Arts  •  April 7, 2004

Paradox of Political Art

Political artworks have always been problematic for me, especially those with a hierarchical structure of morals or ethics. Aside from the fact that they are visual, they demonstrate no difference from the verbal discourses of various social and political organizations. Since the art world is a small, exclusive community, one cannot help but to question the effectiveness of such political evangelism. I also would like to discuss below the validity of artist as a political position.

Political art as a conceptual art movement was born in the late 60’s, and continued on strongly into the 90’s. It probably reached its height in 1993 when Whitney Museum had its “political biennial.” After that, there was a backlash to political correctness. Then, 9-11 came. Politics is once again in vogue. Perhaps this is only my own perception, but the Internet as a medium seems to encourage production of political art. The Internet is both global and democratic in nature, which are qualities pertinent to today’s international politics. Whatever the reason, this new boom in political art seems to be happening mostly around the digital art world.

Conceptual artists like Hans Haacke whose practices were called “institutional critique” dealt mostly with politics as it related to art. They made us aware of the political implications of viewing art. Their concerns were with the politics of art, not with politics proper. In this sense, their art can be seen as self-criticism, not political evangelism. At some point in history, this pertinence to art was lost, and political art as a conceptual art movement was reduced to being a mere tool for propaganda.

The most apparent problem I see with today’s political art is its deterministic nature. Art often raises salient questions, but when a political artwork is morally motivated, its questions become moral directives disguised as questions. That is, they are rhetorical questions. As such, there is a right way and a wrong way to look at it. A correct answer is always already provided for you by the artist. The questions and the discussions it provokes either support the answer or refute it. And, the value of the work is contingent on its dialectical outcome. From the point of view of the audience, the experience of such political art resembles that of reading an op-ed column in a newspaper.

The less apparent but more problematic aspect of political art is its lack of attention to the political implications of being a political artist. A person whose political arguments are predicated on his ethical superiority is ethically obligated to prove his superiority, avoiding at all cost any gestures or statements that can be misleading. In politics, if a compromise between parties X and Y were to be made on moral grounds of X, and if both parties were to respect the principle of equal rights, then it follows that X is obligated to morally satisfy Y throughout the process.

For instance, if the recent war on Iraq was waged on moral grounds by the Bush administration, they are obligated to demonstrate their moral integrity to his opponents. Awarding lucrative contracts to Halliburton, for instance, is disrespectful in that it is blatantly misleading, and makes the auditing of their moral grounds impossible.

By the same token, if artists were to criticize governments and private institutions on moral grounds, they are obligated to demonstrate that their motives are not promotions of their own careers as artists, but their own beliefs in the cause. Being an artist is a business like any other business. It would be unfair to simply assume that artists are in a privileged position that escapes social and political criticism. Artists cannot be exempted from the suspicion of having impure motives. If artists are not required to prove the integrity of their motives, why should anyone else be? If we were to speculate hidden motives of government institutions and private corporations, it is only fair that we also speculate the hidden motives of the artists who criticize them.

In this sense, Sue Coe, for instance, would have better served her cause by contributing anonymously to organizations like PETA in order to avoid suspicion that she is motivated by promotion of her own career as an artist. This in turn should make her work more effective.

Politics is rarely motivated by a single factor. Professed motives are inextricably contaminated by ulterior motives, and they are further contaminated by the compromises forced upon them by certain predicaments and the powers that be. However, the general tendency of political art is to ignore this irreversible and unavoidable contamination, and to delimit the underlying moral implications in order to hierarchically oppose one another.

This operation of moral purification is rarely applied to their own practices as artists. When asked about the effectiveness of their pursuits in the real world, or their problematic position as artists preaching to the converted in the art world, or commodifying of political activism to make a living, or exploitation of moral appeals for self-promotion, they allow themselves the compromise that they criticize in others, because they realize the impossibility of purity in their own predicaments.

Another question I have with political art is its effectiveness. By taking positions as artists, they necessarily distance themselves from the real nitty-gritty of politics. To politicians, some op-ed columnists are like backseat drivers who have never driven a car before. They speak only from a theoretical and ideological point of view without ever having to get their hands dirty. From the position of politicians who cope with the difficulties of the real world politics, their criticism is unfair and inevitably one-dimensional. It is fair for the politicians to ask: If the columnists’ political ideologies are their motives, then wouldn’t it make more sense for them to directly participate in the political process, rather than to sit back and criticize those who do?

The same question can be extended to political artists who make art against war, against unethical corporations, against invasion of privacy, and so on. What is interesting is not so much the content, but why they choose to use art as a platform for their fights, even when they face obvious proofs of its ineffectiveness, or even when they are shown a more effective alternative. But, sadly, this question is rarely addressed, and is seldom welcomed as a debate.

The last issue I would like to raise is the tendency of political artists to place a priority on their status as artists over their political cause. A long-term problem with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas is that they tend to preserve their own existence beyond their professed objectives. Especially between Israel and Palestine, terrorism has been incorporated into the normal functioning of their political and economic structures, so much so that sudden extinction of terrorism would probably create power vacuums and chaos in that region. In this type of environment, preservation of their power, status, and identity takes precedence over their ideological cause, which in turn will perpetuate terrorism forever. Ironically enough, their enemy, or the opposing ideology, becomes a necessary constituent of their own identities.

This is a political problem that exists also in political art. Their identities as artists take precedence over their cause. Their motives are made impure by their own insistence to be recognized as artists. The opposing ideologies they criticize as immoral or unethical are always already parts of necessary constituents of their own identities as artists. The more they insist on their status as artists, as opposed to as anonymous members of our society motivated by the cause, the more they contribute to perpetuating the very problem they hope to solve.

Our democracy is founded on a principle that we are born with equal rights. Much of political art violates this principle by leveraging the perceived cultural authority of art and of an artist. A political opinion expressed by an artist appears more authoritative than one expressed by an anonymous citizen. Political artists are, therefore, tempted to express their opinions as artists, rather than as anonymous citizens, but the idea of democracy is to level this type of inequality so that one citizen’s opinion is no more authoritative than that of any other. This is the basis of the argument used by those who criticize Hollywood celebrities for publicly expressing their political opinions. To respect the principles of our democracy, celebrities must not be confused with politicians who were elected to represent our political voices.

Naturally, this is also a matter of degree. There is no definitive point in a scale of fame where voicing of political opinions would be considered a violation of our democratic principle. However, if your primary motive is a political cause, being directly involved in our political system, rather than being an artist, would be fairer to the public, unless, of course, you disagree with the fundamental principles of our democracy.