Several years ago, I was advocating without hesitation for the idea of a “political” art: an art whose content I deemed progressive (feminist, antiracist, etc.) created by artists whose approach I considered honest in terms of its given historical context.1 After several years of research in the United States, I was on the verge of defending the thesis that was going to allow me to become a professor of national art schools in France.
Shifting from the position of doctoral student specialising in contemporary art to that of a teacher in a French art school had quite simply obliged me to adopt a materialist position and a non-dominant perspective. Talking about art with young people in the region who are asking the question of how to pay rent in the capital after their studies has little to do with conducting interviews with established artists in their New York studios.
For a long time I had conceived of the work (labour) of art as the creative process – and its narrative. Nowadays, after several years as an insider rather than an observer, when I hear the word “work”, I understand it to refer to: unpaid work; fixed-term contract disguised as an internship with a miserly stipend; residency where the artist is asked (with no training whatsoever) to intervene in a school or an EHPAD2 to save the cost of a relief teacher; artists’ residency where nothing is provided for women3 with young children; unpaid exhibitions (for the exhibiting artist); informal work in the form of high-society libations; moral harassment, intimidation, and/or ostracisation of individuals resistant to an economy of vocation… I could go on! When I hear the word “work”, I take out my revolver – sorry, my checkbook – I mean my MistressCard – or is it my menstrual cup? My sledgehammer? – I don’t know anymore.4
In these conditions, attempting as I did in 2012 to provide a definition of political art5 that contents itself with surpassing the basic opposition between the kind of art that is mainly concerned with visual and plastic forms and artistic activism, now strikes me as untenable. After seven years of practice that has given me pause, I have observed that, paradoxically, previously, I had developed an almost formalist approach to political art, by focusing on the artworks, their intentions, and their context of reception. At the risk of taking this example in an allegorical way – as American artist Michael Asher literally did at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974 – it is important to decompartmentalise art and extract it from its administration and, more broadly, from its context of production and distribution.
Viscerally: there are too many abusive and structural6 professional practices of exclusion, racism, sexism, masculinism, and classism in visual and plastic art institutions7 to allow us an unproblematic analysis of political artworks without taking into account the systems that bring them about – and the people supporting this system.
As a teacher, one of my responsibilities towards the students I teach consists, at the very least, of informing them about the working conditions they can expect (without depressing them). This means denying the myth of progressivism of the (tiny) milieus of contemporary art of overdeveloped democratic countries. However, this myth is also fuelled by political art.
I am not targeting the artworks in themselves, but the way in which their message is contradicted by the system they circulate within. Showing political art in a context of institutional violence and abusive work practices is not incoherent; on the contrary, it contributes to the tolerance of repression.8 Allowing a few voices to express themselves, granting criticism or dissidence (including institutional) a delimited role, allows deep, structural transformation to be avoided. One example among many others, the third and last chapter of the Agitprop! 9 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of American Art, including A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing. This piece had been created by an activists’ coalition, MTOPP (Movement to Protect the People) and by some of the political artists’ collectives that had been invited to participate in the exhibition, such as Not An Alternative, The Illuminator, Occupy Museums, Ultra-Red. It contained video and textual documents revealing the process of gentrification behind advertisements for “development” and “affordable” access to property in Flatbush and Crown Heights, made by the mayor Bill DeBlasio and the city council – and duly relayed by the mass media. It was thus a matter of explaining the real implications of re-zoning:10 giving residential status to the spaces in question, far from resolving the housing crisis in New York as the official discourse claimed, would allow the construction of huge luxury apartment blocks that would be financially inaccessible to the current residents of the neighbourhood. Monument also rendered the leaders of working-class Afro-American activist movements against gentrification visible, while also showing the police violence perpetrated against them.
The Monument was included in Agitprop! following talks between the artist-activists coalition and the museum’s curators and director.11 The negotiations had taken place after protest marches organised several months prior, to denounce the Brooklyn Museum’s hosting of a real estate summit.12 While the institution was obliged to present the issues raised (the monument was found in a narrow corner near the exhibition’s exit) thanks to the pressure exerted by the activists and artists that it had invited, the activists’ demands (namely that the museum no longer rent out its premises for real estate summits) were left unanswered.
Institutions do not always put up with their criticism. Political art therefore has this political barometer effect – be it intentional or otherwise. Just as it is in moments of profound crisis such as ours that the government’s mask falls and shows its true violent and repressive13 face by gassing, beating up, and “arresting” masses of peaceful protestors and minors; it is when a work is slighted, cancelled, withdrawn, or censored that cultural institutions show their limits, in both the literal and figurative sense. The more lightweight the criticism is, the more the power that strives to neutralise it reveals its illegitimacy, or even its fragility.
Initially, this article was based on a bitter observation of political art. Yet, as it has developed, by dint of reviewing examples of virulent reactions rejecting political art or even works that did not aim to awaken consciences especially, I have eventually come to ask myself the following question: but WHAT is it that they’re so afraid of? I’m not talking about the attempts by the far right – as systematic as they are hypocritical – to censor contemporary art, as was recently the case again for the exhibition L’aube des rigueurs molles by Laura Bottereau and Marine Fiquet at the Espace Les Limbes in Saint-Étienne. Nor am I talking about the inflexibility of certain city councils regarding “public space”, as was the case when a group of students invested a square in Lorraine that is listed as UNESCO world heritage, in order to create a very inoffensive performance devised in collaboration with Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar.14 No, I’m talking about the resistance emanating from art schools, where the works by students that attest to certain political positions – notably feminist – are sometimes disqualified, or even met with open hostility or the signs of an indifference so insistent that it becomes suspect – and not only on the part of teachers, but also other students. If, as soon as a young woman affirms convictions and a commitment not shared by the majority, she must be silenced, does this means that hetero-patriarchal culture is very unsure of itself or that it is so repressive that it does not even tolerate points of view that differ from its own? And if simple shifts in the order of representations encounter such animosity, this is surely because art is an instrument of power.
Which leads me to this – unstable – definition of political art: art that makes a non-hegemonic perspective heard in an unexpected place. In this regard, the practices undertaken outside of artistic circuits – according to the old, post-conceptual methods of infiltration and subversion – have proven to continue to be pertinent: evidence lies in the work of Angela Washko, who launched a debate on ordinary sexism with players of World of Warcraft.15 Or art that expresses the right of existence, self-determination, and the same rights and dignities of all individuals, based on a principle of self-representation. I’m thinking of a comic that is already over thirty years old, but whose osmosis between political sophistication and the rage of its expressive line remains unrivalled: Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, by Diane DiMassa.16
I therefore remain convinced that motivated artists and cultural workers are precious drivers of positive change. Artists can draw attention to realities rendered more or less invisible in a way that is surprising enough to make them memorable; art allows us to keep a sense of humour and a sense of the absurd while the mass media maintains a state of demoralisation – essential to psychological warfare. Artists can testify to practices and/or sites that are – or that were – outside of controlled territories. Here, I will cite the very recent and local example of the Forêt de la Corniche at the Fort de Romainville. Within this framework of the gentrification of cities in eastern Paris, a wild forest was massacred in favour of a “leisure complex” project, disregarding laws protecting forests and biodiversity. Shot urgently between two phases of the construction site, the black-and-white photographs of Morgane Ély recall at once the power of living organisms (a jungle had sprouted from a quarry-turned-landfill) and its fragility: the construction work was to continue. In the specific case of the struggle to preserve the site, these elegiac photographs counter the propaganda images promoted by the elected representatives who were imposing this “development project”, which represent in CAD17 a neo-nature as idealised as it is sterile.
And even more directly, artists can apply their (perfectly) visual and plastic knowledge and expertise to actions in favour of causes that matter to them, thus contributing their singularity to collective activism.18
I will add that the artists and workers of the contemporary art field are not necessarily more politically responsible than other citizens and have no duty to engage politically: art does not have to compensate for the absence of political debate or culture. Artists are not summoned to invest some “thematic” or other. And if a political responsibility of artists does exist, it is – to paraphrase American writer Sarah Schulman – that of taking part in political movements, like everyone else, and of “confronting the structures that oppress us in a manner that is most threatening to those structures. That means in person and in print.”19 It is not the numerous, poignant images of the Forêt de la Corniche that interrupted – for several weeks – the chainsaws and chainsaw operators: it was the citizens (including individuals working in the art field) who formed human chains.20
Art does not save lives (plant, animal, or human) but it does prevent us from dying inside. And for those who have had enough of experiencing the isolation of social injustice, of suffering from or witnessing global and local exploitation and destruction without intervening, we have a need for “political” art now more than ever. Once we enter the fray, we need art to give us courage. So I would like to offer you a song from childhood, that I rediscovered by chance while researching Schulman’s activism and her roots in American anarchism: Inno della rivolta (“Hymn to the Revolt”).21
- Vanina Géré, “Le beau, arme politique”, La Vie des idées, published on 6 October 2012. [DOI] www.laviedesidees.fr/Le-Beau-arme-politique.html [consulted on 14 January 2019].
- Établissement d’Hébergement pour les Personnes Âgées Dépendantes [Elderly Care Facility].
- It is overwhelmingly women who auto-exclude themselves from opportunities incompatible with the fact of having young children and who put their careers on hold when suitable childcare is not available. The use of the word “woman” is not an unconscious residue of sexism, but deliberately coincides with the current reality of the division of labour in heterosexual couples in France.
- A combination of the phrase mistakenly attributed to Goebbels “When I hear the word culture, I get out my revolver” and its subversion by Jean-Luc Godard in Contempt (1963): “When I hear the word culture, I get out my checkbook”, which Barbara Kruger cites in Untitled (When I Hear The Word Culture I Take Out My Checkbook) (1985). As for “MistressCard”, I’m borrowing it from the American comic-book writer Alison Bechdel in the episode “Divert and Conquer” of “Dykes to Watch Out For”. Alison Bechdel, Split Level Dykes to Watch Out For (Ann Arbor: Firebrand Books, 1998), 47.
- It was a matter of defending the legitimacy of artists to deal with political subjects without necessarily the artworks in question participating in a given political struggle. Cf. Vanina Géré, art. cit.
- On this subject, see Élisabeth Lebovici’s blog entry “Ze Male Gaze (3)”, 7 December 2018. [DOI] www.le-beau-vice.blogspot.com/2018/12/ze-male-gaze-3.html [consulted on 15 January 2019]. I also use the term “masculinism” since there is a whole culture around male genius that the art world maintains – in which women are also responsible for the reproduction of sexist schemas, whether it be in recruitments, juries, etc. At the risk of appearing to ramble, I would recall that the article “Pourquoi n’y a-t-il pas eu de grandes artistes femmes ?” [Why have there not been any major female artists?] published by the late Linda Nochlin, originally appearing in ARTNews, January 1971, remains the reference for starting to rid ourselves of this culture.
- By “institution”, I am referring to all of the structures that underpin, promote, and exhibit the visual arts, both private and public – galleries, art centres, foundations, museums, associations, etc.
- Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, Beacon Press, 1965). [DOI] www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/65repressivetolerance.htm [consulted on 15 January 2019]
- Created in three phases and based on a collaborative principle, the exhibition at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Art Center for Feminist Art invited artists, who were asked to invite other artists in turn or to present artworks that had inspired them. The exhibition included contemporary and historical militant art collectives, some famous (from the Guerilla Girls to Visual AIDS, the Yes Men, or Pussy Riot) and others lesser known (Enmedio, CODEPINK, Not An Alternative). See the press release and exhibitions online: www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/agitprop [consulted on 15 January 2019].
- Portions at the edge of the gardens bordering the park adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum. The re-zoning would have given certain commercial axes residential status (with building height limits) enabling the creation of housing complexes with a view over the park.
- Anne Pasternak had just been elected the director of the Brooklyn Museum, after directing Creative Time.
- See Betty Yu and Noah Fischer, “A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing”, ARTFCITY, published on 18 April 2016. [DOI] www. artfcity.com/2016/04/18/apeoples-monument-toanti- displacementorganizing [consulted on 15 January 2019].
- A repressive face that the youth of poor suburbs are already very familiar with, along with women subjected to domestic violence or sexual violence, undocumented workers, immigrants, activists against segregation in Israel and the occupied territories, etc. – in short, individuals considered to be less human than others and/or dangerous.
- It involved installing a carpet of survival blankets from Place Stanislas towards the working-class neighbourhood, to compare “the gold” of the homeless with the “golden gates” of the square in Nancy. I invited Jarrar to hold a workshop on political art at the ENSAD Nancy in 2014. No permit had been requested from the prefecture to perform the action, which made us – to the surprise of some of the students – liable for civil disobedience (!). It was thanks to the rain, delaying the arrival of the police, that the performance was able to take place.
- Angela Washko, The Council of Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012. [DOI] www.angelawashko.com/section/300206-The-Council-on-Gender- Sensitivity-and-Behavioral-Awarenessin-World-of-Warcraft.html [consulted on 15 January 2019].
- A major reference of the San-Franciscan lesbian counterculture of the 1990s, DiMassa is also one of the models of photographer Catherine Opie. The adventures of the homicidal lesbian terrorist, originally published in the form of fanzines, appeared in various editions by Cleis Press in the 1990s.
- Computer-aided design.
- The alliance of art and activism has been so well recognised since the 2000s that courses on “artistic activism” or “artivism” now exist. Advice for undertaking political actions based on artistic strategies are combined in a plethora of guides and toolboxes of all kinds. For a historical perspective on the subject of art and activism, see Élisabeth Lebovici’s book, Ce que le sida m’a fait : art et activisme à la fin du XXe siècle, 2017. For an overview of the entanglement of art and activism, see Michael Shank, “Redefining the Movement: Art Activism”, 2004, Seattle Journal for Social Justice; see the websites beautifultrouble.org and beautifulrising.org, or YesLab, etc.
- See Sarah Schulman, “AIDS and the Responsibility of the Writer” (1994), in My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During The Reagan/Bush Years (London: Cassel, 1995). Initially presented at “Outwrite: The First National Lesbian and Gay Writers’ Conference”, San Francisco, March 1990.
- Besides the images already cited, there is also the remarkable series of directly militant documentary photos by Julien Daniel, from the Myop collective of activist-photographers. [DOI] www.myop.fr/photographer/julien-daniel [consulted on 15 January 2019]. Concerning what remains of the Forêt de la Corniche des Forts, you can find a press kit and summary of the struggle on the petition website: www.change.org/p/sauvons-lafor%C3%AAt-de-lacorniche-des-forts-%C3%A0-romainville/u/23870649 [consulted on 15 January 2019].
- It is a song by pacifistic anarchist Luigi Molinari (1866–1918). You can hear an excerpt from it in the documentary Anarchism in America (Steven Fischler, Joel Sucher, 1983). The anarchist songs are performed by Gruppo Z and were recorded in 1974. [DOI] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBkwKZRRqEI