.

Now wait, that means you won't finished my sentence! Well, but, no, you would have to have finished the sentence to know that...



January 9, 2007, 2:02 PM

My server has been a little slow over the last couple of days, and I apologize. I've already been contacted my a sysadmin about poor software performance - mine - in the content management system. The whole thing is due for a massive overhaul. Opie's advice in #13 is correct.



January 9, 2007, 2:05 PM

CultureGrrl follows up on today's post.



January 9, 2007, 4:41 PM

Marc (#9), you're smart enough to get my point about Botero, and it doesn't depend on the stature of Bush & Co.

My point, obviously, is that Botero's full of it. He's got the bucks, the nice-and-safe expat digs, and the adulation of a certain crowd, but he wants something more mainstream, prime-time and first-world. He wants some Anselm Kiefer action, but unlike Kiefer, he's ignoring what squarely falls in his own purlieu, which should concern him more than (or at least as much as) what's outside it. I don't buy his Abu Ghraib grandstanding for a second.


noname artist

January 9, 2007, 8:26 PM

Does anyone else agree that a big factor in the lack of " protest art ' these days has been the general climate of fear and censorship that the Bush administration has laid over everything in the past few years? Artists are just as susceptible as anyone else to the implicit threats made by the authorities to anyone who would dare stand up to them and their murderous policies. For awhile there, it didn't seem that farfetched to imagine that anyone with a powerful enough critique of the government and " Patriotism" could have been carted off in the night. Now much of that has faded and softened and made many of these discussions possible. But right after 9-11 it was hard to speak up even a little bit. Regular people had become censorious and seemed to have lost their critical minds.



January 9, 2007, 9:14 PM

I can only speak for myself, but I think the current administration is ridiculous, I don't mind saying so, and yet I have no impulse to make art critical of it. Anyone else?



January 9, 2007, 11:36 PM

Franklin, it's not like it's required of you. If you're not naturally inclined to do it, it's virtually certain it wouldn't be worth the time to try--neither yours nor anybody else's. The last thing I want to see is art that got made because it seemed "the thing to do," not because the artist really wanted to do it. It's bad enough we all have to do so much stuff we never would if we had a real choice. Don't sweat it.



January 9, 2007, 11:59 PM

The spirit of the times is not a protesting one, as it was in the 60s. If people wanted to protest publicly they would. The potential for repression, if anything, is weaker now than it was then. It is not fear, it is apathy.



January 10, 2007, 12:38 AM

Apathy certainly rules these days, but the truth is, art never has really changed much, if anything. When politics changes, it is because of political events, not artistic ones.



January 10, 2007, 2:33 AM

... excellent point Opie...


scott redford

January 10, 2007, 2:50 AM

I usually realy like Culture Girl but I have to say her recent comment about Leon Golub's work: " Tragically for the overall integrity of this body of work, he never dealt with the ongoing abuse of a totalitarian police state like Cuba because of his politics. " is absolutely lame. I mean who would question the integrity of Goya for not painting the other side's version of The Third of May or The Disasters of War. Or Picasso for not painting a Nazi propaganda piece to pair with Guernica.

The argument is lame, lame, lame. I apologise for being romantic but outrage like Art itself has a certain self-righteous madness to it that is diluted by reason. I mean do you want all those religious paintings so intergral to art history to have companions with the Devil on top! Please!!!!!!!!



January 10, 2007, 7:44 AM

Leon Golub is a great example of a politically charges painter, however his best work, for me, are his running sphinxes. Truly beautiful pieces --and one doesn't normally associate beautiful with Golub.

Robbie Conal is still making paintings and posting his bills. He seems to have stuck to his guns.



January 10, 2007, 7:59 AM

Scott, that comment about Golub on CultureGrrl's site was made by one Ricardo Fernández, described as "a Cuban-born architect in Miami," and I believe the point was not about balance but that Golub's protestations never extended topically to Cuba. I don't know the specifics of Golub's work well enough to comment on this myself, but I have found certain Golubs impressively disturbing.



January 10, 2007, 1:54 PM

[This post has been removed at the request of the organization which it was speaking against in an unsubstantiated and misattributed manner. - F.]



January 10, 2007, 2:47 PM

There is nothing like a poster campaign in a community whose media has been overtaken by one ideology!
Because our small village was losing over 40 mature trees within 2 blocks of the main drag, an ad hoc group put up posters which were ripped down every night and every morning we put up more. Within one week, the citizens realized what was happening . . . to no avail. Too late. We lost the trees. But our "city fathers" will feel the brunt come election time.
If we worried about "artistic" concerns, nothing would have happened. The trees don't care if our images are of "high merit" - they just care about having a voice.
Elitism, art for art's sake, fear of reprisal, "sentimentality" and apathy of others will not curb my need to bring a voice of reason via visual means.
In Victoria, Canada, we had a symposium called "Artists of Conscience" and met with caring and committed artists/educators who want to meet even more artists who will put their art and their hearts out in the open. Why is that rare?
If artists cannot express their marginal situations & issues of their country and put images "out there" to help others recognize like sentiments, just who will?



January 10, 2007, 3:04 PM

What you were doing was political action, Rory. Political action is how you acheive political ends. Obviously there is nothing wrong with an artist taking political action for any reason, or using art to acheive it if it is useful for that purpose.

There is good reason, however, to be skeptical of claims made or presumed for what seems to be hypocritical, heart-on-the-sleeve claims made for political depictions, for example, as nicely described by Jack's comment about Botero, above.


david Rohn

January 11, 2007, 9:32 AM

Great topic-and even tho we are living in apathetic times I do think there s alot of political art out there -but most of it is obvious preaching to the choir patter that nobody in the audience would disagree with.
And the quality of any art is as important as the quality of it s rendition.
It s interesting to note that Manet s 'Execution of Maximillian' isnt exhibited in France (and was left out of the show of paintings on loan from London s Courtauld Institute collection of Impressionist paintings-the imposition of Maximillian as a puppet for Napolean III isn t a topic in France' Nor is Goya s amazing series on the brutality of the campaign Napolean waged in his conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. But I guess Botero s series on Abu Graib wouldn t exactly wind up in the National Gallery in DC either.(So much for state sponsorship of the arts)
But I agree with the suspicions about Botero s series-I mean he really is a very commercial artist and if he were a communist/socialist like Leon Golub(who has devoted his career to creating serious and haunting images of human rights abuse) then we should have seen it long ago -over Argentina in the '70's, Chile in the 80's Peru in the '90's etc, etc,etc,.Because we all know that work pointing up American abuses (even if they pale in comparison to others) will always find an audience , and not least in America. But Botero lives like a prince in Mexico and has a carefully constructed career based on pleasing the elite and influential; and I suspect his commotment is to his career, and little else.
Sadly, the most hideous human rights abuses have continued for 10 odd years throughout Africa and not even African artists (let alone Kofi Annan's UN) show much concern about it.
But I guess we have to wonder if the Saathhi's and their ilk would launch such artists anyway- I mean does a painting of a rape victim with her arms cut off have as much sensational interest as a Virgin Mary with cow dung- and would a New York Mayor willingly generate as much free publicity over such a work. Maybe the kind of scandalous political work that the contemporary art world responds to is the kind that doesn t really rock the boat and can be solld to rich establishment types who enjoy masquerading as purveyors of controversy; instead of work that registers outrage over what people continue to be permitted to do to each other
All that said, and in the context of self referential and self serving art,I m always amazed how little contemporary artists have focused work on the phoney, commercial hog trough called the "art world"(I think we should call it the Contemporary Art Industry"); But I suspect many young artists (as well as collectors, curators and dealers) seek recognition more than anything else . So until we recognize that the art industry is like the music and film industries-ie driven by saleability and profit, and not (any longer ) some sort of arena of avant guardism , or innovation and progress we will be expectinng too much-I ll bet you the Botero s will sell very well, and that s what will make them important.



January 11, 2007, 9:56 AM

Nice comment, David. I thin k art and politics is an uneasy mixture,and I am not a fan of Golub's work, but if one is to take on politics we have to look for courage, determination and consistency. The comparison of Golub and Botero is a trenchant one, especially if one also brings to mind the small, lean, choleric Golub himself and the bland, overstuffed bourgeoisie depicted by Botero.



January 12, 2007, 4:14 PM

Art should engage social issues, as all people should. But being angry is tiring, and who wants to be tired when engaging art? I look at art to relieve stress, not build it. What kind of life does a person have if every fiber of his being is consumed by social or political activism? Sure, let people use their artwork to address political concerns, but let not those base concerns consume anything as magnificent a blessing as art.



January 12, 2007, 11:00 PM

I basically agree with John's take on the topic. Reading newspaper news drains the joy out of me; and though I may support the basic premises of left-leaning political agendas, when they are presented as art they do not refill the joy but mercilessly wring out every last drop. And in those cases I'm not left much reason or energy to summon sympathy for the cause, no matter how worthy. Good art is that which recharges my pleasure battery so I can fight the causes that matter to me and live life in a more highly engaged way.



January 15, 2007, 6:43 AM

You are not a genius, although you probably think that you are in your own head.
You are just another blog person and that is all.
Why do you continue with such jargon ?



January 15, 2007, 10:38 PM

Really putting yourself out there, hey Pluralism?



January 16, 2007, 9:58 PM

There are drive-by shooters and then there are drive-by poopers...



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