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How political should artists be today?

Portofrei #2 Runde 1
The artist and politics – a balancing act? | Illustration: © Bernd Struckmeyer

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.

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March 26th, 2019   |   Joseph Young
Joseph Young Joseph Young | Photo: Joseph Young If we want to develop positive images of the future, then first we need to ask ourselves what kind of society is it that we want to create. We can all probably agree within our own cultural echo chambers what that might look like: a society without borders, but with social justice and equality et cetera.

But the trouble is that this particular vision of utopia is not one that the citizens of Europe would currently support. 

See the whole answer of Joseph Young – this week as video:
January 23rd, 2019   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv As our exchange draws to a close, I would very much like to learn more about how you as an artist personally cope with the balancing act between critical distance and critical proximity – and how you arrive at your personal “present utopias” of which Joseph Young talks.

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 and Via Lewandowsky will answer here – also in video contributions.
January 7th, 2019   |   belit sağ
belit sağ belit sağ | Photo: belit sağ In my experience being against something is the first step for personal political awareness. When a movement starts, many different groups can come together in being against a certain way things are happening. But once that movement stays there, i.e. only being against something, that’s where a movement stops growing and transforming itself. As a result it either dies, or turns into a repressive structure, just like the ones it once used to be against.

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.

I read “distance” in Rancière’s quote both as a difference, and also as closeness. The critical distance is something one needs in their work, whatever the work is dealing with, but I find it very important to shift and change that distance, be able to get very close, as well as take a big enough distance at times. The ability to move in that range can be a strength in art.

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.

January 3rd, 2019   |   Via Lewandowsky
Via Lewandowsky Via Lewandowsky | Photo: Rainer Gollmer This is always a moral and ethical question that has to be answered anew every time. And especially when the work is no longer merely an idea but already a reality that has begun its journey through the ages. In 2007, I was supposed to remove my work Als Stalin weinte (“When Stalin cried”) from an exhibition in Beijing. When I refused, the exhibition was shut down.

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.

On another occasion, a work never even reached the audience in the first place. For political reasons, a German and later also a French museum simply refused to exhibit my work Brutkasten (“Incubator”) – a converted cuckoo clock in which instead of a cuckoo a muezzin calls to prayer every hour.

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.
January 2nd, 2019   |   Joseph Young
Joseph Young Joseph Young | Photo: Joseph Young The creation of what I would call ‘Present Utopias’ is the modus operandi that separates us critically from the world we inhabit. In this way we are not representing but challenging the status quo. Through imagining and inhabiting a world beyond inequality and not waiting for our political institutions to catch up, the artist can make a real difference.

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.

The expression of beauty, wrongly dismissed during the period of post-modernism, is our way of invoking the revolutionary imagination. If we can express this truth in our work then it is possible to create a symbolic longing for its fulfillment.

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. 
December 11th, 2018   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Joseph Young’s suggestion for Europe to take a lead 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” sounds like something that is well needed today.

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.

Highly interesting and somewhat frightening to see how ready for being against the status quo people seem to be without having a vision of a positive future for all members of society. One of the comments on our social media posts said, every person should be political – and I would agree, as we all are citizens who should vote and do their share to keep our democracies in check. But being against something in my view is not being political. Taking action like belit sağ’s friends is being political. Would you agree?

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? 
November 28th, 2018   |   belit sağ
belit sağ belit sağ | Photo: belit sağ The situation is definitely saddening. And I really appreciate the questioning of where this solidarity finds its expression. For me the answer is a constant search, a never ending lifelong search for forms and potentials, in order to form and re-form and re-formulate this expression.

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.

I find it difficult to find the expressions of solidarity in the arts though, the collectivity element is missing in most cases. I don't believe this is a pessimistic look, but I think it is rather a realistic one, which is still looking for and hungry for finding those expressions of solidarity. There are many groups and initiatives that do important work, and I wonder maybe the point is about linking the small autonomous groups and initiatives, placing things in a larger map in connection to each other, i.e. just like Geraldine mentions in her question, sharing knowledge and creating networks.

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.

November 21th, 2018   |   Via Lewandowsky
Via Lewandowsky Via Lewandowsky | Photo: Rainer Gollmer Isn’t a team of two artists already the smallest entity of artistic solidarity? Haven’t artists collectives, like-minded individuals and interest groups always practised different forms of artistic solidarity? Above and beyond this, however, it is fairly amazing that there is such high acceptance among artists of behaviour that shows no solidarity whatsoever.

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.

While solidarity is urgently needed on the one hand, it contradicts the very way in which the art world works and functions. Nonetheless, solidarity does work perfectly well in the art context itself. Many forms of solidarity in practice have taken artistic shape as a ritualized form – one in which the nature of solidarity is no longer recognizable. What is more, many things are regulated by state structures. Over the years, all kinds of different organizational forms have emerged in the various social fields, which the artists themselves have long been unable to afford themselves.

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.
November 19th, 2018   |   Joseph Young
Joseph Young Joseph Young | Photo: Joseph Young The notion of “Fortress Europe” makes it hard to visualise the European Union as “a hero”, as belit stated in her previous response. Heroes, I would say, are over-rated and what we really need now is not idealisation but practical, political reform of the kind that DiEM25 is calling for in the 2019 EU elections.

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.

With the European Union under threat from within and without, our focus as artists needs to be on protecting and extending the idea of Europe. Yes, acknowledging what is happening at our borders in its name, but also acknowledging that the border is a creation of the nation state and that “Europe” embodies a shared culture with shared values of equality and openness, at best; at worst, intolerance and xenophobia. According to European Alternatives, we need to cultivate “creative cultures which question and go beyond boundaries”, a notion that may not be as utopian as it sounds, but rather a matter of existential urgency.

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.

November 7th, 2018   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv I am saddened to find myself agreeing to the sentiment of the closing sentence in belit sağ’s response – because the very ideals we are speaking of are a farce as human rights are only such if they apply to all, and not to some who carry the right passport.

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?

makeitclear.eu seems like a great example of attempting to create international solidarity through artistic means and actions. How can we create and sustain freedom and safety where the state and international cooperation falls short and what new and just solidarity could look like? And, in order to make this happen, what kind of international solidarity in terms of freedom, funding and other support mechanisms, 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? 
October 31th, 2018   |   belit sağ
belit sağ belit sağ | Photo: belit sağ I do believe that artistic interventions have a role to create spaces to come together, moments to contemplate and feel safe. There are too many threats for many people especially in these times we are in.

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.

At this moment, it is about doing what you do best. I want to see art making as a contribution to a larger movement. I want to see art take the back seat, stop shouting, nor being on the stage, and just think together with the world outside, instead of using it as a subject. I think we need art to take the role of a co-conspirator in these times.

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.
October 30th, 2018   |   Via Lewandowsky
Via Lewandowsky Via Lewandowsky | Photo: Rainer Gollmer There is no doubt that an artist can and should share some of the responsibility for matters of concern to society, yet how much commitment can any artist afford without jeopardizing their freedom and credibility? Last century, the exploitation of art for political purposes at times made artists and artworks appear in a bad light.

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.

The political impact of this work, paradoxically enough, depends on the importance of the artist and their market value. A discussion of the reasons or indeed of the obviousness of any such political statement is no longer possible at all, and it is precisely this that poses a problem for many artists. They act on an ambivalent stage between numerous possibilities of different art concepts. And thus find themselves confronted with the dilemma that art polarizes itself, gets caught between political activism and a market-oriented “art for art’s sake” canon or is perceived straightaway as bigoted moral paternalism. 

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.

October 29th, 2018   |   Joseph Young
Joseph Young Joseph Young | Photo: Joseph Young Artists have always contributed to society in many and varied ways, not least as active citizens in their local communities. The question for me is not whether artists should involve themselves in politics, but how?

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.

Negative criticism aside, I would like to turn the proposition around and say that artists have therefore proved themselves adept at co-opting the language and aesthetics of political protest. We now need to take this 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.

October 18th, 2018   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Our democracies and the concept of the European Union are being tested and tried. But the rise of populism, nationalistic and authoritarian traditionalism is creating a new solidarity amongst those who believe in the concept of the European Union, its role as a defender of human rights and peace.

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.

Artistic interventions like the grey figures of the G20 protests in Hamburg in summer 2017 have played an important role in such social movements. The correlation between art and politics is not a new debate, but a continuous question to be reflected on. 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 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. 

Joseph Young 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.

Via Lewandowsky 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.


Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion is a political scientist who advices public institutions, NGOs and business enterprises on the use of digital technologies. Her expertise is valued by internet activists and bloggers around the world. She is a member of Digitale Gesellschaft e.V., which fights for basic rights and consumer protection in the digital domain. Each year she is a sought-after curator and presenter at the international internet conference re:publica.
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