The anniversary of September 11, 2001, with all its remembrances and commemorative exhibits, seems like a fitting time to examine the intricate relationship between contemporary art and politics. Is art supposed to deal with politics? If it doesn’t, should it be forced to? Or is art, in any form, a political activity?There are at least two different stances one can take to these questions: One would narrow the definition of “politics” and see “political art” only in works that make overt political statements. (But is it still art, then?) The other would take as a first principle the fact that “all art is by definition political” and try to theorize from this. What follows are two conversations dealing with that very issue. Arthur Danto, who curated a 2005 exhibit on 9/11 at Apexart, in New York, has spent his life teaching analytic philosophy at Columbia University and serving as art critic, notably for the Nation, between 1984 and 2009. Daniel Birnbaum, who studied under Danto, is a philosopher, curator and now a museum director: After holding the office of director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and curating the Venice Biennale in 2009, he became head of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. A contributing editor of Artforum, he has written and edited many books on the relationship between art and philosophy, for instance, in 2008, Thinking Worlds, The Moscow Conference on Philosoophy, Politics, and Art. Public Art Is Not Political Art: A Conversation with Arthur Danto Donatien Grau: When I asked you about contemporary art and politics, you immediately thought of the exhibition you curated on 9/11. So maybe we could start with that. Arthur Danto: I wrote two pieces on 9/11 for my column in the Nation: the first one around the time when it took place, about what it was like to live here. On the day when it happened, my wife and I were watching on television, and a man called us. He said he was from the New York Times, and he asked me: “What is the art world going to do about 9/11?” And I said that I couldn’t imagine that the art world was going to do anything about 9/11. I thought that everybody was like I was at that moment, sitting in front of the television, hardly able to believe that this took place. I didn’t know what it meant, but if anybody would have said: “Oh, I’m going to turn this into art”, I would have answered: “This is not art that I would be interested in at all.” A year later, the editor of the Nation asked me if I would be interested in writing about what artists had been doing about 9/11, if they had been doing anything at all. It turned out that they did, and I was quite surprised. On the fourth anniversary, I even thought I should put out a show about it. I called a lot of artists I knew: I called Cindy Sherman, and I asked her what she was doing, if anything, about 9/11. She said, “Well, yes, but I don’t know, maybe I’m going to do something abstract, I don’t know, but I feel that I should do something.” In the end she did these big clowns because in her mind it was about laughing on the outside but being sad in the inside. She was not the only one: there were a lot of people dealing with 9/11. What interested me the most was the fact that they didn’t do pictures of airplanes crashing, of people jumping out of the windows. They did something else. For instance, the sculptress Ursula van Rydingsvard built a gripping wall. She said: “Mama built me a wall”, a wooden wall, and that was it. A painter named Zakanitch, whom I like very much, painted lace, because laces are all done with one thread and we were all hanging together, not to be intimidated. And then, Lucio Pozzi, a Downtown painter, who lived in Mulberry Street, went outside and photographed the smoke coming on Mulberry Street from Canal Street. Fifteen powerful pieces of that smoke. So I tried to alert people to realize that there were people who were inventing ways of grieving, ways of expressing grief. Audrey Flack, an artist who has a religious touch, was out of town on 9/11. She realized that what she had to do to deal with this feeling of grief was to paint a fishing boat on the water. You would never know, going into that show, that it was about 9/11. I wrote an essay for it, which was based on an idea of Wittgenstein. He said, in Notes on a Culture: “When Schubert died, his brother cut up some of his scores into little pieces and give it to each of his students. We understand that as an act of piety. If he burnt them, we would also understand.” I began to think that there are regular ways in which people express grief. But artists don’t express grief like that.. There was a specific language of expression of grief. Everybody would understand if you explained, and you would see why it was appropriate. It was on the fourth anniversary of 9/11. All these pieces put together created a marvelous, a real awakening of the feeling people had of 9/11. At that time, the politics of Ground Zero was getting very difficult. They didn’t know what to build, how to build it, etc. It wasn’t like the feeling that we all had of all being together in New York. It was an amazing experience, a moral experience like I’ve never had. Then it was interesting to see the commentaries people made, particularly from Europe—because people came from Europe to see how the New Yorkers would be dealing with that kind of event. Recently, I got a call from England, and they told me they wanted to do a documentary on how artists deal with 9/11, the only thing we really found was your essay. And I said: “There wasn’t anything else, actually.” The journalist answered: “I see that, but do you think that it is going to go on being the way you represent 9/11?” And I answered: ”No! You don’t grieve forever. This was grief, genuine grief, but it was the way the artists found to express it. That’s the end of that.” DG: How do these reactions from artists as individuals relate to the idea of the body politic? AD: I think we all felt that if you were in New York it was different from being anywhere else. You were automatically concerned with the welfare of everybody else in the street. People were really so kind to one another in that period. I learned two things from 9/11: that ordinary people are capable of heroic acts and that ordinary individuals were capable of moral sympathy, this idea of David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s. I’m really sorry in that way that I had to learn it really does exist. Only something like 9/11 can break the way people walk down the streets without paying much attention to everybody else. DG: In what ways were the artists’ reactions particular? AD: I got everybody to write wall-texts about why they expressed this the way they did. These were not obvious war-memories. If you walked in, it didn’t look like a 9/11 show. That was the great value of that. What struck me in New York then were these shrines that ordinary people made: Nobody told them how. They were able to create these things with balloons, photographs, flowers, maybe candy. And I thought: Nobody could do better than that. The spontaneous pouring of feelings in these shrines. I started noticing these when Princess Diana died. When the artist Leslie King-Hammond did a shrine that was an artist’s shrine, it was more raffiné than the vernacular shrine. But it wasn’t better than what anybody could do. It was the spontaneity of the regular shrine that moved me so powerfully. Nobody told them anything, and they needed to express something. The artists took it one step further. DG: Would you define these artworks that were shown in the exhibition as political art?AD: I wouldn’t. Public art, yes, but not political art. It was a way of privately expressing grief, but for other people. I wouldn’t have called it political at that time. What’s political in the art world is basically multiculturalism, feminism, black power. It’s identity politics that seem to be part of the way politics are defined in the United States. I was reading an essay by Tzvetan Todorov in which he analyzed the fact that, during the time Europe was dominated by the Nazis, the fascists and the communists, art was part of the deal. People who would try to do something else would be bulldozed. When Rukhin and Rabin tried to have a show of political art that wasn’t an expression of the government, the communist regime sent bulldozers and destroyed all the art. Art was supposed to be the art of the state. We never had it here. For example, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial went out, which was, again, probably as moving for people as 9/11 in its own, people would go there, leave flowers, look for the loved one’s names, rub it out on a piece of paper. Steve Pyke, who has been photographing philosophers, talked about a conversation he had with Freddie Ayer, and Freddie had said that it was surprising to see how many philosophers had been in the war. I don’t think that any of the great abstract expressionist painters—Pollock, or De Kooning—were in the war. They were only interested in themselves. They didn’t want to be involved, because before that artists were all communists in New York. Suddenly, you were pressured to wave a certain kind of flag, etc. These people, the abstract expressionists, they only wanted to be in their studio. DG: Andy Warhol was more ambivalent. AD: Definitely Andy Warhol. He was not anti-war, but he was an anti-Republican. He did the portrait of Nixon and he said: “Vote for the other guy.” He was politically interested in being a Democrat. When I wrote a book on Warhol, I discovered that he had made this poster for raising funds, and he raised more money than anybody else in the country. He got in a lot of trouble, because Nixon saw it too. DG: Don’t you think that the way he addresses popular culture is political in its own right? AD: You can see that, but it’s more patriotism of everyday life than actual politics. DG: Would you define the mission of the artist as more public than political? AD: Artists were pretty radical. But being a communist in your heart, you’d been through too many arguments. Motherwell was a friend of ours. He did the Elegy for the Spanish Republic. He said: “that was my public statement, my political side.” It’s interesting it should also take the form of grieving for him to express his political side. DG: Do you think that the art world is politicized? AD: Yes, in a way. People raise funds for the endowments, people that are interested in the arts devote themselves to that kind of occupation. But if you take it too far, it all becomes political. When I think of politics, I really do think of the Nazis, the fascists and the communists. Right at the moment when we’re going through terrible times in the United States, when people are getting angry about giving all this money to the banks. People don’t know enough about economics to understand this sophisticated way of handling. You need to have a population that has read Keynes and has some sense of what economics are about. I don’t know. It’s political. It’s connected with passion. I don’t know if it has an impact on artists. All Art Is Political: A Conversation with Daniel Birnbaum Donatien Grau: Isn’t all art by definition a political activity? Daniel Birnbaum: I think so, yes. Because it’s about communicating meaning or a lack of meaning. If it thinks of itself as non-political, it is in itself a political thing. DG: If every art is political, what is the difference between art that is political and political art? DB: There is a form of art that really wants to say something about our society. Politics are about the experience of collectivity, and how we organize our lives. Certain artworks seem to be more about individual forms of experience—even if one can question if such a thing really exists, in some sort of radical sense. But still, certain works are more about a meditative stance, maybe investigating perception or things that seem to be more individualistic. And there are artists who are more interested in some sort of intersubjective collective field, and how that field is organized—which is always a political issue. So I’d say there’s art that is actively political and really wants to work with the tools of politics, taking the risk of becoming more illustrative. If that happens, maybe it’s no longer art; it’s propaganda or advertisement. There are interesting places where these forms meet: We have a beautiful room at the Moderna Museet, where there is an early Malevich—one of the early abstract pieces—and a late Malevich, from the moment when he became a realist again. And there are also works by Tatlin, Rodchenko and all of these people. There’s a full wall of political posters from the 1920s. And they are maybe not meant as artworks; they are propaganda, but they are unbelievably complex and sophisticated. Many of them are made by people who are also artists. It’s a generation that was part of such a momentum in socialist faith that they used their art as a tool to serve this high purpose. DG: It’s also about experimentation: On the one hand, it seems that art is a tool for experimentation in politics. And on the other hand, it is experimentation in itself…DB: I tried to write something once about Wolfgang Tillmans. He’s an example it could be interesting to think about because there are at least two main focuses in his work. On the one hand, he’s interested in strong visual impact and so obsessed with images that some of his photographs are almost abstract. He took photography in a direction where it’s almost painting, some sort of experimental pure image-making, that he calls “alchemical works.” On the other hand, he became the portraitist of his generation in the early 1990s, and he made these great collective captions of energetic moments, demonstrations, but also parties, clubbing, Love-Parade. They all deal with what it means to be together in the world: different forms of collectivity that are not so easy to press into our normative, standardized idea of life, including sexual politics. It’s about a certain level of individualistic freedom. It’s political in a fundamental sense. I feel that he’s an artist who goes back and forth between these two incompatible spaces, pure experimentation and curiosity towards the basis of politics—which is how we live together in the world. His sense of visual impact and his keen sense for how images work are in the end the most political of things, because it’s about creating attention. One could not reduce his work to some sort of political agenda, but he’s standing out for the complexity of what it is to be a human being. DG: It seems that art leads us to think of politics in very fundamental terms. DB: There was this famous statement by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet regarding a film they did about Bach’s wife, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which seems totally without political content but was shot during the Vietnam War. People couldn’t understand it. They said that if art emphasizes the richness of being a human being, it is per se anti-totalitarian and therefore political. DG: It also relates to a certain political regime, to democracy. It seems that for a long time, art was a privilege of the rich and powerful. Now everyone can go to a museum and look at art. DB: One could see a lot of art that came out in the last twenty years being interested not in objects but in life forms and environment, or in relations. It has been discussed as “social turn”, or “relational turn”, with artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija or Liam Gillick. It defines their work from the early 1990s, which reintroduces social issues in art’s broader spectrum. Of course, one could say that it’s nothing totally new: Fluxus, situationism, Dada, or Russian constructivism had all these things already. But things come back, and they have a different meaning. It’s fascinating to see how they are interested in the public sphere and the polis. One can sometimes feel things visible in the art world, nearly as an obsession, when it’s really threatened in real life. When we feel that the public sphere is threatened by political and, even more, commercial interests, that’s when it returns as fetish in the art world. When we celebrate artists who create seemingly open situations, such as Rirkrit’s events, they remind us of the open sphere. DG: The concept of art as we see it today is relatively new. When you think about it, the birth of democracy in modern Europe is exactly contemporaneous to the birth of the concept of art. Isn’t there a link between our definition of art and democracy as a political regime? DB: When you look at the massive commercialization of the art world, we have the feeling that everything important happening outside of the art market has been marginalized. The critic, a necessary but not always popular figure, who was not an artist but had a dialogue with artists, has been marginalized by the figure of the sophisticated, talented, curator. It’s almost like a chain of functions. The critic was replaced by the curator, the curator was replaced by the adviser or someone who organizes art fairs—art fairs pretending to be more open but being actually driven by commercial interests. In the end, even gallerists have been a bit removed. Of course, some of them are sophisticated and true intellectuals: From Kahnweiler to Marian Goodman, they have been defining how certain developments in arts have been phrased. The symbolic event was when Damien Hirst went right to the auction house. At this very moment, everything is removed. There’s only the art as a fetish and the collector. It’s only about the market situation. Art has become again something for the very rich. You’re right to notice that the whole idea of the artwork is basically an Enlightenment idea, from Diderot and Kant, and onwards. Maybe when we now think of certain Russian, French and American oligarchs, we’re back to the situation Mozart and Haydn lived in. Artists of all kinds were financed by nobility or kings and queens. Now it’s not Count Esterhazy; it’s some East European oligarch. DG: Yes, but there is a difference: These contemporary oligarchs you just mentioned always want to show their collections as much as possible, whereas the nobility, the kings and the queens didn’t expose it to the crowd, they showed it to the very few. DB: It’s true. But the things that we take for granted, the autonomy of an artwork, its meaning in the public sphere, the expectation that art should be part of society—it’s all a relatively new phenomenon. Before that, we had art linked to the very wealthy, and to the Church. Let’s hope that we’re wrong, but maybe the time of the art world was just a 200-year long autonomy. The notion of “autonomy” formulated in the Third Critique and closed in 2008, by Damien Hirst. Maybe I’m too dystopian. DG: I once interviewed the artist Francesco Vezzoli and he said that Miuccia Prada is in the same range of powerful people as Mayor Bloomberg. DB: Aren’t they pretty much the same? Mayor Bloomberg is a very creative fellow: he has turned Manhattan into a green island full of bicycling citizens and artworks by Olafur Eliasson. He’s a creative businessman. DG: I would be interested in having you talk about the border between art and political activism. Maybe we could start with Ai Weiwei. Within all his activities, his blogging, his proper artworks, where is the limit between art and activism? DB: There was a provocative and therefore obvious political dimension in many of his performative pieces, even before the real troubles started, and it was directed not only to China but other politically symbolic places. It’s obviously an artist who has always been thinking about his work as something that cannot be reduced to some sort of individual or psychological interpretation. It’s all about interaction with society. I’ve read recently that people have been questioning the fact that he’s the greatest living Chinese artist, something that has often been claimed because he’s one of the most famous. I don’t know what to say about that, but I would certainly say that all his fights are about freedom of speech, and it has nothing to do with the issues that have been discussed in the last couple of months. It’s about the fundamental rights of citizens. I would rather think that Ai Weiwei is an artist and a public intellectual. Interestingly enough, certain artists really want to distinguish between different forms of activity: Someone like Paul Chan often insisted on the fact that he’s an artist, who does beautiful, interesting, sophisticated, challenging works, full of references that can be read in political terms, and that they are radically distinguished for him from his activities as a political activist. For instance, he went to Iraq as a member of a group called “Voices in the Wilderness”, where he was the only person to be an artist. The others were lawyers, journalists, etc. Maybe it’s a way to be able to talk about his art in a different way. DG: The interesting thing about Paul Chan is that he has seemingly stopped being an artist to become a full-time activist and a publisher. It seems that art reaches its limits. DB: There’s always a sense, when you show something in a museum, that the context and the expectations will limit the experience because it is fetishized and institutionalized. The last main project that Paul did was a number of works related to the Marquis de Sade, that I did with him in Torino and then in Venice. It’s maybe true that, since then, he has not appeared with new works in an art context. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would resurface, not necessarily in the art world as we knew it, but in some other space. DG: Maybe we could go back to what you said about this idea of commercialization, and the economic issues to which it relates. At the same time, we seem to experience this process, and new economic powers such as China, Brazil, or India are integrating the art market. And the figure of the artist didn’t exist there in the same way as it did in the Western tradition. So we are in this new, incredibly open context. This is something you emphasized in the Venice Biennale you curated in 2009, “Making Worlds.” DB: Venice has great possibilities because of the visibility, but great limitations because of the structure of the city. Depending on the mood of the day, I think of “Fare Mundi” in different ways. It was inspired by a complex, difficult book by the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman, entitled Ways of World-Making. He thinks of different ways of understanding the world, through art, through science, different kind of language-systems. Each is a way of making a world, and there is a kind of pluralistic approach, that you can’t really translate the physical world into a form. I thought it was interesting to conceive art as something that creates not only aesthetic objects, but also worldviews, even if they’re not all huge, all-encompassing installations. Even a small haiku poem can open a world. Restrospectively, one could have done more with the biological paradigm. There’s also the Heideggerian notion of Welt, one of his the key words in his early philosophy. A world is projected. The world is not just there, it is created in a dynamic between the perceiver and what’s perceived. And behind that Heideggerian concept lies the influence of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who looked into the way animals experience the world, and forged the concept of Umwelt. In the end, an exhibition like this is not about a museum-style collection of things; it’s about artists who come there and produce something. It’s more about a language or a semiotic system. In a way, it used to be that these big exhibitions were very Western, because our notions of art and the art world are very Western. I’m not saying that there wasn’t something comparable to art in other continents, but the concept itself, the way it was phrased insight a philosophical system has a very exact genealogy. Over the last ten or twenty years, it has become so evident that the situation has changed. In 2001, Harald Szeemann, who was curator of the Biennale, did a show and everybody talked about the fact that there were 12 Chinese artists there. It was a sort of sensation. And now it would be highly problematic and criticized if there were not a certain number of artists from Asia, the Middle East, or from Latin America. So these large-scale cultural events such as the Biennale have to meet the expectation that what’s shown is about the world—the way we communicate, we meet, in terms of conflicts, bridges. When one language is translated into another, something happens. That’s what the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist always likes to talk about using the words of Edouard Glissant: “Each time a poem is translated into another language, the world becomes a little bit richer. Each time a language disappears, the world becomes a little bit poorer.” So the richness of the world has to do with the multiplicity of the ways we can think of it. I had read the book by Amartya Sen in which he explicitly formulates a critique of Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations”, saying that it miniaturizes humans. If you say that a Muslim is just a Muslim, you miniaturize him, in the same way as you miniaturize yourself if you say you’re just a Jew or just a Christian. He talks about the fact that you can be an astrologer, a hobby jazz pianist, a very bad swimmer, a mother, an amateur poet and a Christian. That’s a much richer way of talking of a person. The many worlds you carry within you are much interesting than the idea of a civilization that somehow limits you. My hope is not to show stereotypes, but complexity within these different cultures of languages. We have powerful world-makers in European art. When you think of Joseph Beuys, you can feel that he creates a huge poetic universe, and rather obvious powerful installations. It’s right to say that it’s a Western idea of what an artist is. The question is: Will there be such artists who come from other cultures? Are they already there? That’s the kind of thing one wants to explore with the Biennale. Even if they come from another place, where the history of art is very different, still, there are obviously such attempts, in Abu Dhabi as well as in Rome.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: September 11, 2012Contemporary Art and Politics