WHAT is the value of politics in art? Does political art work and should art be political?
Debates about the role of politics in art come around regularly. There is nothing like a contentious political debate to get the arts out of their ghetto and into the news section. It certainly gets professionally outraged commentators rabid – particularly when even a tenuous connection with government funding can be established. But does political art actually work?
I have to start with an admission. I’m definitely drawn towards artists with a healthy desire to comment on and respond to the world around them. I like artists who treat the art world like there is something at stake and not merely something for sale. Part of this is high-minded political aspirations for art and part of it is that I just like shit-stirrers, provocateurs, ratbags and troublemakers and am pleased to encourage them wherever possible.
Looking back, I’d like to think that the role that artists have played on issues such as war, refugees, and climate change over the last decade has had some impact. The cumulative effect of all those plays, books, street art and exhibitions must have contributed to our changing political climate.
Yet for every successful piece of political art, there is a lot of wreckage. There are a lot that fail or even set their causes back. Artists, along with all political campaigners, can forget that works that are preachy, dogmatic, and predictable are more likely to reinforce views than to change them.
The biggest problem with political art is that it only preaches to the converted. Those stereotypes about the insular, righteous nature of the art world can be jarringly real at times. Plenty of political art is met by nothing more than a wall of furious agreement. Sometimes that’s by accident, sometimes by design but work that aspires to nothing more than to reinforce the prejudices of a safe and comfortable crowd is little more than an indulgence.
Another danger is the peculiar immunising effect of art itself. At its worst, the whole formal arts system can immunise audiences against political ideas. The rigid frame of “Art” can take potentially powerful acts of subversion, dissent and rebellion out of context and turn them into hollow symbols of subversion, dissent and rebellion. Art can defang symbols. It’s unfortunate when the most powerful thing about an exhibition is the rhetoric of the catalogue essay.
But probably the biggest barrier to political art in these times of tabloid frenzies and confected hysteria is the sidetrack problem. How often has a work attempting to provoke a complicated debate merely created ground to rehash an easy one? How often does the formulaic “should our taxes be paying for this” non-discussion of outrage, action and overreaction arise when a discussion about actual issues is ignored? Not that it isn’t a genuine question, but everyone immediately assumes a predictable position and proceeds to go through the motions. The underlying issue in the work struggles to be heard.
Political artists need to think a little more about how their work might be received. Within the formal institutional context, works with a strong question, an illuminating insight, or a healthy and humorous juxtaposition often play better than those with a powerful polemic. Insight proves more effective than ideology.
Work that is directly provocative can work but it struggles in the gallery. Overt political acts and interventions work better on the street, on the web, in the media — wherever people react directly — rather than asking themselves whether this is art or not. I’ve always liked artists such as Sydney’s Deborah Kelly, whose work puts her views on everything from street posters to searchlights.
Yet the most powerful political works are simply honest to their creator’s experience. Indigenous artists have done much for the cause of reconciliation and bridging the gap in understanding between their lives and those of the wider Australian society. At times this has rightly been political and confrontational, at others it has simply illuminated and made tangible a culture and life experience.
The honesty of an experience expressed through song, through image, through film, through theatre or dance can be the most powerful political message of all.
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