Of Course Art Can Change The World, If Only The Art World Wanted It To

VICE wrote up a cool panel discussion at Bard on the subject of politically engaged art today, but it was lacking an answer to the question it posed: Can art be a form of political activism?

The obvious answer is, well, yes, of course. I mean, look at Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” or practically any of the paintings that he finished during the French Revolution: It’s basically all political propaganda, and very effective political propaganda, at that (Marat was a revolutionary writer who was assassinated; David’s painting institutionalized him as a martyr of the revolution). Manet’s “Olympia” was a political challenge to the art world, its aesthetics and values, inasmuch as it very clearly depicted a prostitute who, rather than having an idealized body and rather than existing for the aesthetic pleasure of the viewer was painted with an imperfect, human body and a confrontational expression. In the 1970s, Mierle Ukeles challenged the art world on its class and gender politics by publicly performing “low” or “women’s” work at the Wadsworth Atheneum, cleaning the museum and washing its front steps as a way of pointing out all the things that must be done to support museums and keep them physically viable. Their boards of directors, their curators, and the artists displayed might get the public attention, but museums couldn’t function without maintenance work.

Then there’s the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which was, as art critic Roberta Smith put it at the time, a watershed moment in art history. The ‘93 Biennial focused almost entirely on identity politics — on race, gender, sexual orientation, the AIDS crisis, and class. This was the moment when what people (although not myself) call “political correctness” in art really came to the fore. Jerry Saltz, in a very helpful retrospective on the ‘93 Biennial, claimed that “It’s fair to call the 1993 Biennial the moment in which today’s art world was born.”

And, of course, I have to mention that 1993 was also the year that my boy Felix Gonzalez-Torres became particularly prominent in the art world. It was the year that some of his best work was done, following the death of his partner, Ross. Gonzalez-Torres was a participatory artist, encouraging viewers to — duh — participate with and in his artworks, becoming a part of them by interacting with them. He made piles of candy and stacks of paper; by taking a piece of candy or a piece of paper, you are participating in the artwork. He made beaded curtains; by stepping through them, you are participating in the artwork. He made timelines; by placing your life within the context of that timeline — you can’t help but do it – you are participating in the artwork. All of his artwork was, by some measure, identity art, because all of it was infused with Gonzalez-Torres’ experience as a gay man who was dying of AIDS, and who had to watch his partner die of AIDS. He sought, successfully, to make his art accessible to people outside of his demographic, but he wanted to make it accessible to people outside of his demographic so that while they were participating in his artwork, they were understanding life from his point of view, a different point of view than their own, the point of view that arises from being a gay man who was dying of AIDS.

Scholar Christa Robbins — a woman for whom I have a deep admiration, because she was the professor at UIC whose course in contemporary art history made me fall in love with contemporary art — crystallized the importance of Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork, and of participatory art in general, on today’s artworks in a review published in Art in America this month of John Paul Ricco’s The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes. Gonzalez-Torres’ work has also been described as “relational,” owing in large part to Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. The ways in which an artwork forces us to relate, forces us into relationships, and what those relationships mean and are is Ricco’s concern.

Other contemporary art historians, curators, and theorists have been investigating how art has moved forward from participatory art, how relational art has evolved, since the early ’90s — notably a figure such as Nato Thompson, who works for Creative Time, the arts organization behind such socially engaged exhibits as (for example) Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety.” Thompson has argued that, as Robbins put it, “there is no significant distinction between many forms of participatory art and ordinary social activities,” spurring him to curate the Living as Form project. The idea of “living as form” literally means that one’s day-to-day life is, or can be, an artwork. (He has also written a book that I’ve been waiting for for the last two years and am apparently going to be waiting for for another year-and-some, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production. His publisher keeps pushing the publication date back, which is driving me up the wall — and him too, I’m sure.)

The important thing about the idea of “living as form,” coming back to the question of whether or not art can be a form of political activism, is that if one treats one’s life as an artwork, that artwork is inherently political if one spends any time at all relating to other people. “Political” means “of the polis,” of the city, of the way human beings organize ourselves and organize our relationships to each other. “Living as form” is maybe the most radical idea about political art right now. That being said, it’s not that far from the idea of “being the change you wish to see in the world,” or living by principles, or even just living with intention.

The headline for the VICE article on Feedly wasn’t “Can art be a form of political activism?” but rather, I think more compellingly, “Can art change the world?” My immediate answer is an impassioned “YES!” If you can change one life, you can change the world, and art, to me, is transformative. Gonzalez-Torres is “my boy” because studying his artwork changed my entire life outlook. It made me think really hard about what I truly believed, what my values were, and whether or not I was living with intention, and if I was, what those intentions were, and if I wanted to change that. Put another way, studying Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork turned me into a compassionate but vehement atheist and humanist. It made me think about how much I value myself and my life, and inasmuch as it did that, it helped me to decide to leave my ex-husband. If I hadn’t done that, I would be withering away in a quaint but, in my opinion, morally backward conservative community, not writing, not taking photographs, miserable and isolated. I would not have a good relationship with my family, I would not have the marvelous friends I have now, I would not be working at this job, and I would not have fallen deeply in love with a man who, in turn, has helped me to understand Gonzalez-Torres’ work better.

But I had to slog through so much nigh-unreadable art criticism to get there. About two-thirds of the way through my research, I got tired of the critics — some of whom were not properly “critics” per se, but rather grad students whose papers were published and therefore showed up in JSTOR and EbscoHost — using language that would read like Ancient Greek to the average American. It made me resent them, because this wasn’t a problem specific to discussions about Gonzalez-Torres or participatory art, it was something that had been going on in academia in general but art specifically for a long, long time. Take, just as a very minor example of egregious use of language, the irony of legendary critic Michael Fried’s essay on minimalism, “Art and Objecthood.” In it, Fried makes a strong argument for the idea that not just anything can be art because an artist says so, that art has to have rules or we will have no way of evaluating it. His last, heartbreaking two sentences sum up his argument that if mere objects can be art, if art looks like objects that we encounter in our day-to-day lives, then art loses its transcendence. But this is what he says: “We are literalists all or most of our lives. Presentness is grace.”

Presentness is not, in fact, grace, because “presentness” is not a word in the English language. It struck me as deeply ironic to end a plea for rules in valuing art by breaking the rules of language and just making shit up. That sentence is terrible because without a clear, accessible definition for “presentness,” most people won’t know exactly what Fried was trying to say. I still puzzle over that sentence. Even “presence” would have done a better job, and that is a word.

This matters because if those of us who love art want it to be able to change the world, want it to be political, then it has to be accessible to the polis. I struggle to interpret and write about art in such a way that I’m not assuming that everyone knows art-world buzzwords, or the history of particular paintings or artists. Most art writers don’t go to that trouble, and so most of the people who read about art wind up being people who are already at least kind-of in the know. That’s a travesty. Art can’t change people’s lives if people don’t understand it, and if my time standing in front of Gonzalez-Torres’ work is any indication (and I have spent hours standing in front of his work), most people don’t understand it, think it’s hoity-toity, and dismiss it. This might have something to do with the condescension of the art world believing the public should come to them instead of reaching out an olive branch to the public.

It also explains some of the massive art successes of the past few years — the David Bowie retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art was the MCA’s best-attended exhibit ever, partially because it concerned popular culture and partially because it was designed to be easy to understand, even if the content of Bowie’s songs is sometimes nebulous or nonsensical. Marina Abramovic’s work is derided by many art writers as too populistic, but she creates emotional experiences that the public wants to have. The public could get those experiences from other artworks if they understood them.

And it explains the massive success of street art in recent years: Street art is figurative (rather than conceptual — it’s pictures of people, places, and things that the average person can identify), and it’s free. It’s offered openly to the public. The artist takes a legal risk by putting it up as a public service, and lovers of street art understand and appreciate that risk. It often has an explicit message that’s easily understood by the public. Not all art should have to be heavy-handed and obvious in its messaging, of course, but this speaks to the desire on the public’s part to consume and understand artworks and how bad of a job the world of art writing does at explaining art to anyone or anything other than itself.

So can art change the world? Can it be a form of political activism? Yes, of course: Anything that inspires empathy and provokes us to understand the world from a point of view other than our own can change our minds and change our lives. That’s an important discussion to have right now, in wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and in light of the art that has come out of the Black Lives Matter movement, which includes the performance of political protest. It’s an issue of making art truly political, truly applicable to everyone.

[VICE (1), (2)]

[New York Times]

[New York Magazine]

[Art in America]

[ArtNet]

[Image via Banksy]

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