Is there art without politics?

Ai Weiwei comments (The Guardian Weekly 21/09/12 p.37) on “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery, London and he asks: “How can you have contemporary art that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing issues?”

I frequently find myself asking this question looking at contemporary art in Melbourne that stands for nothing but superficial gestures and thinking similar thoughts to Ai Weiwei but about Australian art rather than Chinese.

Although Australian art is heavily influenced by contemporary western cultures, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Australian Government claims to the rule of law, respect for international laws and human rights but have so often excepted themselves from any obligations in various circumstances that nobody understands what this means anymore. In Australia you have a right not be discriminated against on the basis of your race except if you are an aborigine living in the Northern Territory. You have the right to claim asylum except if you come by boat. I could go on and on about the exceptions that the Australian Government has granted itself and then another tract about the exceptions that have been granted to allied governments.

Ai Weiwei offers a solution at the end of his comment. “What’s needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.”

Politics may not be something that an artist chooses but a position that is thrust upon them because their art does stand for something. Bill Henson has become the spokesman for artistic freedom because of the government campaign against him, not because of any overt political content in his work, but the content that government wanted to repress, a discussion that it did not want opened.

Sydney-based artist, Stephen Copland suggested to me that perhaps the political art should be judged from the archaeology of the stratigraphy of exhibitions (and the art exhibited) within the artist’s career rather than individual works of art. In this way the seriousness and depth of the artist’s political interest can best be judged. In a broader survey many artists would mark out the stratigraphy of the burning political issues in the layers of art works.

There are still plenty of largely uncensored platforms in Australia and Australian art is not under as many restrictions as art in China; the ALP did give the Australian Classification Board the power to censor art exhibitions after the Bill Henson furore.  But this freedom counts for nothing if nobody is saying anything or making superficial gestures. So many good artists remaining silent… I see so many exhibitions that are studiously saying nothing.

Sometimes it looks like all that many contemporary artists are trying to achieve is to fill a gallery space and I don’t mean completely fill up a gallery space, like the “New York Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria. I mean just scale up a simple drawing so that it fills a wall or projecting a looping video onto a wall. As if filling up a gallery was an end in itself. Not that this should be taken as a complaint against all contemporary art installations as a whole, it is not about skill or technique or lack of them. There are boring exhibitions of highly competent paintings and the work of skilled crafters. Almost every week I see exhibitions that are a bit of a bore.

And the artist’s comment on this whole empty process appears to be bored and empty. Sometimes it appears that contemporary artists have done post-graduate studies in grant and application writing. This involves the composition of studied art world patois involved in over complication and indulging in obfuscation. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition. “Post-planning” – they are making it up as they go along. “Leading artist” – who is being lead? (For more on this art speak see Hyperallergic’s “How to Talk about Art” column.)

Why do we put up with these solipsistic, self-absorbed creations that contribute nothing to the wider cultural discourse of politics or life or anything of than other contemporary art? Who is responsible, who is to blame for this awful boring art? Let me say this first off, it is not all the artist’s fault; they are too obvious and too easy to blame. Nor is it entirely the fault of their teachers, the curators, gallery and arts grants boards. It is also the fault of the critics and art reviewers – it is my fault.

I should have slammed the artist’s work from the moment my fingers touched the keyboard. I should have dismantled their flimsy ideas and dammed their pretentious self-indulgent attempts at art. Perhaps I should have howled at the other critic’s praise for these artists. The fact is there aren’t really that many arts writers, even including bloggers, in Melbourne to complain about. We are living in a time when people in all seriousness praise the arts coverage in MX, the free paper distributed on the trains, over any other newspaper in Melbourne simply because they print more pictures.

I am not expecting that art will change that many minds or that art should be judged by its political efficacy or position. In 2010 Marcus Westbury asks “Does Political Art Work?” with the danger preaching to the choir or the tabloid frenzy the sidetrack issue. I’m not expecting art to work in politics all I’m asking is for the artists to make art that stands for something important. (The artists don’t have stand for political office, like Carl Scrase or Van Rudd.)

I am expecting that “art needs to stand for something.”


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

7 responses to “Is there art without politics?

  • CDH

    I watched an interview with Werner Herzog yesterday on studio Q where he claimed film doesn’t change anything. I think he’s right. Art can struggle against something, it might start a debate but ultimately it’s the orators, communicators and politicians who bring about change. Art is often good when it exists for something; Matthew Barney has said that art takes form when it struggles against resistance. But it doesn’t change anything alone.

    I also think you’ve missed something important in your diagnosis of ‘why art is becoming boring’. I think the system of art is also insufficient. Commercial frameworks force artists to pursue grants, gallery shows and art prizes. It encourages that as a destination and as a metric of success. The focus becomes on selling art rather than producing innovative and interesting art. Find a formula that works and reproduce it. At some point you’re making a commodity and not art any more.I think people often underestimate the amount of pressure to go down that road. Even well qualified, hard thinking critics I know still use a dollar sign as a metric of artistic merit.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I didn’t want to bore people with why some art is boring but I don’t think that a Marxist institutional structural analysis would be sufficient. And there are counter examples of serious artists who are well entrenched in the commercial gallery world. Another important reason for some art being boring is the minds of some of the artists, collectors, gallery owners and, even some arts writers, are very boring soap opera, celebrity gossip kind of minds who can’t think beyond doing their thing. Now their thing might be innovative and superficially interesting but if it doesn’t stand for anything it can be simply a sensational installment of the same soap opera.

  • angony

    G’day Mark,

    Where is the political art?
    Here it is………. My website is

    Cheers Angony (sometimes the best art is found – not in art galleries.)

    • Mark Holsworth

      Hi Angony, I had to edit your comment a bit, not censoring but too much self promotion can be a bit of a bore. I want to stay on topic and there are lots of artists, like yourself, who are trying to take a stand. Cheers, Mark

  • rore

    from what i have noticed it takes a long time for art to catch on to the general public, it has to be forced onto them spoon fed and then it becomes popular and makes way for apathy and then new challenges eventually come along to pry the ignorance from the ignorant. like socialist art and how it is now *presently experiencing a resurgence in a pop format devoid mostly of it’s previous political fervour, or perhaps that fervour has become an unconcious part of our present. Maybe this is why many artists can become poshumously famous ?

    it’s not always what you say and it’s not always how you say it but the balance of these when you mean it.

    notoreity is better than fame it achieves much more,
    if only centerlink agreed..
    and gave me paint

    ha ha

    • Mark Holsworth

      Jean Baudrillard “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities” argued that the masses have a neutralizing effect, like earthing an electrical current, slowly dragging everything down to a their level – fortunately this takes a long time with art. Fame and notoriety aren’t far apart when charged or is notoriety neutralized by public fame? (I’ll have to think about that.) And when an artist is dead then they are completely neutralized, so it is safe to make them famous.

  • Mike Vandy

    The question “Is there art without politics” seems (in this essay) to be rhetorical, as the essay is dominated by a political consciousness, rather than an artistic one. I assume this is due to the writer’s being sociologically minded… quite at home with a structural, institutional view of society, wherein the artists are seen as captives of a political reality that they refuse to pledge allegiance to. From that point of view then, certainly there can be no art without politics, and art for arts sake (whether contemporary noodling, or traditionalist representations) will “by the very a-political nature” seem inappropriate.

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