Mikhail Iakovlev discusses the relationship between art and politics.
For a great many, if not the majority, nothing may seem further removed from socio-political struggle than art with its critics, posh auction houses like Sotheby’s and multi-billionaire collectors like the royal Al-Thani family of Qatar.
It’s true that increasingly the art establishment – motivated as it is by monetary gain – tries to convince us that art belongs behind bullet-proof glass in one of the world’s major galleries, or even better in a Swiss-bank vault of a wealthy collector. The current government is only too eager to reinforce this message with its insistence on core-subjects and the decision to exclude a bunch of arts and applied subjects from the new GCSE and A-Level syllabi.
In effect, art is reduced to a compact, preferably 2D object that can be conveniently stored, hanged and traded and more importantly so far removed from the concerns of ordinary Joe, so as to make it meaningless for the great many. In the 1960s and 70s there was a revolution that brought art out onto the streets, tracing its origins all the way to Duchamps and his mass-produced urinal. But since mass produced goods can be bought for a small fee at Poundland, there was no gain in art like that for the collector and the auctioneer. So as Don Foresta put it, art was put back into tradable object form.
But is art really apolitical just because the commercialised art world wants us to believe it is?
My answer, in short, will be – no – even if we avoid getting into the beholder creates meaning argument. Artists that state explicitly that their artwork is apolitical are in effect reinforcing the status-quo. In other words – art doesn’t have to take the form of an anti-government graffiti in Cairo to be political and oft-cited cultural theorist Adorno tends to agree. It’s just that art that is immediately visible to be political tends to take forms similar to clandestine graffiti. But of course conservative critics are never the last ones to dismiss graffiti, dance and rap modes as polluting forms of non-good art that distract our attention from the real-deal. But, all art has a maker and when there’s a maker – there’s an agenda.
Of course in many cases art takes similar forms, particularly in political contexts were alternative forms of political activism is either impossible or puts one’s health and well-being into serious jeopardy. This is especially true for non-figurative art such as poetry and dance, when the content may appear harmless enough, whilst the form screams defiance – Swingjugend listening to jazz in Hitler’s Germany come to mind (though of course they were punished, as Hitler was particularly concerned with the purity of form).
To add to this, artistic expression has the ability to induce an emotional response in the beholder, something that cannot be achieved by a 100 page-long statistical report on routine mistreatment of prisoners in the Kamchatka distr… A point the reader can test for herself by looking at the photo of Pavel Pavlensky’s performance Seam.
This emotive nature of art makes it a very it can be used as an extremely effective tool of non-partisan education. Especially in the contexts targeting children or communities with low literacy rates. WHO recommends the use of art – murals, educational plays, etc – to promote good hygiene practices among school-children in Africa. Closer to home emotive photographs are put on backs of cigarette packs to dissuade us from smoking.
So next time someone tells you that art and politics don’t mix. Ask yourself – who are they? And – what’s in it for them?
Featured Image:Petr Pavlensky