Art and Politics: Notes for Considering a Tense RelationMay 9, 2018
This text was commissioned in conclusion to the VII Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image. For all of the documentation videos of the presentations from Disruptions, in addition to all articles commissioned before and after the event, please click here.
The various presentations at the VII Seminaro Fundación Cisneros showcased a wide range of possibilities for exploring the relation between art and politics: from the analysis of activist, artistic-political moments in several parts of Latin America, to more theoretical considerations that the politics of art reside in its autonomy, through a performance, and the pecha-kuchas, the contributions didn't only rethink the relation between art and politics, but they also staged it, which constitutes a demonstration of art’s inherent theoretical character. The following thoughts aim to continue that theorizing.
Attempts to define the relation between art and politics are some of the most controversial and controverted aspects of aesthetic thought. For several reasons, and as a sort of propaedeutic, one would have to begin by remembering that both terms point to notions that are historically and culturally unstable and differentiated. Hence, it is not the same to talk about the relation between art and politics in Greek antiquity, in the Roman Empire, in the European Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, in Modernity, or in our current times. It suffices to consider the crossovers between religion, politics, and art in the West to understand that this relation has been mediated in a complex manner, and that it has been intervened by cultural factors. If we remember that the word "art" and the "institution" it designates—as we understand them now—were born with modernity, we have to recognize that it is almost impossible to unravel the meaning of the notion in an ahistoric manner. The same could be said about the term "politics." Having grown from indicating the relation of a community with a polis in Greek antiquity, to today’s overworked version that refers to debate, competition, and the application of concepts of governability and of civil coexistence, it is necessary to take into account its temporal singularities to make a fruitful analysis of the word.
Hence, one would have to consider the relations of an art whose definition, since fairly recently, has been based on its autonomy (Bourdieu)—despite the fact that some already speak of "post-autonomous" art—and the forms in which it not only connects to politics, but in which it also does politics. As a result, any consideration will be subject to specific historical and cultural contexts, which will modulate it in a complex way.
On the other hand, the reflection on the relations between art and politics has been criss-crossed by a notion that has historically permeated both the practice and the theory of art: the notion of representation. And indeed, thinking from the coordinates of this term, art tends to be conceived of as based on its relationship (whether direct or mediated) with reality and the real. Perhaps in looking at the connection of that notion with the notions of politics and art we can start to think in a more complex manner about the relations that are established among them. The degree to which artistic practice is understood as the production of cultural artifacts that somehow "reflect" their external reality, will also be the degree to which they are required to have "meaning." This gradation opens a range of possibilities. If one requires that art say something (or show something, in the case of images), then art's connection with political activity will be configured according to sets of ideas, of proposals of citizenship and coexistence, and of ideology. On the opposite end, to the degree to which one sees art as being at the margin of representative tendencies, one will have to locate its politics outside of transmissible meaning, in the processes, materials, forms, and the means it uses. I don't think it is necessary to take sides for either of these extremes (or for any of the intermediary variants) in order to think through this complex relation. It will simply be necessary to situate ourselves according to our degree of representational demands on cultural artifacts in order to specify what we expect from and understand by that relationship.
Precisely because the examples that come to mind are extremes, we can try to characterize their proposals. On the one hand we could think of artistic forms that refer to a concrete political situation, to the urgency of protest or the need for emancipation. In this case, I believe, we should think of forms of political activism that recur to practices, processes and/or methods used by art to make the impact of the message more effective and wide-spread—the so-called creative forms of protest. Clearly, an almost direct connection between art and politics is thus established. Its effectiveness lies in renewing the contents of a protest or activity by showing them through transformed forms that emphasize aspects that common public protest doesn't demonstrate or doesn't take into consideration. Nevertheless, we should suppose that these artistic forms, anchored in the content of what is meant to be denounced or exposed, are almost exclusively limited to the contexts and circumstances that enabled them and to which they refer. One would have to point out that precisely this fundamentally representational conception of art has provided fodder for the criticism of art's indifference to reality, for the claim that it takes shelter in an ivory tower, and insistently urges it to embrace the forms of engaged art much debated in the mid-20th century.
On the other extreme, there are forms of artistic production and cultural artifacts that, in a more or less explicit way, renounce any kind of representation. In these cases, one has to ask how these artifacts do politics. Obviously, one shouldn't look for ideological or ideational, conceptual or situational content in order to think about their political charge, but it is rather through the transformations of experience that they enable in as much as they are objects to be perceived through a receiver who must learn how to see them (in the case of images, performances, and objects; in the case of music and literature, to hear and read them). Politics, in this case, isn't in the activism of protest, but rather in a more complex level: in the transformation of our forms of perceiving, seeing, understanding, and thinking. If the first extreme seeks to make abuses visible in a complex way and denounce them, hoping to de-throne them, the other extreme seeks to change habit: the forms in which we connect on a daily and conventional basis to the reality that surrounds us.
These extremes, as I indicated, are nothing more than pure types through which to consider the relation between art and politics. No doubt this relation can materialize in a rich and complex combination of both positions. Artworks that are produced with a clear representational politics, can, beyond their context, become works whose meaning is displaced to their materiality and its effects. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as the Divine Comedy are great examples of art that can transform forms of perceiving and verbalizing the world even when their context has been forgotten. Similarly, the invention of perspective transformed politics in a complex and lasting way, if, per Rancière, we understand politics as the invention of modes of perception, speech, and thinking.
By way of conclusion, we could say that the forms of artistic activism, urgent as they are, are forms of expressivity (which is the obverse of representationality) that use formal, material, and process-based resources of art to make the manifestation of a problematic status quo more effectively perceptible; the cultural artifacts that discard expressivity/representationality point to a more radical politics—even if less urgent—that aims to interrogate the forms in which we see and understand what we see, and thus show the conventions that determine our forms of acquiring, accumulating, and transmitting experience.
Perhaps that is why the question about the relation between art and politics is revealed in all its complexity in the case of instrumental music. What is it that music represents? What message does it carry? Here it becomes evident that politics can only be thought through with a reflection on music's material conditions and on the forms of perception that it requires and, in so doing, alters.
We should conclude, however, that thanks to the long tradition that gives art an eminently representational character—and which, consequently, doesn't consider art autonomous—it turns out to be more difficult to understand and visualize the complex politics that this type of artistic production offers in its insertion in the realm of culture. Nevertheless, it will be necessary to understand that this art's main task is to problematize—through its interventions and disruptions—the spaces of understanding and perception, and, as a result, enable new, alternative, and therefore, complex and politically subversive forms of experience.