The intersection of art and political change is a contested territory. A simplified historical trajectory of art tells us that it became occupied with itself in the throes of early modernism. Its social status, value and function were all transformed to define territory thus enabling the academic discipline of art and establishing its autonomy through an inherent confinement.
Seemingly freed from its direct association with power in the form of religion and state, what kind of a collective project did it aspire to? A particularly significant one seems to be secular and humanistic in nature, appealing to individualism and extending its possibilities to collective ideals. Belief in industry, progress and instrumental rationality manifested itself culturally in artistic production as a belief in innovation and creative potential.
In many developments since, there has been an attempt to rid visual arts of ideology, spanning from the aesthetic progressions of postwar painting, the material concerns of minimalism and even some of the cerebral and linguistic approaches of conceptual practices. Often a case is made that formal and conceptual advances in visual art (such as the problem of a two-dimensional picture plane, the immediacy of material, and the multiplicity and deception of a photographic print) are radical gestures departing from tradition and carrying significant cultural implications. If painting does not mimic the world, it can unearth new subjectivities and unlock the agency of the individual. If material is allowed to exist by itself, it can tell us more about industry, production, standardization and the role of an artist’s ‘hand’. If a photographic image does not depict a singular relationship with reality, we begin to question ideas of truth and power. Perhaps these realizations do hold potential but bridging the chasm between radical thought and radical action remains an elusive unfulfilled task.
A closer look at the figure of the artist is also warranted. If art is to function as a site, circumstance or instrument for radical change, the artist is at least within the ranks, if not at the helm. Decidedly, the figure has historically been assumed to be a male creative ‘genius’, struggling heroically in an isolated studio shored off from the world. This description has been decried both for its patriarchal and fascist assumptions. Subsequently, it has been recast in roles as vast as revolutionary, prophet, shaman, professor, machine and celebrity.
Defining this position is necessarily a cyclic question. The form of work that we identify as art shapes the participation of the artist. The artist is also not an exclusionary or monolithic category. Intersection of other social roles and categories such as gender, class, race and others continually redefine artistic labour, the ‘camp’ to which the artist belongs and whether they desire significant political change. Agencies other than the self have stakes in claiming the cultural service of the artist to the ironic extent, for example, in the case of Abstract Expressionism. While most artists involved with the movement identified as outsiders, some even outrightly anarchist, there is evidence to support the claim that the CIA covertly funded the rise of the movement during the Cold War in an attempt to counter Russia’s propaganda machinery.
Few and limited ways in which to identify the figure of the Artist: Academic, Sunday Painter, Instagram Account, Star Celebrity, Gallery Intern, MFA Candidate, Artist-in-Residence and Others.
Due to a few significant changes in the late sixties the focus of artistic production, while still self-reflective, became increasingly concerned with the conditions under which it occurred. The context of institution, author and viewer became not only the site but also the issues under investigation, thus opening possibility for the sensuous aspect of art to leave its formal dimensions and become more directly related to other practices in the world. This awareness of interdependency, however, still carried with it the authorial authority of the artist and the legitimizing discourse of art institutions.
In recent decades post-modern skepticism has given way to a new kind of embrace in the form of the ‘contemporary’. Seemingly in denial of a project, the contemporary moment is marked by hybridity in terms of media, the role of artist and the ways in which art may be consumed. What do we speak about today when we speak about art? The scope of this activity cannot clearly be marked and the artist thus becomes an artful figure evading easy categorization. Despite the denial of explanatory meta-narratives for the contemporary moment, there remain significant trends within this hybridity that betray the political and culture landscape of the present. Particularly, in light of an increased engagement with notions of the global and the local, and the ways in which these construe new systems of production and dissemination, many artists identify with the roles of collaborators, organizers and involved citizens.
However, if the scope of artistic activity is so vast that definitive distinctions are reductive and we are unable to separate this from other activity in the world, how does the insistent identification of such as art facilitate the intended aim of a project in the political realm? The criteria for judgment that applies to radical political change does not necessarily overlap perfectly with aesthetic criteria. How, then, does the artist prioritize where to invest the most labour and attention? Not only can such a conflict divide the energies and resources invested in a project but it is possible that it can prematurely foreclose potential in one realm through an increased significance in the other. If radical political change began to be identified as art, its reality may be overshadowed by its metaphor and representation. Similarly, if art began to be identified as radical political change, it draws suspicion and distaste as having obvious designs on a viewer.
One way in which the identification of an activity as artistic can facilitate its impact in the political realm is through a lending of visibility, ordinarily allotted to artistic objects. In a predominantly visual culture where even highly textual political ideas are consumed through images, this visibility is critical currency. However, the eyes to which artistic objects become visible and the sites which contain these visions are constrained by existing forms of institution and infrastructure. A countercurrent can transplant the artistic project to structures other than those of art’s own construction. Political projects may gain visibility through the channels of art and vice-versa. Possibility is thus created to eschew the reproduction of inherited forms of artistic presentation and political representation.
A traversal of forms across art and politics opens ways of criticality and action. On the other hand, we still entertain the sensuous and aesthetic aspects of art. Granted that these aspects do not create an autonomous object or cast a uniform effect upon their viewers, does direct sensory experience still allow political possibility that can disrupt other practices?
A possible approach to the question is to imagine the artistic project not as a catalyst to critique but as critique by itself. We do not confidently know what is it that art looks like and the same can be claimed for critique. It follows logically though that it must take an appearance distinctly apart from the object of criticism. Thus, if the function of art is to make intelligible the extent to which existing relations of power are found wanting, it must not become a manifestation of these relations through a conscious adaption of a position. Thus, its sensuous and aesthetic qualities allow pure negation through which critique is served most well. The maintenance of this pure negation has historically been one of the central tenets of the artistic struggle.
Another way in which the sensory and aesthetic qualities of a visual object can intersect with political change is when we imagine material objects to possess memory and a non-human agency. Measurement of time through material degeneration, of event through index, and the performance of action due to a passive collection of stimuli enables the artistic object to speak and act ‘for itself’. Non-sentient material objects, thus, can perform calls to sentient action.
A third possibility beyond traversal (involving a sharing of domains through conscious mobility) and sensuous experience (contained by the artistic object) is that of transformation. This involves reconstructing the project of art to adapt to a political rather than ritualistic end. Proponents of this possibility cite both the shifting trajectory of the artistic project historically and the pervasiveness of visual culture across political landscape today. What turn could contemporary art take if not the political and what other domain could better accommodate it?
The mergence of art into the political realm finally confronts the question around which all investigations of the critical potential of art must necessarily skirt. Why must one differentiate art from life and how does one do it? This is the dilemma around which existential exegesis of art is established and although this separation has suffered near terminal blows in the last century, the demarcation is still largely intact for now.