The Politics of Art

Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda…the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.

—Herbert Marcuse, Repressive Tolerance, 1965

Reviewing current art, both locally and globally, it appears that much of it has or purports to have a political content. One reason for this focus is that technological advances encourage snatching digitized fragments from reality that document the persistent global nightmare of human inhumanity. This process thus duplicates in art the same nightmare we see every day on TV or the Internet. Very little of this work, whose apology is that it is “consciousness raising,” amounts to more than superficial agitprop, often executed in the same slick style as the publicity and propaganda it presumably criticizes.

Portrait of Barbara Rose. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

There is the argument that all art is political because, however abstract, it inevitably expresses the values of a given culture or social class. Before the 19th century, artists understood they were being paid to create propaganda for the church, the state, or powerful figures that wished their images embellished and their status confirmed. All that changed when artists began making works that were not commissioned, leaving them free to be critical of the ruling class, its bloody wars and oppressive social practices. The price for this freedom, however, was marginalization, poverty, and in the more extreme cases, exile or incarceration. This is not a price contemporary Western “political” art has to pay, however, because it can be seamlessly absorbed into the existing institutions, including museums, commercial galleries, and auction houses where the work often ends up being bought by the same speculative interests it supposedly criticizes.

This painless integration into the cultural status quo is, moreover, the implicit objective of leading M.F.A. programs, which rather than developing “old fashioned” manual skills, teach budding artists how to thrive within this system. Thus the Whitney Biennial is but a step up from the Whitney Studio Program. This progression dovetails neatly with the obscurantist line of theoretical free association that dominates the academy, where 85 percent of art history doctoral degrees are in contemporary art. In currently fashionable critical studies programs where Google has replaced Schlosser, the ephemeral is given permanent status. In the digital world of proliferating dissertations, quoting each other’s footnotes on “institutional critique” and “relational aesthetics” is a sure path to success.

The bad faith of those who participate in this happy accommodation is cloaked in the rhetoric of criticality, as if what is being taught and produced is in any way opposed to the dominant values of the culture that welcomes toothless conceptual distractions as proof of deep philosophical questioning. Artists in search of winning formulae find ways of bottling this rarified Duchampian air de Paris. These “discourses” and “practices” encourage a public that aspires to hipness to collect conceptual expressions whose iconography is empty rhetoric.

Today there is no shame on the part of artists pandering to and celebrating the base and uneducated taste of their public. At the Metropolitan Museum an exhibition of Warhol’s followers ends in a gallery exalting art as business. Naturally it features Jeff Koons, king of kitsch, who does not bother to deny his adulation of the basest stupidity, vulgar bad taste, and crass materialism. Koons accomplishes Warhol’s definition of success, summarized by Andy, as “he wants his cake and eat it, too.” Warhol ingeniously turned the factory assembly line his immigrant proletarian father slaved on into a factory for making art that appealed to narcissism and the cult of celebrity into which American culture has degenerated. A genuine revolutionary, Warhol aimed to destroy bourgeois culture, an objective he appears to have realized given what he spawned.

There is no question Warhol was a genius, fusing subversive content with the modernist aesthetics he parodied while proving he was entirely aware of them. He did not overtly protest but instead reflected the culture which idolized his glittering faux icons with a disturbing and still unresolved ambivalence that explains why he has been famous for more than 15 minutes. Warhol painted and courted death and destruction, risking not only the lives of the many suicides and deaths he provoked, but also his own as well. Proudly he showed off the nearly fatal wound he received from Valerie Solanas’s gunning him down. Ultimately he died as a result of uncaring hospital practices as careless and sloppy as his own off-register images.

Warhol paid a price for his provocations. What makes today’s political art different is that there is no price for subversion. Jeff Koons turns Warhol’s complex, ambivalent irony into unadulterated cynicism. He can live like his patrons because his monumental “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (a monkey) is nothing but a silly, obvious joke about Meissen court ceramics enlarged to heroic proportions. The son of a decorator and himself a former Wall Street commodities trader, Koons, as opposed to the myriad other kitsch purveyors like Richard Prince, is at least clever. His shiny bunnies and balloon dogs recall children’s party favors. (It’s an infantile frivolous society—get it?) Their mirrored surfaces appeal to the narcissism of the reflected viewer in a more direct way than Warhol’s once removed portraits. More to the point they confirm the status of those who collect them as a recognizable brand, known to be as expensive as a Rembrandt.

In the name of sophistication or tolerance or just boredom, kitsch and sensation are now not only tolerated but richly rewarded. Museums and collectors embrace images of the most political stupification and cultural decline. Today’s audience not only loves TV’s Dancing with the Stars, it is anesthetized by the endless stream of daily news images of the horror of massacres, the pain of extreme torture, and the barbaric treatment of humans by other humans. This process of increasing desensitization encourages ever more extreme illustrations of how moronic and desensitized this public has become.

Flashback to a time when artists closed their own shows in solidarity with antiwar and pro-labor protests with works so politically offensive that museums would not show them. We have come a long way since Hans Haacke’s “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,” caused the cancellation of Haacke’s scheduled retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The piece included 142 photographs and data sheets and six charts detailing the holdings of New York real-estate tycoons who were coincidentally Guggenheim trustees. This was too much for Thomas Messer, director of the museum, to tolerate. He wrote Haacke that museum policies “exclude active engagement towards social and political ends.’” Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum, had an equally succinct reply to conceptual artist Don Celender’s demand that he rid the museum of its priceless Asian artifacts: “Since all art is in the mind of the beholder, I am told,” Lee responded, “this obviously is the means I propose to use in expediting your proposal. I have mentally performed the proposal for Cleveland and despite the exhaustion attendant upon unaccustomed rigorous use of my imagination I can report that the mission has been accomplished.”

That was then, this is now. Today, real estate czar Aby Rosen, who specializes in evicting tenants (like me and Robert Wilson for example) in order to inflate rents on rent stabilized buildings or turn them into condos, now collects architecture—the new status symbol for the uber uber rich—like Mies van der Rohe’s Park Avenue Seagram Building as well as Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s iconic Lever House across the street. This gives him the right to impose on the passing public horrific pieces of mindless art on their set back plazas. Imposing coarse, uneducated private taste as official public art, the clever landlord certifies the market value of his collecting passion as well as demonstrates that nothing, no matter how juvenile or offensive, is intolerable where there is no inhibiting authority, a condition first described by George Trow in his still valid essay “Within the Context of No Context.”

There was a time when artists risked physical abuse and exile in an attempt to change the course of history. After Courbet joined the Commune in pulling down the Vendome column, he was forced to flee to Switzlerland. The newsreel footage of police beating a crippled Mark di Suvero at an antiwar protest in Chicago remains a sickening reminder of that dark era. In protest di Suvero erected a 100-foot high Peace Tower in Los Angeles on which other artists hung their works in solidarity. Ultimately di Suvero went into exile vowing not to return to the United States until the Vietnam war was over. To keep his word, he did not attend the funeral of his beloved father, instead creating the monumental steel sculpture “Mon Pere, Mon Pere” in his honor which could not be seen in the U.S. until the war ended.

During the race riots and overseas massacres of the late ’60s and early ’70s many American artists protested the barbarism of their culture. Some, like Ad Reinhardt, Don Judd, and Jack Youngerman lead marches or were jailed but separated their abstract art from their political activities. Others, whose actions are documented by Lucy Lippard in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, the subject of the current Brooklyn Museum exhibition, devised strategies that for a time subverted the ability of the art world and its institutions to commodify art as a commercially traded object.

However, today subversion as a tactic no longer works as museums compete to do exhibitions of earthworks, installations, conceptual art, et. al. that seemed so radical at the time. Art can no longer be politically or culturally subversive because we live in a society of such absolute tolerance that the Mormon Church made no objection to the obscene and scatological satire of its practices in a tawdry Broadway musical. On the other hand, there is some contemporary art that uses metaphor rather than illustration that still manages to jolt. Mainly this work comes from societies in which there are or were real consequences for opposing the regime. One thinks of the installations of Ai Weiwei, who has suffered torture and arrest in China when he was detained, and of the armies of headless figures and bowed torsos of the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, which remind one of the oppressive tyrannies of totalitarian regimes.

Similarly, the poetry, economy, and beauty of the films of Shirin Neshat do not inoculate us against the medieval misogyny of the society that inspires them. Another example of art that surprises not by scandal but by stealth are the Tiffany style velvet draped vitrines of the Mexican artist Margolles, which house ornate gold jewelry shining with green glass resembling precious stones. One becomes ill on realizing they are set with fragments of the glass fractured in the drive-by shootings of the Mexican drug cartels. The jewelry resembles the heavy gold rings, chains, and bracelets with which the drug lords decorate themselves. The implicit analogy between the vulgarity of the nouveau-riche plutocrats with the murderous drug dealers adds yet another dimension of genuine political protest.

One cannot say that these simply illustrate what they protest. Rather they are subtle metaphors which have an aesthetic dimension lacking in the quickly assembled, superficial graphic illustrations purporting to be political protest. We have come a long way from Max Beckman’s great paintings of Christian metaphors for human suffering to the fabricated images of West Coast followers of Ed Kienholz like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. They raise the question of whether it is enough to cast a dummy with the face of George Bush as a pig to move one on any deep level. Featured in museums and art fairs, these works are not forbidden as entartete kunst but immediately and painlessly absorbed into the art trade because they are harmless. They incite nothing other than comfortable familiarity with the notion that our times are piggy, ugly, and grotesque.

Puerile and obvious as their works may be, however, one cannot criticize these obviously sincere artists of bad faith. But there are artists like Santiago Sierra, who in the name of political protest become what they purportedly criticize. Sierra is hailed as a hero of the avant-garde—as if there were such a thing when the avant-garde has become the academy—for paying third world people to be demeaned and subjected to humiliation and degradation. Among the most heralded of his recent works is the mass serial sodomization of kneeling black victims by white overlords. Whether the action is real or simulated is immaterial since its shock value is easily neutralized by its assimilation into the context of an art exhibition.

This is not to say that contemporary art can have no valid political meaning. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sierra’s manipulated pornography is Alighiero e Boetti’s collaboration with the Afghan weavers who produced the beautiful and complex tapestries and carpets exhibited in his recent MoMA retrospective. The Arabic phrases embroidered into their borders are in fact highly subversive to Western values but integrated as they are into the aesthetic texture of the works they are not simply slogans but expressions of a cultural identity opposed to them. As much as Santiago Sierra denies and obliterates the aesthetic dimension, Alighiero Boetti exalts it, incorporating a political theme within poetic imagery that reconnects the Western conception of a decorative style with its Islamic roots.

Boetti can appreciate craft and skill because he himself is a master craftsman and a highly skilled artist, as his fine and sensitive drawings, the surprise of the exhibition, demonstrate. It is significant that Boetti’s weavings suggest a practical purpose linking them to the arts of collective societies. They belong neither to the mural nor to the easel conventions of Western cultures. Their rejection of these forms may be interpreted as a subtle and covert political statement that does not annul the aesthetic in favor of facile commentary. Their content, which is more than superficial or illustrational iconography, is genuinely radical and transcendentally humanistic. Boetti’s respects opposing cultural traditions, as well as the time consuming human labor of art made not by industrial machines or reproductive technology but by human hands. This is not a fashionable statement in the short term in a media dominated culture of instant, superficial, sensationalistic communication. But it is far more likely to have long-term value and significance.

The Arabic words incorporated into the visual fabric slows down our perception as we attempt to decipher them. (It is to MoMA’s credit that the anti-Western inflammatory Arabic texts are translated in the wall labels.) There is a huge difference both in terms of the perception of and the meaning of these words from the instant familiar phrases of conceptual artworks, which give the public the satisfaction of “getting” the message as fast as they digest the advertising propaganda they satire.

The same is true of the difficult to read texts embedded in the works of Robert Morris, Glen Ligon, and Peter Sacks. In Lamentations, the last series of his Blind Time drawings, many of which have barely visible texts integrated into the smudged markings, Morris records the possible feelings of the victims of the Abu Ghraib tortures.

Likewise Glen Ligon’s Whitney retrospective incorporated texts that slow down visual perception. The content of Ligon’s sophisticated and elegant text-based paintings and photographs is the story of his life as a gay African-American. Their discrete black, white, and gray palette geometrically organized in minimal grids does not degenerate into facile propaganda.

Slavery and oppression is also the subtext of South African painter Peter Sacks, whose activity in the anti-apartheid movement brought him into close contact with the terrible treatment and subjugation of South Africa’s black majority. His new paintings now at Paul Rodgers/9W gallery in Chelsea resemble archeological excavations layered with buried texts of documents recording the slave trade over the years. Seen from a distance, the works appear to be monochromes with raised relief surfaces. Fragments of collage ask to be deciphered. Drawing us in closer, we example the texts. Gradually we understand they are documents recording the sale of human beings whose monetary value is determined by their capacity to do inhuman, back breaking labor.

More ambiguous are the scripts integrated into Anselm Kiefer’s monumental paintings, whose crumbling surfaces of straw, ash, and clay seem to be a metaphor for the decline of the West and its buildings, institutions, and libraries. Kiefer paints themes from German culture and history and including its blackest chapter, the Holocaust. Indeed the materials that he uses recall the colors and operations of the extermination camps. A series of paintings incorporates texts of the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan who committed suicide after surviving the Holocaust. Because of his exaltation of German culture and history, Kiefer’s own attitudes toward them remain ambiguous perhaps because he is not a facile illustrator.

Despite their political involvement, these artists do not annihilate through facile sloganeering the aesthetic dimension that Marcuse ultimately held up as the only antidote to the absorption and neutralization of political protest in a culture of total tolerance lacking all moral values. Marcuse’s last texts conclude that the survival of art lies in its transcendence which incorporates lasting aesthetic values that are universal. Disillusioned with art as politics, Marcuse separated himself from his now much quoted Viennese colleagues. He suggested that the authentic artist may escape being penned in by the velvet ropes of the illusion of liberty through poetry and the aesthetic dimension. Art which aspires to this difficult, complex, and elusive level of achievement may thus elude the increasingly effective techniques of accommodation and neutralization employed to repress any genuinely dangerous dissent by the society of total tolerance.

Contributor

Barbara Rose

winter-2014
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