Art, Politics, and Evidence

May 9, 2018

Making visible the hidden, the repressed, or even the oppressed is a motivation, if not a fascination, of contemporary art. Making visible means above all making evident. After all, most activist artworks, works of protest, or politically motivated art starts with the idea that a crime needs to be denounced—such as the crime against the oppressed of the earth, the historic crime against women, the crime against social, racial, or sexual minorities. This is why we have an art of protest, art addressing race, a subaltern art, a feminist art, a social art. No doubt, there are sufficient reasons for bringing to the fore micro-political, disruptive evidence of a public, historic, and hegemonic crime that has reduced power to the realm of the not-evident and invisible: to silence.

But how does art denounce power? How does art make the relations of domination evident? How does art know about the exploitation, discrimination, racism, and patriarchy that exists in the world? How does art find these issues to denounce them? Is it political certainty, or rather ideology, that makes an artistic piece take a certain form, or is it rather the fragility of artistic creation that generates new political evidence?

We could easily rid ourselves of these questions if we started from the supposition of a subject that synthesizes in itself the expression of the social, political, and aesthetic: the subject-artist, citizen, activist, victim, minority, and, at the same time, the creator. Yet, reducing the question of creation to biography, or to the "biographeme" according to Roland Barthes, doesn't resolve any enigma but instead moves it to the black hole of a subjectivity, which is eventually also modified by the same objectivity of power and of the present world order. These particles of subjectivity that aim to be subversive always end up reducing the work to the author. As such, art that wanted to modify the world only ends up belonging to the interior world of an artist who obtains fame for it. Seen in this way, artists don't modify the world, not even the art world, but they are able to obtain more value in this world, which, far from being subversive, is also a marketplace.

If there is a truthful explanation of the relation between art and politics, we have to find it outside of the subject, directly in the world—in a world already too overrun by concepts, representations, and perceptions. And, even if concept and representation can be a part of the work of art, these can not uphold themselves without the materiality of an object that is primarily perceived, sensorial, aesthetic; that is, without evidence that we are in fact in front of a "work of art."

This materiality is essential: it is the support and the end of all problems—existential or political—that inform a work. That is why politics in art is basically aesthetic, and materially given in perception. Its true historical reach happens in modifying the image of something that didn't exist before. The Iconoclasts, the artists of the Renaissance, the Impressionists, the first Avant-Gardists or Pop Artists, for instance, effectively modified the world and impacted established powers more so than any sort of activist or ideological movement did. As such, the place where art finds its political evidence lies in the most "purist" part: in the modification of its forms, instead of in its ideas, which are always exterior.

Indeed, the politics of art, its deepest search, consists in creating other forms of evidence of the real, more so than in denouncing power's lack of evidence. Power then turns into nothing more than the pretext and context that will try, in vain, to give meaning to a form without text, to a sensorial form. Prior to being representation, this form is evidence: it is a manifestation of itself and it asserts the will to be a work of art. In 1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel published Evidence, an image book without any captions. The book featured photos of educational institutions, government agencies, corporate laboratories, the aeronautical industry, the police in San José CA, and the US Department of the Interior. This publication and the eponymous exhibition that accompanied it aimed to show the power of evidence beyond political, cultural, and ideological representations.

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Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, from the series "Evidence"(1977)

The image functions more as evidence than as representation, and to become the former it first has to be the latter. Here, the politics of art (or in art) is not in the capacity to represent but rather to make evident. The evidence, which is manifested through a sensorial act, has its own intentionality. Photographer Amada Granado's series Penitenciario (2013) shows the pool of the San Antonio prison on the Isla de Margarita (Venezuela), but it does so without showing what we expect of a prison. On the contrary, she makes us focus on the image of children and family of the incarcerated who enjoy the pool, unaware of being in a center of reclusion, where mafias rule and where the State is completely absent. This evidence of the visual register not only dislocates the (cultural) representation of a prison in Venezuela, but it also suspends representation in favor of evidence that can only be appreciated from another politics: from the politics of the work itself.

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Amada Granado, from the series "Penitenciario"(2013)

If we see the artistic act as carrier of an ideological, social, or activist message, we are far from explaining the complex relation between art and politics, and instead make it completely opaque and even unthinkable. In the sensorial evidence, we can already find in an autonomous manner what has to be represented and symbolized. This can be clearly appreciated in the work by visual artist Luís Arroyo, where the message denouncing the militarist regime in Venezuela is completely explicit but totally interior to the work: it doesn't need a meta-text that gives meaning, because its manifestation doesn't require any discursive or reflexive explanation. Here, evidence provides proof of the reality of a problem more than a mere manifesto or pamphlet would.

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Luis Arroyo, Traje para dos cuerpos (Preparación del Teatro Público) (2016)

In art, politics isn't the message, it is its aesthetic: the form of perception of a particular object that wouldn't exist without material creation. As such, an art work is not a means but an end, a manifested reality and not the sign of a reality to be represented. It is an end in itself and not the doubtful, vicarious imaginary of an ideological message. This is art's small politics and its grandeur, its fragility and integrity.


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.