The prob­lem with po­lit­i­cal art is that it usu­ally doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, writes John Arm­strong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

FOR a very long time, in­deed since the 1830s in France, po­lit­i­cal art has been charged with the task of rais­ing con­scious­ness. Its pre­sid­ing fear is that we are com­pla­cent; the task of art, as a po­lit­i­cal in­stru­ment, is to shake us from our slum­bers and rouse us to in­dig­na­tion and ac­tion. Hence the con­tin­u­ing pres­tige of works that shock and dis­turb, a sta­tus that de­pends on the con­vic­tion that we’re not shocked or dis­turbed enough.

There may have been a time when the shock value of art was use­ful, when re­li­gious mores, eti­quette, lack of ed­u­ca­tion and the hi­er­atic pos­ses­sion of knowl­edge de­nied peo­ple the abil­ity to think out­side very care­fully de­lin­eated bound­aries to the detri­ment of their com­fort, hap­pi­ness and free­dom. But this legacy of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism is, to­day, a bur­den. For while we have many prob­lems, they are not prob­lems of com­pla­cency.

A more classical view of art, one par­tic­u­larly es­poused by mag­is­te­rial 19th- cen­tury Ger­man writer Jo­hann Goethe, sees our prob­lem as quite the op­po­site, as hys­te­ria rather than som­no­lence. The po­lit­i­cal goal of art then would be to calm us down, to in­vite us to a bal­anced and poised con­di­tion from which we can take clear- sighted ac­tion. In Goethe’s eyes, clam­our, slo­ga­neer­ing, par­ti­san­ship and point- scor­ing are the curses of po­lit­i­cal life. Art should not add to the con­fu­sion.

Our de­sire to use art po­lit­i­cally is part of the fall­out of a pro­found malaise: we are very un­cer­tain th­ese days what the core pur­poses of art are or should be. What do we want from an en­counter with a work of art?

Po­lit­i­cal art, a sub­species of mes­sage- driven art, seems ex­cit­ing be­cause it of­fers us a take- home line, a sound bite in vis­ual form. And we think that’s good only be­cause we have come to ex­pect so very lit­tle from art: some­thing, it would seem, is bet­ter than noth­ing.

Po­lit­i­cal art is a mar­riage, a wed­ding of two of hu­man­ity’s most se­ri­ous and per­sis­tent ac­tiv­i­ties. But what kind of a mar­riage is this? What do art and pol­i­tics of­fer each other? Can they talk in­ter­est­ingly to one an­other or are they just en­gaged in com­pet­i­tive sledg­ing? It is clear what pol­i­tics of­fers art. Pol­i­tics is the arena of col­lec­tive de­lib­er­a­tion and ac­tion. We may be­come en­raged with politi­cians whose prin­ci­ples or pri­or­i­ties we ob­ject to, but that only em­pha­sises that pol­i­tics isn’t an arena of in­dif­fer­ence; it is a place of pas­sion and ur­gency.

When­ever we worry that art per­haps isn’t so im­por­tant in the wider scheme of things, that per­haps it is just a form of en­ter­tain­ment, just eye candy, po­lit­i­cal art comes to the res­cue. How can you say art isn’t im­por­tant when it’s about such weighty is­sues?

Take Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica . It may be ven­er­ated as an anti- war pic­ture, and when­ever there’s a war on this can sound rel­e­vant and in­vite ap­plause. But no one in main­stream West­ern pol­i­tics thinks it’s a good thing to bomb cities, so why do we need Pi­casso to send us such

an ob­vi­ous mes­sage? Iron­i­cally, the his­tor­i­cal ques­tions the paint­ing raises are much more awk­ward. It can sug­gest, in the mind of the be­holder, the fol­low­ing: if the Nazis were pre­pared to do that, what was it go­ing to take to stop them? It’s not that the pic­ture is pro- war but, since it shows us so ter­ri­fy­ingly what can hap­pen, it raises a moral co­nun­drum to which the slo­gan ‘‘ war is evil’’ is not much of an an­swer. The les­son of Guer­nica , we may say, was bet­ter un­der­stood by Win­ston Churchill than by Neville Cham­ber­lain. With the easy knowl­edge of hind­sight, we may wish the US had in­vaded Ger­many in 1936 and averted the hor­rors of World War II.

But we’re talk­ing about the pic­ture only in terms of its most bla­tant mes­sage and Pi­casso didn’t need to be the artist he was to make that point. The hor­rors of war are of­ten shown much more com­pellingly by pho­to­graphs that ac­quire their po­tency not from artistry but from their lack of it: the ex­pertly snapped pho­to­jour­nal­ist’s record, the ama­teur’s cry for wit­ness.

Sim­i­larly, in look­ing at con­tem­po­rary art that is blunt and loud in its slo­ga­neer­ing, we are of­ten paral­ysed in our re­ac­tions be­cause we want to ac­knowl­edge the jus­tice of the artist’s cause. Out of loy­alty to the is­sue, we want to be­lieve the paint­ing must be do­ing some­thing about it. But hon­esty would com­pel us to ad­mit it is not. In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism or non­fic­tion books re­sult­ing from scrupu­lous and ex­haus­tive re­search do that much bet­ter.

So what makes Guer­nica so im­pres­sive as an in­stance of po­lit­i­cal art? Can we gain from it any in­sight into what great po­lit­i­cal art may be?

There’s some­thing uni­ver­sal in the scream­ing wo­man, who, to be blunt, Pi­casso didn’t have to wait for the Luft­waffe in or­der to en­counter. What is so deeply ter­ri­fy­ing about the pic­ture is that some­thing to­tally nor­mal — that peo­ple hurt and hate one an­other, and cause each other to scream with pain, de­spair and rage — is here shown on a cos­mic scale, partly the ef­fect of the sheer size of the work.

Great po­lit­i­cal art shows us our­selves: our de­struc­tive ca­pac­i­ties, our worst mo­ments, writ large and armed with the power of the state. It’s as if, want­ing to fling a plate in anger, one were sud­denly handed a pile of bombs. If we needed a pic­ture to tell us the his­tor­i­cal truth that it was wrong to bomb a par­tic­u­lar city, we would in­deed be in a morally des­per­ate state.

To­day, one could imag­ine an artist hat­ing, say, mind­less con­sumerism and want­ing to make a work that says mind­less con­sumerism is hor­ri­ble. But what’s dif­fi­cult isn’t spot­ting the flaw in other peo­ple’s be­hav­iour; we’re all good at that. We also have a pow­er­ful in­stinct to tell our­selves re­as­sur­ing sto­ries about the sources of evil in the world. So then what?

I’d love to see po­lit­i­cal art that shows us how hard it is to gov­ern well, that is sym­pa­thetic to what Harold Macmil­lan de­scribed as the ‘‘ hor­rors of of­fice’’. He was bur­dened all his life by the trade- offs he made with Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II. But while the re­sult was cat­a­strophic — pris­on­ers of war were sent to their deaths in Stalin’s camps — it’s not easy to say what one would have done in his place, faced with the same de­ci­sion and the same pres­sures. Nor would it be easy to ren­der them in art.

Look­ing fur­ther back in art his­tory, one of the great­est 19th- cen­tury works of po­lit­i­cal art is Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple by Eu­gene Delacroix. At first sight this looks like an icon of re­bel­lion: our hearts fired by the ideal of lib­erty, we mount the bar­ri­cades against the forces of op­pres­sion. It plays up to the li­bid­i­nal side of re­volt, the ob­scure but pow­er­ful hope that revo­lu­tion is the way to bet­ter sex ( among other de­sir­able ends). It was painted in 1830.

Delacroix wrote a jour­nal — he was one of the most lit­er­ary of the great painters — that con­tains de­spair­ing re­marks about the pol­i­tics of the day. He en­coun­tered the po­lit­i­cal class at close quar­ters at fash­ion­able din­ner par­ties and re­ceived lav­ish state pa­tron­age from the start of his ca­reer.

‘‘ Monar­chy, democ­racy; what does it mat­ter?’’ This was the big con­sti­tu­tional ques­tion of the day, but Delacroix thought it triv­ial. He was ob­sessed with the ca­pac­ity in­di­vid­ual peo­ple had to make a hell of their own lives and was as­tounded by the con­vic­tion oth­ers seemed to have that, if only the or­der of the state were dif­fer­ent, all would be well in all as­pects of life.

Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple is a heroic pic­ture but it isn’t the hero­ism of prac­ti­cal suc­cess. Delacroix cer­tainly isn’t ridi­cul­ing the vi­o­lent im­pulse for ab­stract free­dom. The essence of the pic­ture is its classical am­bi­tion, its time­less­ness. Delacroix isn’t try­ing to as­sert the jus­tice of the revo­lu­tion; he knew the revo­lu­tion of 1830 was far­ci­cal from the point of view of ab­stract lib­erty and the lit­tle it ac­com­plished ( at the cost of 2000 dead) was a trans­fer of power from one mid­dle­class fac­tion to an­other.

In terms of real po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives, the work is ob­vi­ously empty. What are they go­ing to do when they get over the bar­ri­cade? If they gain power, will they use it well? What does the ab­stract ideal of lib­erty mean in day- to- day terms? The pic­ture has noth­ing to tell us about any of this. Rather, Delacroix gives per­ma­nent ex­pres­sion to a long­ing, one that, even in the pic­ture, has no home in the world. It’s a pic­ture of what we want, not of what we can have.

The politi­ci­sa­tion of art, the drive to praise works on po­lit­i­cal grounds or to see works as car­ri­ers of po­lit­i­cal mes­sages, is con­nected to a pro­found prob­lem in hu­man na­ture.

Matthew Arnold, the most in­ter­est­ing Vic­to­rian lit­er­ary critic, of­ten spoke about what he called ‘‘ our taste for bathos’’. He means that we have a ten­dency to want to pull things down to earth, to see the lesser thing when pre­sented with the great.

Michelan­gelo’s great Floren­tine sculp­ture David , which stood for cen­turies in the cen­tral pi­azza, can be given a po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. It stands for the pride of Florence, its David to the Go­liath of Rome. But this in­ter­pre­ta­tion in­di­cates our taste for bathos. We turn an ob­ject with a large and pro­found but nec­es­sar­ily vague mean­ing into an as­ser­tion of some­thing ridicu­lous. What’s the com­pet­i­tive self- as­ser­tion of a Re­nais­sance city to me? The uni­ver­sal sig­nif­i­cance of the work is its power to hum­ble and in­spire. David em­bod­ies fear­less, in­tense de­vo­tion to a noble and just cause; we do not eas­ily qual­ify as his com­pan­ions. Michelan­gelo was in­cred­i­bly se­vere in his judg­ments of peo­ple and cre­ated works of art that ex­pressed the most am­bi­tious striv­ing for per­fec- tion. Such striv­ing is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from lo­cal civic pride.

When we have the taste for bathos, we triv­i­alise art in our own eyes. Po­lit­i­cal art, un­for­tu­nately, quite of­ten plays to this ten­dency. If we re­ally don’t see the point of art ( we don’t go for the Pi­casso etch­ings or Delacroix his­tory pic­tures, for ex­am­ple), we’re deeply re­lieved to find fa­mous works that tell us some­thing we al­ready know all about: the bad­ness of war, the good­ness of lib­erty. That we are re­ally climb­ing down, giv­ing up on the greater po­ten­tial of art’s mes­sage, is dis­guised be­cause, of course, war and lib­erty are im­por­tant mat­ters.

To­day, po­lit­i­cal art risks be­ing what moral­is­ing art was for the 19th cen­tury: a rea­son for think­ing that art is im­por­tant be­cause it is on the side of what is taken to be good. That doesn’t be­gin to touch the ways in which art can be im­por­tant to us. Art mat­ters be­cause it meets our private spir­i­tual needs; it com­mu­ni­cates with our se­cret selves ( of­ten so much finer than our pub­lic per­sonas). Po­lit­i­cal art can de­scribe what is wrong, it can ex­hort us to ac­tion, but it doesn’t go where po­lit­i­cal prob­lems now lie. Th­ese prob­lems have to do with the prac­ti­cal busi­ness of bal­anc­ing con­flict­ing in­ter­ests, of man­ag­ing un­quan­tifi­able risks and re­tain­ing pub­lic sup­port while do­ing so.

Our dif­fi­cul­ties are much more con­nected to un­cer­tainty about how to achieve in re­al­ity the re­sults that most peo­ple know, in the ab­stract, they want to achieve.

The ap­peal of shock ther­apy art was con­nected to ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity. Such works aim at chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo but don’t need to ex­plain how to put things right.

That is the des­per­ate is­sue of our times, but art has not been in that con­ver­sa­tion for some time. That seems to me a great loss. John Arm­strong is a philoso­pher at the Univer­sity of Melbourne. His books in­clude The Se­cret Power of Beauty and Love, Life, Goethe.

Over the top: Eu­gene Delacroix’s heroic Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple is about what we long for rather than what we can have

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