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Arena Forum: Questioning Art and Politics

How might artists respond to the social transformations occurring today? Can artists take on a political agenda without compromising their creativity?

Whenever the subject of art and politics is raised, sooner or later Picasso’s Guernica comes up. It has become a touchstone for political art, a standard by which other attempts are measured and usually seen to be lacking. ‘It’s no Guernica’, you hear, meaning that the political art on offer is too crude, too reductive, lacking in grandness or complexity, or it’s too mimetic, not cubist enough and so on. That’s one part of the debate around art and politics, the degree to which art can be political and still be effective as art.

But there’s a different aspect to the fusion of art and politics; once again, it can be expressed through invoking Picasso. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein recalls how Picasso and several others were wandering down some Paris boulevard at the start of WWII. She writes, ‘All of a sudden, down the street came some big cannon, the first any of us had seen painted, that is camouflaged … Picasso stopped, spellbound, and said … ‘it is we who have created that’. The link Picasso made between cubist techniques and the tank’s military camouflage suggests the uses to which art may be put may be less than progressive.

In trying to answer the question of how artists might take on a political agenda and not compromise their creativity, one might bear this story in mind. The question itself perhaps implies that creativity is an a priori good, something precious to be sheltered, protected and encouraged as much as possible. But is it this simple? Indeed the ‘social transformations’ referred to by the forum’s question have created a situation where we can no longer merely endorse creativity. Creativity is no longer innocent (if it ever was). It is no longer linked to the autonomy of art, or necessarily an antidote to the vulgarities of capitalism. The world we inhabit, governed by a market economy that has invaded all spheres of life, is at least partially driven by the practices of creativity, of innovation. This isn’t to say that all art is essentially compromised, hostage to the market, co-opted by the imperatives of the new economy and creative capitalism. It is to say that something like creativity needs to be contested, even reclaimed by art―and this is itself a form of politics.

What differences lie between the age of Guernica―of modernism, the golden age of the avant-garde―and today? One difference is that the gap between radical art―with its connection to bohemian or alternative culture―and the wider society has largely collapsed. Much contemporary art can now be regarded as another, albeit successful, commodity. One only need think of the spectacular rise of the ‘mega-exhibition’ and the ‘biennial’, which, according to Julian Stallabrass, function as ‘supermarkets of freely-circulating artworks without historical depth and regional specificity’. He argues that such instances of global contemporary art function as a kind of universal brand that ‘[hollows] … out cultures and replaces history with geographical diversity’. At this level, art as a global commodity celebrates the liberation of the cultural sign (and cultural labour) from its place of origin―leaving the cultural consumer to luxuriate in exoticism, otherness or transgression, or simply the acquisition of more cultural capital.

Moreover, many of the formal techniques of the avant-garde―abstraction, surrealism, cubism, montage and so on―have not led to the creation of new social values, as many artists and philosophers hoped, but have been harnessed for the cultural economy, where ever new combinations of images and stimulated sensibilities are needed to satisfy the modern audience. In the words of one writer, ‘Art now functions as R&D for other parts of the culture industry’.

Cultural production has become a mainstream activity, reflected in both the growth of the art market but also in the increasingly close relationship between art and the state. University courses in the creative arts flourish as universities specialise in more vocationally oriented activities that were once an adjunct to getting a degree―making art, writing, filmmaking and so forth are now courses in their own right―and subsidise the lives of many artists, as students or teachers. The ‘creative industries’ have become a mantra-like phrase: Richard Florida tours the world talking how the ‘creatives’ can lead to urban, communal and economic regeneration. Nowadays politicians enthusiastically talk of the contribution of the arts to the economy. Artistic bohemian culture is drawn into the cultural economy; art and artists are incorporated into the world of tourism, with graffitied laneways or the artists themselves as a must-see for visitors. Just take this typical example from a recent Sydney Morning Herald:

Melbourne’s art scene is a visual hoot, one way or another, with the people-watching almost as entertaining as the canvases. Artists, curators and visitors alike are dressed either beret-to-pointy-shoes in black or are hippies, their kaftans cut from a Ken Done drop-cloth … [It’s so easy to indulge in] Melbourne’s eclectic arts scene. Many galleries are within walking distance … [while] the jewel in Melbourne’s artistic crown is the National Gallery of Victoria in the central business district, a potpourri of grand masters, important Australian works and the downright weird.

So one of the major ‘transformations’ that art needs to deal with is the changing status and function of art―the centrality of the aesthetic and artistic technique to the current economy and the fusion of what were once radical cultures and practices into the mainstream. The question of art and politics cuts both ways: yes, we would like art to be engaged with politics, but let’s not forget what much of art is today, what it enables and legitimises.

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the project of successfully merging art and politics faces an all powerful enemy, one able to co-opt creativity, aesthetic dissonance and disruption and leave us with no alternative but to mourn Guernica. The spread of neo-liberalism, cognitive capitalism, Empire―whatever you wish to call the thing that captures and colonises creativity―is vast, but it is also thin and looking increasingly fragile. The cultural economy is predicated upon the need for endless growth, where the way forward can only lie in increased profits and more consumption. The Global Financial Crisis, a looming sense of environmental and social collapse, and the challenge to a universalised model of liberal democracy―as US hegemony―suggest that the cry for alternative ways of living is becoming stronger. That we may well be facing a more radical sense of transformation than anything we have seen for a long time offers a chance for art to engage as the generator of alternative values, as a means to refocus our attention on things and processes that escape or are marginalised by mediated society. Art can be an indicator of different ways to live, producing different sense of time and space, different affective relations, different ways of being-together outside of the spectacle.

Yet it is too much of a burden to place on art to expect that it can sustain a sense of the ‘political’ by itself. Not even Guernica could stop a war. A more productive approach is to see ‘political’ art linked with other forces of opposition―social movements, marginalised peoples, threatened communities―as well as others, engaged thinkers and activists, who can raise oppositional voices and alternative ways of understanding. Political art helps develop and maintain a counter-public sphere, where dominant ideas and assumptions can be challenged.

The social transformations occurring today compel us to examine the use and abuse of art, and particularly the notion of creativity. To interrogate, contest and ultimately reclaim the concept of creativity from the cultural economy, from the creative industries and the like, is itself a political act. Beyond this, the time for proclaiming the end of history, the triumph of the market, and that ‘there is no alternative’ seems at an end. Art has an important role in the generation of alternatives, and in this most general sense can be ‘political’ in widening the range of possible discourses―of ways of seeing, feeling and acting. But for this sense of the political to be more than a fleeting sensation requires the bodily and cognitive insights generated by art to be linked with other sources of oppositional discourse―activists, intellectuals, radical social movements. Art occupies a different realm to these things, but better to have a politics based in mutual reinforcement than division and conquest.

By Simon Cooper

Bio: Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor. This is an edited version of a talk presented as part of the Art and Politics Forum at the Arena Project Space, 17 May 2011.