Good Intentions: Bidoun's Negar Azimi on Political Art

This touches a nerve with me. Here, I am writing and researching about the arts while around us natural disasters and revolutions unfold. Nigeria is in the run up to the elections and there are recurring reports about violence. I read it. I hope the best for Nigeria and feel with the victims of violence. But ultimately I write about the destruction of political campaign posters. So, what’s the role of the arts in politics? Does art have a role in politics? Negar Azimi of Bidoun Magazine published this interesting article on the topic in Frieze Magazine.

… It is difficult not to recognize in this sea of political shows the art of the token gesture. Of course, many of these exhibitions were thoughtful … Still, a look at their conceptual underpinnings reveals a tightly circumscribed universe of ‘the political’ in which artists address the problematics of power, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ (Istanbul 2009), and finally, use a familiar cast of set-pieces of contemporary art (mostly the installation or the documentary as zeitgeist … to put forward one-liners about any number of issues … Take a good look at the institutions that host these exhibitions, and a familiar medley of programming emerges. An annual line-up may include one show devoted to gender, another to Islam, and perhaps another to Israel to balance out the former – and rarely is the work of artists whose politics we don’t like featured. … When David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 film A Fire in My Belly was pulled from ‘Hide/Seek’ at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington dc last November (the offending scene depicts ants crawling about a crucifix, inspiring complaints from the Catholic League and others), art spaces from across the US leapt at the chance to host the work. New York’s Museum of Modern Art even bought it. … The very fact that the censorship inspired such an outpouring was important, and yet, it couldn’t help, at times, but feel like a form of institutional self-congratulation – another version of ticking the box alluded to above.

All of which leads to the question of what is the difference between representing politics and actually enacting it? Representing politics entails describing a work by starting a sentence with ‘it’s about … x’. When Sam Durant makes sculptures of gallows or Taryn Simon photographs individuals on Death Row, it’s about how capital punishment is a bad, barbaric practice. But what happens next? And what is the good of engaged art – whether it takes the form of governmental critique or institutional critique or otherwise – when it is subsumed back into the system? … Does sitting around a room exchanging experiences and ideas about the war in Iraq nurture a false sense of engagement or community or could it inspire someone to write a letter to their local representative, take part in a protest, or, as a public figure, take a public stand? Does such activity, to return to a worn but handy cliché, simply preach to the converted, or, when, say, placed in public spaces, like museums, pull in a few new converts to the flock?

Read the whole essay here.

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