Visual Art 2-6-2004

Choices: The Relation of Art and Politics

This article inaugurates a series of monthly pieces by the features editor of

1Goya, "Is This What You Were Born For?" from the series of etchings, "The Disasters of War." Is This What You Were Born For?

introductionFebruary will be Art and Politics month on We’ll be running a review of the new book on the Wellstones, an article on Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol, a review of the Ice Palace, columns on art and politics, a Featured Artist piece on the Twin Cities Artist Front, and news about a new artists’, gallerists’, critics’ group tentatively called A.R.T. (Artists’ Round Table).

Most of our actions relate in some way to concerns that are in the end political. A broader notion of what constitutes “politics” will lead to a more grounded and far-reaching discussion of the relation of art to politics.

The old feminist adage “The personal is political” can be extended: the political is personal, too. Many decisions that we are used to thinking of as private or taste-based are deeply political. Here, in Duluth, eating shrimp–a distant and destructive fishery–as opposed to lake herring–a local and nondestructive fishery–is political. Certain firms have positive or negative labor policies; certain companies are local, others are not–who you buy from becomes political. Lawn chemicals are a major freshwater pollutant–your crabgrass becomes political.

The degree of solidarity you maintain with your community is political. As the world becomes more crowded and resources more strained, every person’s actions tend to impinge on how much world is available for the rest of us. Politics becomes more and more immediate and pervasive.

So art and politics are necessarily related, but this relation is broader than the obvious cases. There’s overtly political art—like L.A. postermaker Robbie Conal, whose 1980s work, such as the famous “Men With No Lips” poster of Reagan administration officials, commented directly on public leaders and world events in a way that was broadly influential. He and his corps of volunteers would blanket Los Angeles with posters overnight, I remember, and everyone would discuss them for weeks. This is a wonderful way for art to reclaim a broad public role, a role that the great bulk of “fine art” has been too fastidious for. It’s a time-honored role for art to play.

The line between what we call “art” and what we call “propaganda” is fuzzy–usually propaganda is what you disagree with–but I think it has something to do with not trying to enforce a consensus. Overtly political art seems most effective both as art and as politics when it directs the viewer’s gaze past itself and its idea to the real world of events; when it compels a long, hard look at those events. Propaganda happens when images attempt to detail for you just what the artist thinks and feels about those events; just what you should feel and think about those events–although sometimes I think propaganda has a valid role in this outrageous world. Whether propaganda is good or bad can only be judged by its consequences: Are Heartfield’s anti-Nazi collage-posters bad art?

Art that compels us to look at the real world: this can be documentary art, like Saint Paul artist Mark Wojahn’s film “What Does America Need?” To produce this work Wojahn traveled from New York to L.A. on a train, asking this question of hundreds of randomly met citizens, and their responses, so much more interesting when housed in faces and bodies and not just words, constitute the body of a deeply tender and highly political artwork. Leon Golub touched on the power of the factual document in his paintings of political victims, but his expressionistic posturing eroded the power of the document. It seems that the artist should take no liberties with others’ lives as material.

Somewhere between the impassioned and partisan political art of, say, Sue Coe, and this documentary impulse, would be the work of Goya, in “The Disasters of War,” which is not titled, “The Atrocities Committed by the French.” Goya, even while creating fictional tableaus of horror based on factual accounts of such, did not seize the high ground. He didn’t present “his side” as virtuously aggrieved and the French as the bad guys. Even though he was partisan, he kept his head, he remembered that “the disasters” (he didn’t call them evil) he was portraying with a fascinated, tender horror, had no face but the human. This willingness to reject political ideology–to be ruled not by political allegiance but by an overarching love and sorrow for the living human body, the suffering body–to me constitutes the greatness of Goya’s work.

Now, it remains to consider how other kinds of art are political, even an art so seemingly apolitical as figure drawing, for instance. Perhaps a really fine drawing of human beings–like those of R. B. Kitaj, say, or Minneapolis artist Clea Felien– could help inspire in viewers the empathy with the tender, odd, and beautiful body of another that helps us to reject violence against other human beings. Idealized representations tend to have the opposite effect: they tend to distance and objectify the body of that other, and to swaddle the viewer’s body in shame, or fire it with frustrated covetousness.

But this latter idea of “political art” is really different from what we usually think it to be. Where is the politics in “political art”? Is it in the intentions of the artist? Is it in the interpretation of the viewer? That is, is “politics” limited to political statements intended as such, or is it locatable in consequences that may play out in the politicized worlds of the market and the voting booth? When I spoke to Peter Spooner, director of the Tweed Museum and an excellent thinker and writer about art in the world, he had qualms about mixing together art that is consciously political, that makes a clear statement about politics and that acts in a milieu that understands it to be politically charged, with art that is, so to speak, only accidentally or tangentially political—and I share those qualms. Perhaps when we speak of “political art” proper, we really only mean the kind of art that has political intentions, which are understood by its audience in political ways. But there’s a politics to art that isn’t consciously political as well.

How are the decisions that all artists make about their work political? That is, how does the political/personal enter into the experience of making art? I’ll use my own work as an example. I do depictions of water, weeds, trees, stones, and an occasional bird, dog, or human body. This is not overtly political art. But for me every decision I make about the doing of art becomes in some way political. For instance, years ago I didn’t frame or otherwise preserve my paintings of plants, which were rather fragile, black ink on fine paper. They aged, they gradually fall apart. I believed this art should share the mortality of its subjects, should have solidarity with their fate.

I also think it is a political decision to do art not to “express myself” but to learn the nature of my fellow-goers in the world, as much on these subjects’ own terms as possible. So the art I do is mimetic. By making the creatures of this world I learn them, come to know their natures. There are of course a thousand other ways of working, all valid in their own ways. My point here is that it seems important to think about the meaning of one’s means, from subject, to attitude to one’s subject, to medium, and to dissemination—who do you want to see your work? Why? Art isn’t just something you make, it’s something other people see. How the work is seen, and where, is also an artist’s responsibility.

However, despite all best efforts to communicate, over the years I’ve come to suspect art may not be worth much except to its makers. The kind of insights I gain into the nature of things that I paint or sculpt, I don’t know if it can be passed on in the artworks. I have only faith, and not any conviction, in the desire of others to understand these entities as well, or to care about them. For me this willingness to persist, to continue to act, in the face of possible meaninglessness is political as well.

Finally, my subject is usually the natural world, because for me, the most pressing politics involves the threats to the nonhuman world from the increasing human disregard of, ignorance of, the world of things, plants, animals. For others, other subjects will be more pressing, other stories will insist on being told. Many artists mean their work to inspire action outside the art world, in the world of decisions and events. The quality of this action is for me the true test of political art.

Any art that attempts to act on the world, to bring about change, then, is in some sense political. Perhaps the test of its quality is the test of longterm effects: Does it intend to change the way people think and feel, the way they act in the world? Does it actually do so?

Please write to the Forum on Minnesota art and artists with your ideas on what art is political and how it can be more effective (see the link to that forum below).

Ann Klefstad

I graduated from the Paracollege at St. Olaf College in 1978, and then worked in factories, was a foreman in a bakery, traveled around the country, did Fluxus-inspired street art, took a swing at grad school, left for California again, and worked for the wonderful publishing house of avant literature Sun and Moon Press, whose editor and publisher, Douglas Messerli, was an important factor in my education. I did editing at various levels for other literary and academic presses, had children (who …   read more