Art and Demagogues
By Matthew Herzog
Above and on the left, we have William Kass’s Politician. On its right, we have Bus by Mariel Capanna. They’re displayed like opposites: The politically relevant near the urban historical, the image of what’s consternate next to what’s elemental. Nevertheless, they exist in the same place and time. They are both American. They are both expressive. They both function as artistic encapsulations of the contemporary.
As one who writes about Art, this makes me wonder. If (like economics) the effects of political crises don’t trickle - they permeate, how much should we allow politics to influence/overtake our artistic practice? In Capanna’s case I wonder, how does she navigate individual interests and the moral responsibility of being a voice in culture?
(Sorry Capanna but VG’s recent purchase of your work fits well in this article, if only to expose the sacrificial underbelly of moral responsibility.)
To follow a lecture by James Baldwin titled The Moral Responsibility of the Artist, (must listen) it’s beneficial to discuss two important items. The first, What is an artist? This is to say, what an artist does. The second, accept that during a discussion on Moral Responsibility you’ll make an ass of yourself here or there.
The first, check. Second, checked long ago.
From the beginning, artists are selfish. It’s a cultivation that arcs eyes inward from which they peer toward whatever they desire. Nestled in the risk of their own ideas, beliefs and judgments, they both listen and relish in the doubt of their accuracy. They compare desire to limits, deepening perspective through the push and pull of what’s possible. And like Art Criticism, it’s a poetic observation of themselves. Sometimes showing their hand. Sometimes no more than that.
To contextualize their beliefs, if not to solely find others like themselves, the artist then looks out. They interrogate their Truths in outside cultural systems, most likely finding similarities, differences, and systems culture attaches to them.
In my example, I am a writer and artist. I searched for artists and found my expressive tribe. I am also queer. I celebrate myself, having found I was in a culture that swings familial love over their eyes as easily as they swing betrayal and homophobic misogyny. These are cultural truths I intimately know and must know if I am to be in culture.
For better or worse, the amount I - or an Artist - divides/blurs themselves with what culture defines as us becomes a preliminary decision with which we are confronted. In the pursuit of desire, how far are we willing to allow culture to distance ourselves from what we wish? Should we deviate, will our original inspirations disappear? Or, do we traipse, believing our inspirations will be there when we come back?
The outcome is no more witnessed than in the artwork itself. When an artists’ work stands as materialized concept, (i.e., the photograph, the fresco, the article, the performance) it’s exchanged from private hands to public, arriving under the subjective inspection everything else in the world must face. (…by categories like utility, talent?, historical applicability, cultural deviation, and message.) The world tries to understand the work. And the grip of its scrutiny is often determined by the state of the world in which the work is created. (...and all states after, if I widen my temporal perspective.)
Consider the writings of James Baldwin or the holocaust drawings of Leo Haas or the more contemporary political critic, Ai Weiwei. Is it any question an artist’s specialization is directly influenced by the state of the society with which they’re inside? …especially one under duress.
We express, after all; when are we not more powerfully expressive than under strife?
In times appearing dire, expression is under triage by the urgency of its environment; environment as social politics, moral obligation, more immediate cultural forces. Desired expression is a fact. We commit to it. So too, however, are the urgency of politics. In the hierarchy of importance, Art (that which is comparably mutable) must realize it has a complicated function within an apocalyptic society. My simplest desire is to say it functions however it damn well pleases. The complex reality says not all of it does. Or can. Artists within political upheaval is paramount. Otherwise we’d have more Jimmy Kimmel.
I think I’ll further elaborate using a trope - since Art is basically a trope easier to fulfill than resist.
For a hiker to get the full sound of the tree that falls, they need to be there. I’ll add, they need to be there without a Smartphone to distract them and certainly shouldn’t be reading HuffPo screaming headlines more frightening than the falling tree. In one interpretation, the sound of the tree could be Art, the hiker = the distracted viewer. Another, the action of the tree is an artist’s sensibilities, the hiker = the distracted artist. Both cases, it’s the distraction of politics that keep them in a heightened state debating between moral responsibility (i.e. staying up on the news) and personal interest. (i.e. watching that which initially interests them.) Assuming, of course, that politics are not the initial interest of the artist. Or, that the falling tree doesn’t add context.
We must admit, however. America’s Newsreel is aggressive, often powered by urgency as if the clock from the Dharma Initiative were about to flip. Again, not the worst analogy since a majority of today’s headlines includes words like nuclear, backfire, impeach, fake, trial, and Mueller. These are the days of pocket sized, immediately updated, newspapers/horoscopes/games from which we gleam the state of the world… or pretend we don’t. (Try not to dispute games as an accurate gauge for the world. The top 15 Android Games of 2017 include nuclear fallout, black ops, and designing plagues to destroy us all.)
Sometimes the urgency to thwart societal idiocy asks us to be louder than our individual interest. I often use the imminence of social disasters to gauge the necessity of artwork. After reading about North Korea, I don’t care if you’re nude, flinging goop, or screaming at the top of your lungs. I care that what you do when you’re nude, flinging goop, and screaming out a lung has the same if not more risk than the article I just read. Then again, I’m careful to say Art is competing with what I just called HuffPo screaming, or that Art only functions if it matches the level of a HuffPo scream. If that were true, we’d have more visual commentary making the same mistake as SNL right now by reenacting trauma instead of inspiring acute criticism of it.
And, I’m only talking about the artist and the pressure of political commentary, having ignored the earlier hint it may be the viewer that’s the issue. Maybe, it’s the viewer who has the responsibility of following what the artist has chosen to address. Maybe, I should put down the phone or I should read about North Korea only if the subject of the exhibit suggests I should… Nah, fuck that. I’m gonna do what I want.
With this all in mind, the original question still rests: how much responsibility for addressing politics should we assume? Can artwork exist separate from the pressure of what our political selves find important? Or, like the law of a personal draft, if we’re healthy and intelligent, should artists be the first to enlist?