Writing about Political Art

Following my January blog entry asking, “Where is the Political Art?” I have been thinking more about this issue. I am interested in writing more blog entries about political art. People have told me quietly that my search for political art is misguided because good political art is so rare.

I have tried various ways of writing about political art. Writing about Melbourne’s public sculpture as a demonstration of the collective consciousness has provided a longer view of Melbourne’s culture and politics. Examining the history of these sculptures and their commissions tells more about politics than political issue based art – I will return to explain why. Writing about street art provides a different focus on political issues, as well as, an arena where political activism mixes with art. I have written an article about political graffiti and I reported on a forum about politics and street art at Sweet Streets. I have been disappointed by most of the other political art that I’ve seen this year. 2010 was a year of mild art controversies, compared to the heat of previous years; there was the storm in teacup with Sam Leach’s Wynn Prize controversy and even Van Rudd’s run for federal parliament was mild.

Subscribing to A Cultural Policy Blog provided me with a bigger picture of the mainstream politics of arts policy. I have also been exchanging emails with Sydney based artist, Stephen Copland about political art. “The word Political is often misunderstood as is the Romanticism but that is a long story.” Stephen Copland wrote to me. The extent of this long dark shadow of Romanticism is described in Philip Pilkington’s excellent blog entry about Gabriele D’Annunzio. (Reading about D’Annunzio’s exploits will disturb the ossification of your political thinking if you are right wing, left wing or anarchist.)

Copland suggested that I consider Arthur Danto’s essay 1984 “The End of Art” (I was already familiar with the essay from my thesis research). “The End of Art” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986) and I had just finished reading this essay when I visited “Contemporary Encounters” at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

“Contemporary Encounters” is art from the NGV’s collection acquired through the Victorian Foundation for Living Artists. As I was looking at the exhibition I kept on thinking about Arthur Danto’s point that art history only makes sense going in one direction and wondering if this collection would make sense if it was from 26 years ago (in 1984 when Danto wrote “The End of Art”). Certainly the technology, the flat screen video monitors and the tiny video cameras, used in Ian Burn’s assemblage would have been larger and more expensive in 1984 but it would not disturb art history as video art as Nam June Paik had already combined assemblages.

In “The End of Art” Danto examines versions of the history of art and in his own Hegelian account of art history has art becoming pure spirit – philosophy – and therefore the end of art. A history of art implies a future for art (or a post historical stasis as the end of art is not a secession). For art to have a future implies a political theory for the direction of art.

Perhaps I need to refine the vague and fuzzy question that I posed to myself – something about political art. What is the grand narrative of art history? Basically, what kind of the story could be told about all of art and how would contemporary art and street art fit into that story? So my conclusion to how to write more about political art is to think and write more about art history.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “Writing about Political Art

  • Ian Milliss

    I have enjoyed your blog this year but I think that, unfortunately, this post is an example of something that is not even wrong. From the moment you assume “art” is a meaningful or even definable category of human activity (rather than just a loose convenient catchphrase like “mission” or “pastime” or “calling”) then the discussion is doomed. It needs to be framed entirely differently.

    • Mark Holsworth

      How would you frame the question?
      “Art” is a word used to discuss the production of cultural artifacts, a type of human activity. Although art is not definable in terms of necessary characteristics there are other ways of defining a category, such as Wittgenstein’s family resemblance.
      I am assuming that art is meaningful and political as a type of human activity just as I would assume that any other human activity is meaningful and political. Can you suggest a “pastime” that is meaningless and without political implications?

  • paul beck

    interesting start. art history? like all history it depends who is writing it and who it is for. right now i see art history used as away to comfort people win they buy art and less as a reflection of the political scene. we are in a never ending war and ecomomic collaindpse. yet the majority of art i see here on the streets is self serving. look at me i can make a stencil or paste.

    look forward to your future writings

    paul beck

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, art history today is used as a comfort for both the buyers and the artists. And bad art history is produced because of this demand. This poor quality art history, full of godlike superstar artists, then creates artists who aspire to nothing more than to receive that kind of attention. And this kind of artist is no help in a time of never ending war and economic collapse.

  • Ian Milliss

    It’s not that good political art is rare, it’s virtually an oxymoron. Looking for good political art is like looking for good political upholstery. “art” as conventionally understood is made up of non utilitarian artefacts sold in art galleries as decoration or as a refined form of gambling (see MONA and its origins). Obviously there are political implications to that but seeking out political imagery in it is just missing the point entirely, you may well find some political imagery but it’s only there as a way to exploit an identity segment of the market and as meaningless as the strings of pseudo english jibberish you sometimes see on chinese t shirts.

    • Mark Holsworth

      What about the artists who are aware of the political implications of the model of decoration/gambling that you describe and take action to change it? Or is it impossible to change because we are living in post-art history?

  • Ian Milliss

    Well, I have no doubt that plenty are aware but taking what action? The most effective action is to do something else. Most “artists” are actually artisans manufacturing product for the art market and most activists who are taking action that will change it probably don’t have much involvement with the art market or gallery system. And that gets nearer the real question which I suppose should be phrased something like “Where are the people trying to change our culture and how are they doing it?” Post-art history is neither here nor there really, what matters is that we are about to be living in post-human history unless we adapt our culture, particularly western style consumerist culture where “art” has become a particularly egregious form of status consumerism. If there is any history written in a few hundred years it will be about those activists who used art/communication skills to change our kamikaze culture into something sustainable, not those pandering to the art market and therefore mostly adding to the problem.

    • Mark Holsworth

      So where are the people trying to change our culture? And who are the ones trying to change our visual culture if they aren’t visual artists? If there is to be a future to human culture (visual culture included) then there will be a history of that change, if there are no change then there will be no history – that is why art history is essential to writing about political art, not the art history of the past, but the way that art history (or culture history, if you like) is now and will be written.

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