Art and Politics

To change what Rancière calls the “cartography of the perceptible, thinkable, and the feasible,” art must maintain its distance, a withdrawal from any clearly defined political agenda. Only under the auspices of such aesthetic separation can art’s politics unfold, a politics which, in Rancière’s sense, has the potential to “reframe the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible, new configurations between the visible and the invisible, and between the audible and inaudible, new distributions of space and time.”[iv] At times, it may even make the audible visible.

-Christina Schmid, “Haunted by the Zeitgeist” on

In this piece Christina Schmid, who I consider a friend as well as a professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, discusses the customary rejection by contemporary artists of any labeling of their work as “political.” I have experienced this too, at numerous artist panels and Q&As; a question about the political implications of a body of work is often curtly dismissed or sidestepped altogether.

And yet, I think that there is always a political and ideological dimension. Just as supreme court justices are fiercely political while they are simultaneously given the benefit of the doubt about being above politics, artists seem to be able to get away with disdaining the political while unavoidably participating in it.

Perhaps, just as the greatest manifestation of white privilege is the ability to remain blissfully unaware of it, the privilege granted to fine art (what puts the “fine” in “fine art”) is the professed ignorance of its own politics.

If politics can be understood as the distribution of power relations in a society, then how does fine art relate to power? Perhaps a good rule of thumb, for the sake of argument, is that anything that doesn’t actively push against the status quo by default helps to uphold it. There is no neutral, just like nothing is truly static in the world: everything is moving, evolving, or flowing in one direction or another, toward order or disorder, growing or decaying… nothing doesn’t change over time, if one looks closely enough.

The conceit of Contemporary Art is perhaps in the name itself – what the hell is contemporary, anyway? Everything that is happening now is by definition contemporary. But the term itself, I suppose, creates distance from the Folk Arts, Public Art, and of course Activist Art – as though those practices are somehow not happening now. Or perhaps it means that they’re somehow tradition-bound in a way that is un-contemporary, is un-free to innovate and reinvent itself?

The works of Michael Kareken and Michael Sailstorfer (discussed in the essay by Christina) prominently feature cars and car parts, Industrial products of the 20th Century, and Trevor Paglen (another artist who I recently heard sidestep the question of political content) takes photographs of CIA satellite surveillance installations. All three are addressing, at the very least, themes of civilization and entropy – perhaps they are not political in the sense of Republican or Democratic, but they certainly address Power and the way it flows through society, in both the metaphorical and literal sense.

If they were to embrace some kind of label of Activist or Political Art, would they lose their status in the world of Contemporary Art? Would it make the work itself seem more specific or limited? Would it be harder to sell to museums and wealthy collectors?

Is Contemporary Art by definition required to not have an opinion about the good or ill of these conditions and dynamics? When Paglen shows us spy satellites, mere bright dots among the stars watching us, is he really withholding a judgment and/or a call to action? Does that critical distance save him from the Political label?

Maybe, in the refuge of abstraction, or the disinvestment in established traditions or specific communities or a sense of urgency itself, Contemporary Art remains safe for the rich and powerful, for the very people endowing museums and foundations and amassing multi-million dollar collections, safe for intellectual and philosophical regard without the discomfort of the thought of personal complicity in any of these circumstances. Maybe it’s much easier to buy something that doesn’t explicitly blame you for anything bad that has happened in the world.

Paglen mentioned that a collection he produced of images of CIA patches for secret programs had been anecdotally spotted as a coffee table book in the lobbies of CIA buildings themselves. Without making anyone uncomfortable, an aestheticized “Contemporary” perspective on something like a corroded engine block or a satellite dish can be seen as a critique, a jeremiad, or a glorification, depending on who’s looking. The images themselves are beautifully wrought.

To sacrifice the privilege of remaining apolitical would potentially mean winding up on the side of the poor and the oppressed against the rich and powerful. Which just does not make good business sense, if you have a high-end product you’re hoping to sell.

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