How political should artists be today?
Contemporary art in Europe is socially relevant. But how does it shield itself from political appropriation? Joseph Young, sound artist, belit sağ, video artist, and Via Lewandowsky, visual artist, discuss this question – and you can join the debate! Leave us your views and questions: in the comments field on this page or on Facebook and Twitter using #freepost.
A cooperation with Internationale Gesellschaft der Bildenden Künste.
What interests me is: do you use certain methods, rituals or processes in your work, for example to check whether you have enough proximity to or distance from a theme on which you are working?
See the whole contribution of moderator Geraldine de Bastion – this week as video:
Soon belit sağ, Joseph Young and Via Lewandowsky will answer here – also in video contributions.
So the moment a movement starts creating spaces, creating possibilities, nurturing both internally and externally the causes it believes in, and the communities it touches upon, that’s the moment a movement starts to become a movement, it is the moment a movement passes its first check with the reality.
I find it very important to be able to get very close to your work, as well as take a big enough distance at times.
The problem starts when artists start identifying with movements and losing their criticality, which is dangerous both for movements and for the artists. Or when they start being too distant, to a degree that reads as no interest, while still claiming a stance which doesn’t read genuine because it is not engaged, neither critically nor practically.
Though the Chinese artist who was exhibiting with me supported my decision, he was not exactly enthusiastic nonetheless. The response in the German media was disproportionately pronounced by comparison with this trivial case of artistic disobedience. The work then enjoyed its biggest success among an audience far away from the exhibition venue. The original critical German-Chinese dialogue between the artists played virtually no role.
One of the greatest challenges for an artist is now to resist the gentle seduction of opportunism.
The curatorial agenda had long been determined by fear of an audience that no longer appeared as homogeneous and western-oriented. To all intents and purposes, my ironic criticism of the fear of foreign infiltration already came too late. That leaves its mark, and ideally one should better conceal one’s critical messages. One of the greatest challenges for an artist is now to resist the gentle seduction of opportunism.
It is “a way of living in the present in another world instead of deferring its possibility”: we do this by enacting what Marxist cultural theorist Herbert Marcuse refers to as art’s promise of transcendence.
Through imagining and inhabiting a world beyond inequality, the artist can make a real difference.
Ranciere also said that autonomy equals “a form of thinking, practice and organisation free from the presupposition of inequality”. This, for me, perfectly describes the ethics of a 21st century artist – certainly mine and I suspect that of the other artists in this debate. belit’s friends who were moved to get involved in humanitarian aid efforts acted from an autonomous position and their action was also explicitly political. Theirs is an equally valid response to the crises of today. There are of course artists who just want to paint Trump and Jesus, but they are not, thankfully, representative of most of us.
I studied political movements: The current confusion around the yellow vests protests in France is a highly interested phenomenon – it seems possible to mobilise masses in our society where people are supposedly suffering from information overflow and political apathy without even communicating a clear cause.
Being against something is not being political.
I read out of all your answers that you work on the intersection of activist movements and the arts. Jacques Rancière once said: Art is "not political in the way it represents the structures of society, the conflicts and identities of social groups. It is political precisely because of the distance it takes in relation to these functions.“ How do you individually ensure you have enough critical distance to fulfill the socially critical function you want your art to have?
It is dynamic and ever-being defined. Solidarity has a dynamic meaning and should have a dynamic practice as well. Many activist friends who were hardcore opposing the State and opposing to collaborate with any forms it takes, went to Mediterranean in the last years and started doing humanitarian work, filling in the gaps where governments left blank. The urgency of different situations, challenged the notion of activism in our minds, and made all of us re-define it. The same goes for solidarity.
International solidarity is something we make, it doesn't come by itself.
Years ago I was involved in a campaign group that helped connecting textile workers and organizers from several Asian countries on the issues of labor rights in the sweatshops that are mass production points for many European countries. The value of that campaign group was connecting struggles in different countries, making it very clear how the processes were taking place in different countries almost in the same order but in different times.The knowledge and experience shared and connected strengthens the struggle, the same goes for art, a lot to learn from each other. International solidarity is something we make, it doesn't come by itself.
In no other sector of society does any group of professionals display such grave social differences. Since no catalogue of services exists to specify the value of the work that has been done, each artist is responsible for their own artistic added value. Although it would be very interesting to do so, it is almost impossible to give any thought here to ethical questions.
Solidarity does work perfectly well in the art context itself.
Whether it is a question of health insurance, studio agencies, commissions from state property developers, remuneration from copyright or exhibitions – in many European countries these are the political instruments of solidarity that have nothing to do with liberal market forces. These structures need to be strengthened and protected.
DiEM25 has many artists on its coordinating committees, demonstrating the desire of some to get directly involved in the political process. I am not advocating for DiEM25, by the way, just pointing to it as a possible mechanism for change.
Our focus as artists needs to be on protecting and extending the idea of Europe.
There are many initiatives across Europe advocating for open borders, including the tiny, Go Europe! with its Make Europe Greater! Tour creating face to face encounters between citizens across the continent. The IAA and Culture Action Europe could take a lead here in establishing links between artists and the rest of the activist community, offering information resources for artists wanting to get involved in the various campaigns.
“Europe is not a place, it is an idea, and that idea is our only strength.” Máriam Martinez-Bascuñán writes in El Paìs on the 28th of October 2018.
The question that remains: Is there a Europe beyond that? Is there a concept of Europe that is not undermined and devaluated by the current politics? And if so, where does it find its expression?
What kind of international solidarity in terms of freedom does art need?
Many civil action groups have formed and taken state matters like saving people from the Mediterranean Sea into their own hands in the past years. In my research, I came across events such aus Glasgow Buzzcut and FromMe2You – both events created by artists for other artists to share knowledge and create networks of support.
Is the same taking place in form of artistic solidarity? And how can we foster such an exchange beyond language barriers and forms of expression in order to, as Joseph Young put it, offer a hopeful vision for the future?
We should ask the question of what art can do that is hard to have, what spaces and what experiences art can create that are needed at this moment. Art is good at finding loopholes and gaps, not being restricted by rules and regulations. And political art can take the form of a small gesture.
I want to see art making as a contribution to a larger movement.
The fact that its unity is threatened with even a worse situation shouldn’t make us blind to what the European Union actually stands for, what and who it includes and excludes, who is defended and who is not worthy of being defended, and especially what is happening on its borders at this very moment. One of the biggest mass killings is taking place in the name of protecting the borders of the European Union, and these are not policies exclusively supported by far right. For certain parts of the world, the European Union has never been a symbol or defender of human rights and peace.
That said, the struggle against the far right is real. The hatred is targeting daily lives of people of color, poor people, ethnical and religious minorities, the LGBT community and women all over the world. A demo that asks for human rights inside and on the borders of European Union is an extremely urgent response to these times. The danger at this moment is finding a hero in the idea of EU, while being blinded to the violences EU has been imposing.
And yet the dictates of the state are still the most powerful political statements of a society’s culture. This contradiction can be illustrated by Gerhard Richter’s four Birkenau paintings that today are displayed in the Reichstag opposite his monochrome compositions in the colours of the German flag. For his Birkenau series, Richter created artistic reproductions of photographs that an inmate had secretly taken of a Sonderkommando – a work unit of prisoners – in Auschwitz. Richter then painted over them in the abstract style that typifies his work.
Visual arts will continue to accompany and observe the polarization of society as a protected space and laboratory.
Nonetheless, visual arts will continue to accompany and observe the polarization of society as a protected space and laboratory, as an instrument and model, if left in peace.
In a recent review of my show at the Estorick Collection, London Make Futurism Great Again the reviewer remarked that my response to the “absurdities of capitalism” was “disappointing as most run of the mill protest takes the form of an art project these days.”
We now need to take a step further and to offer a hopeful vision for the future.
For this we will need two things – compassion and ideology. Compassion to counterbalance the hatred of populist rhetoric and ideology to provide answers to the urgent questions of the day. It is not enough when confronted with the spectre of fascism returning to the shores of Europe for artists simply to question the status quo …
I really like the work of UK artists group Keep it Complex in this respect – with their rallying cry that mocks the tendency to over-simplify complex issues, a typical tactic of the alt-right. It is an artist’s duty, I believe, to “complexify” the issues of the day, and to assist their audience in exploring the root causes of the very urgent issues that we face.
This new-found solidarity could be seen at the #unteilbar demonstration in Berlin last weekend, where nearly 250.000 people took to the streets to protest for solidarity, the right to asylum, democracy and human rights.
It seems that the expectation that art should be part of a political debate is rising.
“If art doesn’t do politics, who will?”, Documenta14 curator Dieter Roelstraete asked his students in the summer of 2017. In today’s European society, how political can and should art be? How can art help break out of the polarization we are currently experiencing in our societies?
belit sağ | Photo: belit sağ belit sağ is a videomaker and visual artist living in Amsterdam. She studied mathematics in Ankara and audiovisual arts in Amsterdam. Her artistic background is rooted in videoactivist groups in Turkey. She co-initiated bak.ma, a growing online audiovisual archive of social movements in Turkey. She has presented her work, among other places, at Documenta14 and international film festivals.
Photo: Joseph Young Joseph Young is a sound artist from Great Britain. He continues to campaign to keep Britain in the EU as the founder of twitter campaign @artsforeu. His work has been exhibited at Tate Modern and Seoul Museum of Art among other places. Young makes sound installations and performance works for galleries and site-specific spaces.
Photo: Rainer Gollmer Via Lewandowksy, born in Dresden, is a visual artist who works with diverse artistic media. He is best known for his sculptural installations and his exhibition scenographies with architectonic influences. His works in the public sphere and his performances not only have an obvious political aspect but also intentionally overlie different levels of comprehension.