Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Political Art

James Panero attacked the Whitney for it's inclusion of politically-charged art in it's upcoming Biennial. Kriston Capps agrees. Surprise, surprise. Capps writes, "First, OK, he's right. Politically oriented art—the political art I've seen over the last few years, almost without exception—has been snide, sneering, didactic, transparent, self congratulatory, self satisfied, at times bathetic, more often punny, almost always formulaic. Political art has never really shaken the design roots of its cast and bears, if not a similar appearance to propaganda, at least the same byte-sized message format."

I'm in the middle of my last term paper as a college student, so I can't write the full diatribe I'd like to. Nonetheless, here are two brief comments which, for the time being, will serve the same purpose.

1. You may not like policial art, but art history, cultural evolution, and society would not be where it is today without it. Yes, it's self-serving, but so is blogging, and your pissy post is a fantastic example of that. Besides, who said art needed to serve anyone other than the artist? Political art, or any art that pushes buttons, exemplifies freedom of expression. Political art can let someone speak their mind, and encourage others to do so. We need it. But more importantly, political art gets people to think, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the marking of good art. Art is one of the only boundry-less mediums in existence, and to promote this idea that art cannot or should not reflect polticial ideas or ideals systematically dismantles art--you're detroying it.

2. Uh, "Guernica"? Ring any bells?


Blogger Joemode said...

I started my blog today. My name is Joe.
I am an artist too.
Can you tell me anything about how to make my blog great ?
I used to live in Vienna,VA now I live here in La Jolla,CA

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

Hi Samantha,

To be sure, I am fond of a lot of political art; my research in college focused on the intersection of art and political ideology (in particular dissident art in the Soviet Union). And in my post I write about the work by Hans Haacke that I love. But I can think of just a few examples of political art today that are so affecting.

To your second point: of course! This is what I'm saying. And this is in some sense what the Whitney curators are saying, by bringing Viet Nam protest art into today's context. Where is the celebrated, pithy political art that really nails the moment we're living in?

I'll keep your points in mind.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

There was fairly-recently an interesting discussion about political art over at edward_'s blog. It's quite lengthy, but it has challenged me to think more about how one goes about creating political art that can bring the most change and as any good activist knows, there's far too much preaching to the choir going on anyways.

10:18 PM  
Anonymous agustín said...

"Political art" is, at the end, a redudant expression. All arte is political, since all art is an act of communication between human beings. The question is how can art be effective in approaching determinate political objectives. And it's not a question about the contents of art, but about its tecniques. What place does the art object, product or action have in the structures of power?

1:25 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

This is sort of off-topic, but I thought one of your statements was particularly interesting. You said, "Besides, who said art needed to serve anyone other than the artist?"

I have a big problem with such a statement. Many artists have this romantic idea that they make art only for themselves and that's all it needs to be. However, the same artists complain when they don't get included in shows or picked up by a gallery. If artwork only serves the artist then what is the point of showing it?

Art certainly doesn't HAVE to serve anyone but the artist. But there aren't too many Henry Darger's out in the world who don't give a damn about others.

Given that, I think artists should be real with themselves. Artists should create whatever they want to create, but they should also realize that they aren't doing it just for themselves.

So, in terms of political art especially, I sure hope artists have the world in mind. Otherwise it seems pretty pointless to me.

OK... off my soapbox.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...


Thinking about what you wrote and thinking about a lot of Political art that I have seen (yes agustin, the personal is political..thus, nearly everything is political.) But for the sake of the discussion, let's talk about big P Politics...

I agree with Edward that there is too much Political art that beats you over the head with a message. Now, some of it I like (some of it I own and some of it I even make).

But to be quite honest, I think (at least I think I think that) art that beats you over the head with a message IS self-serving. Now the self can be more than just one individual, it can be a group, a philosophy, a ....

When I print a photograph that just shouts "End The War" (not literally) I am doing so to benefit my own Political agenda. Chances are it won't influence anyone or change anyone's opinion of the war. Those who are anti-war will give it two thumbs up and those that are pro-war will walk away disgusted.

All this said, I think it is good from time to time to make self-serving art, especially if it is political. But don't let it define you and your work.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...


Your last comment confused me a bit but maybe I'm having a hard time defining "self-serving." When you make "self-serving" that truly serves only yourself (agenda, ideas, or whatever) do you show it in public? If so, why? And if you make something only for yourself, why do you need to make it if you already have the idea or agenda in mind?

I thought visual art was about communicating ideas visually that can't be communicated as well via words.

I think with your definition all art is self-serving. Under my definition almost no art is self-serving. Hmmm...

2:55 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...


Hmmm....more food for thought. Not sure if I can explain what I'm thinking- perhaps I need to create a piece of visual art :).

Okay, I think (for the most part) that Political art that bangs you on the head does indeed say something that words could say just as well. But with the definition of art being based on intent, then if an "artist" intends such "art" to be "art" than it is.

Often times my "self-serving" Political Art can be serving to others as well- so is it truly "self-serving?" I don't know. I guess it depends on intent. Did I make this piece to show my Political beliefs or did I make it to bring attention to the anti-war movement?

Let me think more on this...

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i cant really believe he thinks this but rather is playing the fool like kirkland often does (only he isn't playing) by making absurd provactive statements in order to drum up some comments/traffic to his blog.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous tony said...

Political art is like any other form of art, it is all up to opinion and views of aesthetics. Some people are really sweet on making a statement about the world around them. While others prefer to condemn those who speak out against what they feel is wrong. Political ideas and associations in one way or another can be construed as propaganda depending on how you feel about a certain subect. But propaganda has always been the way to reach the masses.
Political or not, art is made first for the artist, and second for someone else to see the ideas of a certain person in what has been deemed artistic. Anyone who believes that artists don't make art for themselves is only looking for a handout, or an invite to the latest party.
The current state of our country, and when I say our I mean the U.S., is one that is in a more volitive situation then it has been for the last thirteen years so it would seem only logical that there would be a higher increase of political work. It's hard to paint daisys when they keep coating caskets.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...


I think this is the crux of the matter:

"Often times my "self-serving" Political Art can be serving to others as well- so is it truly "self-serving?" I don't know. I guess it depends on intent."

I would think it has more to do with what is done with the piece once it's created. If it's solely self-serving, what's the use showing it. If it's meant for the public (to reach the public, make a statement, whatever), then it isn't solely self-serving.

It's not all that important distinction really... just interesting to think about.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Joemode said...

There were some really lefty art here in San Diego during the republican convention back in 1996.
As I remember they were b&w
wood cuts. They brought tears to my eyes. What a relief that someone was so right on and in agreement with my views
and feelings about what's happening in Washington. People around here just zipper their lips in total fear.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

A great show of political art is up right now at the San Jose Museum of Art and will be travelling to the American University Museum in Washington, DC this spring: Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...


I would think it has more to do with what is done with the piece once it's created. If it's solely self-serving, what's the use showing it. If it's meant for the public (to reach the public, make a statement, whatever), then it isn't solely self-serving.

You're right. Now just to keep thinking about this, if I make something and I intend to show it afterwards, but for one reason or another, it doesn't get exhibited, is it self-serving or ...?

Joemode- Yes! It's good to make work that bangs a message on a head, especially if it's around the time of something like the RNC. BUT, I also think it's good to make what Ed called "purple art."

Jack- I'm so looking forward to the show

11:34 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...


I guess I would say that the following variations would not be solely self-serving:

1) Intent to show the work publically (whether it does or not)
2) Intent to be solely self-serving but the artist chooses to show or sell the painting at a later date.

To be solely self-serving, I think the piece would have to be made with the intent to be solely self-serving and the artist could not choose to show the work. Herego why Darger's work remains solely self-serving although it's been shown all over since discovery.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Besides, who said art needed to serve anyone other than the artist?"

It's funny - this is the one statement which stood out to me the most, and the one which I most agree with. It says very succintly many of the thoughts I've had in recent weeks.

JT, there was a post on your site a week or so ago about "newness" in art, that I tried several times to respond to, but each time decided not to post feeling I had fallen short. Samantha's comment sums up nicely what I wanted to say.

In many ways, I feel like art is very much by and for the artist — the audience is along for the ride. Yes, I create what I do with the intention of displaying it, but (at least consciously) my creations are not influenced by that and frankly, I don't care what other people think of the work. If a gallery doesn't want to show it, or a collector doesn't want to buy it, this does not bother me.

I take the photographs and write the words that I do because they have meaning to me — I hope that others will find a connection in them. But I will not change the images or the words to make that connection, because then it would be meaningless to me.

(sorry this is "anonymous," but I don't have an account on this thing...)


1:06 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Hey Robert,

I'm having a difficult time reconciling a couple of things you said:

1) "I don't care what other people think of the work. If a gallery doesn't want to show it, or a collector doesn't want to buy it, this does not bother me."

2) "I hope that others will find a connection in them."

Based on #1, it sounds like you make your photographs for self-serving reasons. But in #2, by hoping other people connect with it, that makes me think your work isn't solely self-serving.

Let me make clear I'm not suggesting that you have to be influenced by what others think when making your work. I would hope this isn't true. But, you have a popular Web site, a newsletter and you show your work in multiple venues. If the work is just for you, why go to all this effort to show it to other people?

Again, I'm not making a judgment call here... I'm just trying to get at the heart of the self-serving notion of artmaking. I think it's bunk for 99% of artists in the world. I certainly don't make my art for self-serving reasons. I want as many people as possible to find something in it. I already know what it's about for me... hell, I don't even have to make the work get stuff out of it. It's all in my head.

BTW, just hit the "Other" button and enter your name and Web site. You don't have to be anonymous.

1:28 PM  
Blogger storker said...

Where is the celebrated, pithy political art that really nails the moment we're living in?
in argentina

2:20 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...


Don't get me wrong, I think the stuff from Argentina is important, beautiful and certainly timely, but I also think it's limiting. For, the most part it's not going to influence people or help change their minds. I think Political Art is most powerful when it can not only say something, but cause a viewer to question their own beliefs.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

Thanks for the link, Mark. Those are all fine designs, but I'm looking for pithy. The Bush Is Evil stuff is cheerleading, and I'm sympathetic to that camp—I think the Bush administration is devious. I think when Alexandra says that she appreciates and makes some "cheerleading" political art for herself, she's acknowledging that it has its own utility but isn't the stuff that changes minds.

I haven't seen amazing, mind-changing political art in the last five years. But then, *facts* don't seem to be amazing and mindchanging—the country falls along hard red and blue lines no matter how the war, economy, etc. changes.

3:51 PM  
Blogger storker said...

it may not nail the moment you're living in but these, the first especially, nailed the moment they were living in almost to the point of prescience.


4:26 PM  
Anonymous tapemen said...

also, in this case i dont think the goal of the posters/protestors were about changing people's minds but rather were about telling Bush to get the fuck out.

so while you're right in saying political art (outside of massive political propaganda) doesn't instantly change people's minds, it has perhaps other/better uses, in this case to effectively disrupt bush from being able to do his own propagandizing.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

so in the end, it just comes back to intent?

9:33 PM  
Anonymous tony said...

It's all about intent. If you want to rant and rave about politics through art, then yes your work will be cheerleading, and finger pointing, or any other adjective that means you're speaking out against something. That is your point. And there is nothing wrong with that, it is just more difficult to reach people outside of your circle. And by circle I mean people who share your own dissent. It is a huge challenge to make political art that is not one sided. That is because that something has moved you in a way that is uncomfortable and so you want to lash out. So inevitably you will alienate some people because it is them that you disagree with. The people that all political art is aimed at are the proletariat, or commoners, or those that do not yet have an opinion. That is the challenge then, how do we, or "political artists" reach them with out hitting them over the head?

9:54 PM  
Blogger storker said...

yes, intent sure.... but
what caught me about this thread is that 1. there is a lot of great political art out there and that setting a bar for it to be mind-changing isn't a good litmus test.

some of the best political art being made today is by street artists who are directly affecting the visual landscape with their work. coupling that with the media who latches on hard, it really works as a way to get out there to counter all the other political and commercial propraganda. banksy, borf, ron english, vomito attack come to mind first but there are dozens of others.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

"...street artists who are directly affecting the visual landscape with their work."

Anyone CAN directly affect the visual landscape. Just pick up a can of spray paint and push the nozzle. Simple as that. But to do it well... that's the hard part. I think Kriston is calling for better work with greater meaningful impact. I would hope all artists would strive for that... but it's much easier to avoid the challenge.

The analogy I think of is associated with the recent war protests. The majority of the people you see on TV are teenagers just out there for the fun of it, acting cool. The people affecting change in the world are typically behind the scenes doing real work.

Of course, I think this analogy fits perfectly for the contemporary art world too.

3:51 PM  
Blogger storker said...

knowing your opinions on graffiti your comments don't surprise me, but then again, i read a post of yours not too long ago admiring banksy's work in palestine:

her it is

this is in fact a great example of what im talking about. great art and media (BBC) coverage to spread it.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Banksy does impress me a great deal - the murals, not the museum shenanigans. I was merely commenting on the idea associated with graffiti that the act of graffiti making and being prolific are seen as positives. Well, those have nothing to do with quality. Just like putting paint on a canvas in and of itself doesn't make it good or valuable or worthwhile. So, I was merely commenting on your statement about "...directly affecting the visual landscape with their work." To which I say, and?

Banksy is doing some serious stuff and without a doubt prompting changed minds. He certainly opened my eyes to some things. I wonder what Kriston thinks about Banksy's work.

And in my last post I don't think I critiqued graffiti art at all. Did you read it that way?

I've only encountered one graffiti artist, admittedly not out of a huge sample, who has done anything for me on a visual and intellectual level, and that's Banksy. I certainly haven't seen anything in the DC area that comes close to his work. Well, that is if you take away points for the act itself and being prolific.

I agree with you totally when you say, "...great art and media (BBC) coverage to spread it." There's plenty of media hype (Borf for example) but not nearly enough great art.

4:58 PM  

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