General 10-28-2004

What Can Art Actually Do Politically?; Or, Come Up and See My Etchings Sometime: TriaBlog Entry

An art critics’ group known as VACUM hosts 3-way discussions—Trialogues—for each Minnesota Artist Exhibition Series (MAEP) show at the MIA. This time, the discussion takes the form of a blog at

Who Would Jesus Bomb?
Art of Politics
MAD Fools
Black Flag
More art, more politics
Heinz Kerry

Here’s a sample entry from the TriaBlog by current blogmeister Jeffrey Kalstrom. To respond, go to LiveJournal (how-to and link at the end of this article).

What can art do politically? This is a question that has long been primary for me. I changed my major from political economics to art in the fall of my senior year at St. Olaf College. I was working my way through developing a comparative study between the transition to democracy in France and in England. In a state of frustration over wading through absurd hysterical/historical anal-alysis I cracked and started to draw. I spent a rainy October weekend listening to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Miles; drawing their portraits from the album covers (god I am old). A friend seeing me on Monday inquired as to the reasons for the smile. He then suggested that if drawing made me happy it might be a good idea to do more of it. I changed majors a week later.

I switched majors because I simply could not stand to live primarily through words. I needed to physically create. It didn’t matter if I could make a living at it or even if I was any dam good at it. It only mattered that this practice of artmaking was a way I could do work with my entire being. In a short period of time I then learned how to talk about negative space and smoke cigarettes, plus I was getting laid on a regular basis.

Now I had a hard case of Lutheran guilt (not over getting hot love action. That was lo-o-ong overdue). But I could not get around the feeling that art was pointless, escapist, and elitist. There is no Marxist like a Lutheran Marxist. Art does not feed the poor nor organize the workers. So does the creation of art make the world a better place? I had no answer for this question at the time. I knew it was a good thing for me. The practice of making art made me more aware of the world, physically aware of the gorgeous complexity of the world. I did think that it would be good if I could make art that had a clear political effect. But I also knew as a student of Taoism that work that inspired a friend could also energize an enemy. Symbols to rally around are also symbols to rally against.

It was not until some years had passed that I started to see that the awakening to the beauty of the world that artmaking engendered was its most subtle political effect. A life grounded in a sense of the wonder of this crazy dirty life on earth will not be a life that supports repressive political movements. Destructive political movements are driven by ideology. Positive political movements are driven by a love and respect for the earthly life. Transcendental philosophies, no mater how gentle their appearance, have an undercurrent of fascism. This is why they frequently act in opposition to a freely lived physical life. Repressive ideologies are obsessed with the control of sexuality–sexuality being a primary way we leave our ideas behind and become a body in/of/with the world.

It’s funny that I had never thought about a link between starting to make art regularly and starting to have sex regularly. But they do rather go –ah – hand in glove. After all, Picasso only made a few works about political repression–Guernica, and that great series of etchings about Franco–but he probably created hundreds (thousands?) of works depicting lovers loving.

I don’t think we do art to have sex or have sex to do art. But the repression of one seems to mirror the repression of the other.

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