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11 October 2009

Left Versus Right: Anti-Art

For the past few years I have been watching a growing sentiment that political art is not "art." I hesitate to call this sentiment a "movement" per se, but the idea is spreading.  The idea that anything political is not true art is taking hold  in the on line art communities, especially those where the purpose of the community is profit.  Frequently, those who insist that politics has no place in an "art community" are either unlearned in art history, or reject the notion of art as sociopolitical expression. 

I have made an effort to support all forms of artistic expression from photos of flowers and landscapes to the strongest of political and activist art.  Often it has been my experience that the "flower" photographer or painter will accept my support of their art while simultaneously rejecting my work as "not real art."  I find this contradiction curious.  My opinion and critique is often sought by "flower" artists who respect and value my opinion, yet reject my work, and most (if not all) political and activist art as so much propaganda and not "real art."  I think what the "flower" artist sees in work like mine is the aesthetic.   What they reject is the message, therefore they must reject the whole of the art because it makes them uncomfortable, or angry, or feel some other unwelcome emotion.  Since it is  somehow possible for them to separate the message from the aesthetic merit of the work they seek to separate the political from all art. 
I do not see the relation between art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other, between which a relation would need to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. This is why I consider that it is not useful to make a distinction between political and non-political art… The real issue concerns the possible forms of critical art, the different ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony.  Chantal Mouffe, "Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces", Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Volume 1, Number 2, Summer 2007, via Art & Research.
In times of civil unrest the political aesthetic is rejected by the community at large and subject to attacked.  The attacks on the political aesthetic range from removal of art in public spaces to full on physical attacks on artists and gallery owners.   As incredible as this sounds, in 2003 Capobianco Gallery owner Lori Haigh was physically assaulted and terrorized with death threats because she placed on exhibit a controversial painting by established artist Guy Colwell.  The painting titled Abuse is an interpretation of prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu GhraibWhile I have not (so far) been punched in the nose for my art, I have been verbally pummeled on numerous occasions.

More and more frequently the leftist political/activist artist is subjected to personal attack by conservative, nationalistic, and fundamentalist forces in  American society.  The assault on political/activist art is not limited to  artistic themes that challenge traditional nationalist views in America, as I have seen conservative and fundamentalist attacks on the leftist political/activist artist by individuals from many other countries.  The closer to the truth the message of the artist, the stronger the reaction to the art, and the more violent the reaction by those who oppose the message. 
[I]t is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself with regard to social struggles – one should also ask how it effectively functions in these very struggles. Slavoj Zizek, "The Prospects of Radical Politics Today," The Universal Exception: Selected Writings, Volume Two, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 238,  via Art & Research.
It is at this point that I must ask the question of myself:  "How effectively does my art function to convey a message with regard to the social struggles in my society?"  Based on the almost universally positive reactions from the Left, and the almost universally negative reactions from the Right, I have to answer honestly-- I don't know.  Either I am successful because my message is embraced by liberal progressive thinkers, or I am successful because my work is rejected by conservative fundamentalist thinkers.  Sometimes I think I am preaching to the choir, so to speak. 

The vehement, sometimes violent, reaction to Leftist political/activist art is an anti-art movement that has picked up steam in recent years.  In the United States, in the first few years following 11 September 2001, art that was anything less than absolute praise for Country and God was attacked as un-American, unpatriotic, and treasonous.  Since the election of President Obama, the Right has produced a tremendous amount of anti-Obama art, writing, and propaganda in the style of graphic tee shirt designs, bumper stickers, and poster art.  Prior to President Obama's election, Right Wing art was essentially of the God, Guns and Country type with gun rights, flying flags and soaring eagles as the main theme.  Since the 2008 election, art from the Right has taken on a threatening and violent undertone (some advocating violence outright).  "How effectively does this art function to convey a message with regard to the social struggles in my society?"  I think that they have been quite successful in conveying their message.  While the Right pushes its agenda through its art and writing, it also seeks to silence the artistic voice from the Left.  The Leftist artist/activist must then be more clear in message or risk the voice being lost in the cacophony.

The Right has been highly critical of art from the Left, so much so that I am reminded of the so-called degenerate art of the 1920s - 1930s.  Where the
National Socialist Society for German Culture sought to curtail the corruption of art and to educate the  people about the relationship between race and art, the Right Wing of today seems to seek to curtail  Leftist political dissent and to demand the people accept as art works that depict love of Country while all else is not art, but only left wing propaganda and a corruption of art.   Put simply, it is a double standard:  the Right rejects as art anything produced by the  Left, while promoting Right Wing propaganda as true art.

Caught in the middle of this is the on line art site which seeks to promote its own profit and will therefore promote art and artists that further the profit goal.   What happens then is the Leftist political/activist artist is not promoted and even ignored.  The attacks on political/activist art by the Right Wing is an anti-art position, conservative propaganda campaign to silence dissent and homogenize artistic expression.  Homogeneity may be good for the on line art site since the buyer is not surprised by the content.  On the other hand, homogeneity can be boring, uninspiring, and flat.  Where profit is the goal, if boring, uninspiring and flat sells, then that is what is promoted.  Unfortunately, what sells is not always the best art, or the most interesting art.

To decry political art is to decry art itself, since there is no denying that the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Cross Posted at Art Action Union


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