January 15, 2015

Art and Politics, Politics and Art

In the midst of the frantic reaction to the Charlie Hebdo-attack there were a few people who kept their calm: like the chief editor of the German satirical magazine Titanic. It was refreshing to see how Tim Wolff refused to participate in the media circus. No, Wolff had to repeat twice to the pushy interviewer, he is not afraid because this terrorist attack is about a very specific French situation. Titanic is not going to spread even more Charlie Hebdo Muslim satire but rather terrorism satire. Not so calm was the “I am not Charlie” outburst by Berlin based artist Candice Breitz on Facebook. But yes, the loads of Facebook “I am Charlie” posts (we’re all one body now: collectivism is okay again!) upset me too. Then there was a reaction against this reaction to the mainstream reaction, equating any criticism to Charlie Hebdo with saying that “they had it coming”. Art critic Jorg Heiser found it a disgrace that his fellow colleagues dared to object to anti-Muslim racism in Charlie Hebdo and to nuance the freedom of the West. One of his statements was the following: “It’s fair enough to object to what can be considered racist and islamophobic content in Charlie Hebdo, as long as one acknowledges its anti-racist and anti-fascist content as well.” I thought that the comment section had some good answers. Phuoc Dang: “You think there's more people justifying the killings in mainstream western media than people asking for the racist cartoons* to be republished? And sure the speech itself “doesn't kill you” but what if it creates an alienating environment that further marginalises and brings violence on you. *explain how repeatedly characterising a religion as comprised of hook-nosed brown people with beards is not racialised?” And J. Rives: “Thanks for the whitemansplain.”

I must admit: I have difficulties with “political art”. Most of it seems to fall so flat. The recipe goes like this: you take a picture of a political topic and put it on the canvas. Tatatata... a clear political statement! Or Fukushima happens and you run to Fukushima to make a video because it’s always more exotic over there than over here. Or you take some “outsiders” and use them in your art project. Or you take some stereotypes and clichés and repeat them to show us something. Such political art attracts attention and has a quick effect. It’s shocking and provocative - and a lot of political artists are convinced that that's what contemporary art is all about. While at the same time everything stays in place and nothing is disrupted. But you can create a press scandal and that pushes your sales and your reputation. Your art work is being sold and exhibited, the gallery is happy, even the people in power are happy and will buy it because they can wash themselves with it and show how self-critical and free-minded they are. 

You see, in my opinion the so-called non-political Andy Warhol was the most political artist of the twentieth century. Sure, you might hang his work in a Hollywood villa or in the Reichstag, but you probably don’t know what’s hanging there on your wall. Great art can’t be functionalized, it resists. Andy Warhol’s genius is his positioning - something that most political artists forget about. They are hovering in the air and showing us something. They got some calling, but from whom? They forget they have a body themselves that is positioned in this society. Awareness of your position in society seems to me a quality that could significantly improve political art as a genre (Jorg Heiser mentioned above, is white male, just in case you were wondering). Awareness to differences in context would help too. Warhol’s genius is also his humour - which is not a haha-humour that goes at the expense of others. Not that haha-humour is a problem that political artists in particular suffer from. Most of the time they are so serious about themselves and their art work in their quest to change the world that it bores me out of my mind. But maybe that is something that we should bear in mind: it might sound a little cheesy and "we are the world" but artists should use their skill for the benefit of mankind and for the betterment of the world - they should, shouldn't they? Andy Warhol's answer: "I'm trying to."

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