Artistic platforms and political art

Allan Struthers explores the relationship of artwork and the platforms on which they are presented, which, when it comes to ‘political’ art, in particular, informs the work itself.

Images from the 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, featured in Maria Berrios and Jakob Jakobsen’s installation artwork, The Revolution Must Be a School of Unfettered Thought, 2014

The division of time spent between reading and writing is a question that confronts writers everywhere. Garth Marenghi, the protagonist of a mid-00’s Channel 4 sitcom claims, ‘I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’s written more books than they’ve read.’ We should take reading to be part of a writer’s practice, as we take the consumption of art to be part of an artist’s practice. But to understand the relation of one practice to another (as obviously not everything an artist does is art) some separations should still hold.

Left-wing academics in the arts and humanities have a penchant for mistaking their writing for a type of political practice, and that this is, perhaps, their contribution to advancing their politics. However, this conception of writing-as-political-practice is more often than not a concession to, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, the ‘literary mode of production’. 

Which is to say, the text alone presents a weak challenge to the conditions in which it was produced if it is not distributed in a way that also challenges those conditions. To suggest that actually it might, often signals that the writer has slipped into a fatalistic belief that since no thoroughly ‘anti-capitalist’ institution exists, efforts are best directed towards carving a radical niche within those the writer has already entered. This could be dubbed the in-and-against complex. 

In formats beyond writing, the same problem is reflected. During one of his filmed works, In Two Minds, the performance artist Kevin Atherton responds to piercing questions about his present-day career, asked by a pre-recorded televised version of himself that he had produced some years earlier. The artist’s younger iteration sneers at the possibility of his older self having joined in with established circuits of artistic activity, to which his older self exasperatedly responds, ‘you’ve got to be in to be seen to be out.’ In the amusingly tense intra-intergenerational dialogue, Atherton highlights a problem around the access that platforms give to audiences, namely, complicity. 

Kevin Atherton, In Two Minds, Serpentine Gallery, 1978

A poet once explained, after I’d questioned the convention of comperes citing the academic credentials of performers before they hit the stage, that academic posts are hard-won (especially for non-white people) and that even though these academic institutions are, yes, inherent reproducers of bourgeois elitism, it is important to show and celebrate when non-white people can get into them. After all, he said, ’there is no pure space’. He was right in the sense that there isn’t, but it’s probably fair to assume that by this he did not mean anything goes. Without advertising their academic credentials, would these performers have had a receptive audience? Possibly not. But with them, don’t they reinforce symbols of bourgeois hegemony in culture?

If co-option and obscurity are two related obstacles in the way of art that seeks to challenge its mode of production, one task for artists could be to build and support platforms that set out to break free from established capitalist modes of distribution.

Complicity or Fusion

From a practitioner’s point of view: the politics of an artwork and the politics of its production can be held as separate problems, or an attempt can be made at fusing art with the politics of its production to make a superior form of impurity-free political-artistic practice. Both of these are ideals, the first gives a tendency for the artistic to be deprived of political questions (work shown in literary magazines owned by posh conservatives, like The White Review). And the second tends for the artistic to be subsumed by political objectives (art as activism that doesn’t really stand up to critique beyond its activist context or one-liner impact, such as items collected in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon’s Disobedient Objects show at the V&A Museum).

Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects, V&A Museum, 2014

The first ideal of separation offers writers the almost megalomaniacal belief that writing/making art is in and of itself a political practice. Wherever work is published and read is a mere matter of amplification. If the artistic practice is a political practice, then the bigger the audience the more effective that practice must be. Contradictions suffocate under this logic. 

The second ideal offers a writer or artist the paranoid belief that their artwork won’t do anything for the audience unless it contributes clearly to changing its mode of production. This was a view quite commonly repeated in Screen Journal throughout 1970s and ’80s, by writers like Peter Wollen, who championed filmmaking practices that would perform all types of cinematographic and narratological tricks to critically highlight the material production of film itself. This influenced many stylistically important artworks (directors Harun Farocki and Straub-Huillet come to mind) that were, broadly speaking, unwatchable, since mainstream distributors would not pick them up. 

A more recent twist on this second ideal involves artists showing proof of political receipts. This comes out of the long tradition of artists incorporating their persona, or brand, into their artwork – a form of artistic practice that reached a notorious pinnacle in the 1990s with the Charles Saatchi affiliated ‘Young British Artists‘. Here the artist’s life is consciously presented as an inseparable element of the artwork. There are less market-oriented versions of this lifestyle brand art practice, that attempt to incorporate political activity into the brand. The paranoid question here is, ‘yes, you make art, but if we look at your social media profiles and see that you don’t support any political views or participate in campaigns, wouldn’t we be mugging ourselves off trying to read political meaning out of their work?’ This approach has been prominent during the recent Black Lives Matter protests and has even led to some sharing Instagram posts advancing the audacious argument that to not post BLM material is to be complicit in racism. 

A prominent artist uses Instagram to relate a radical political position, 2020

The problem here is not that calling on artists to show they’ve turned up to the protest might lead to empty posturing (I’m actually in favour of some political posturing, as provocation), but because political practice can surely show through in an artistic practice beyond base level self-reported documents of participation. As might be clear, I sympathise more with variations on the second ideal, but my interest is in finding a way past this compromise that artistic practice is pushed to make so that it might appear current and political. 

Artists Engaged, Critics Adept

Artists produce their work from what they do outside of art – or ‘research’ in academese – and in order for artists to be better at drawing into their not-art work into their artwork, critics need to be better at recognising how this transference (of not-art into art) is completed. For example, someone employed as a paramedic could make an audio installation that brings specific knowledge from this practice, such as how different people talk about their near-death-experiences, into a well-informed work of art. As Lenin makes the simple but necessary point in a review of Arkady Averchenko’s A Dozen Knives in the Back of the Revolution,to describe [subjects] skilfully one must know what they are.’

Artworks that demonstrate knowledge of practices outside of art should be rewarded on the basis of a successful transference of this kind. Whilst every audience member is a critic, it’s only critics adept in the outside practices relevant to the artwork in question who are really fit to judge. In political art then, both critic and artist must be taking part in political movements that occur outside the sphere of artistic production. Political art is premised on the artists’ accountability to politically practised critics. 

This is why public talks between ‘political’ artists who do not practice politics and art curators/critics/institution big-wigs (see: nearly all of the talks available on platforms like Lux or the ICA) often seem like pointless pantomimes in which academic muscles are flexed but nobody really learns anything about the real relation between political and artistic practices. It is, as they say, academia/the art world talking to itself.

The upshot of this is that artists should do the political work of building campaigns, whether in a union, a political party, or an activist network. I will warn against the tendency to assume art’s relegation to mere entertainment at fundraising events, or as campaign decoration, although the sensuous side of political practice – what theorist Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘aesthetic of politics’ – is still important. Integrally, an artist participating in politics develops a practical knowledge extrinsic to art that can be brought into an artistic practice. 

John Heartfield, Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, 1929

The relationship between artists and political organisation is under-examined in Western art history, although Sabine Kriewald’s book, Revolutionary Beauty, on the life and art of John Heartfield, is one instructive offering. Heartfield was a Berlin Dadaist and member of the German Communist Party (KPD), who produced art, Kriewald suggests, to outwardly condemn political opponents whilst simultaneously reflecting and arguing for his position as a member inside the KPD. Kriewald gives the example of a Heartfield self-portrait in which he decapitates police chief Zörgiebel, a political opponent with special relevance for German leftists after 1929 when his orders saw dozens of May Day demonstrators murdered. The depiction also seems to signal Heartfield, again according to Kreiwald, reaffirming his allegiance to the KPD leadership, since he had fallen out of favour on account of connections he had with a dissident wing, the Versöhnlergruppe.

Heartfield reworked his strained position as a party member through choosing to publish this image on a platform that was not directly affiliated with the KPD, the Arbieter-Illustrierte-Zeitung. In this context, Kevin Atherton’s line would run as, ‘You’ve got to be out to be seen to be in’, the identification with an institution being more positive than reluctant. 

In effect, Heartfield’s direction of gestures, (or dog whistling if you like), towards a politically defined audience, are indicative of an art that was informed by a political practice and received by a politically informed audience, to whom he was accountable – since his party membership depended on it.

Transposing this historical example onto the present conditions of class struggle gives rise to complications concerning the current necessity of the party form, but if anything approaching a generalisable principle can be made, it is that writers must consider the place in which they publish as part of their art work.

Of course, many artists today realise this to some extent, as demonstrated in the recent and entirely correct artworld de-platforming campaigns around the Zubladowicz collection and the Whitney Biennal (both involved in Israeli arms dealing, FAO), or the decision made by the 2020 Turner Prize winners to share the platform equally. Though these are typically gestures that point to little beyond obvious atrocity and their own enactment of refusal. An adequate substitute is rarely given.

Neither Artworld Nor Obscurity

As far as there is a choice, submitting artwork to feature on a platform is the targeting of work towards a particular audience. And this has an effect on the type of judgement it will be subjected to. And only the most hardened egoist would deny that preemption of the type of judgment their work will be subject to does not bear upon their creative decisions in producing that work. Art is a process of making decisions, and the decisions reflect constraints placed on the artist by their social conditions. 

‘Build it and they will come’ is, of course, a Zarathustran fantasy. Building takes place on something, and the site must be chosen carefully – it’s part of the work! To remember the poet-academic who remarked that there is no pure space, and consider what this left open. Namely, that artists must choose a site based on the kind of art they want to make.

Political artwork should be aimed towards an audience of politically conscious subjects (i.e. people who have experience of political practice), as well as a more general audience, who should through this exposure become interested in developing a political practice. This is an essential condition of political art that should particularly concern artists who consider their work politically conscious but had not yet aspired to feature it outside the usual pre-established art world platforms, (galleries, awards, journals, etc.)

To plumb for other examples of how this has been done well, those militant Marxist filmmakers banded under the term Third Cinema, such as Santiago Alvarez and Patricio Guzman, produced films on the premise that they would be shown at political meetings. In the UK, the Cinema Action group showcased their work at trade union meetings. It was the political participation as much as the artistic interests of their audience that gave them a reason to make work of a particular type, which was ultimately developed in dialogue with the organisations that platformed their work.

Practising Art in the Organisation

Artworks that relate to non-art practices hold the potential to cross audience parallels, they draw attention not just to their own content, but also to the hosting platform. An artwork’s qualities are often improved and clarified by the conscious decision to have it shown at a particular relevant site (e.g. the Wellcome Collection for art that draws from medical science), and this in turn broadens the appeal of organisations that have constructed those sites. (Of course, the art has to actually be good for this latter effect to kick in).

I don’t mean to blithely assume that artists and writers are unrestricted in their position to choose the platform that will show their work. Obviously, discussions about what to include/exclude take place amongst those who manage platforms, and most platforms operate as (usually bourgeois) dictatorships. Nepotism is widespread, accountability and quality control are not. So of course, the artistic decision of where to display work is always constrained by prior engagements or lack thereof. 

In this respect, rs21 as a publishing platform is unusually democratic. Access is premised on membership, and membership is premised on engagement in political practice. This latter condition of inclusion is not codified in writing, but operates on a normative basis, as anyone who has not engaged in political practice would feel out of place in the organisation/institution/party. This feeling out of place derives from lack of knowledge derived from political practice. Relevant political experience is required of those wishing to publish on rs21. 

Visitors at the Art From The Sudanese Revolution exhibition
Visitors at the Art From the Sudanese Revolution exhibition, 2019

In that context, the Art From the Sudanese Revolution exhibition brought attention to the Sudanese Doctors Union and rs21, and this shared platform extended the political meaning of the artworks that featured within the exhibition. As participation in the production of this show was premised on inclusion in either of the two collaborating groups, the selected artworks were distributed in such a way as to advance the political aims and principles of each organisation. This insertion of artworks into a practice of political organisation reflected back onto the audience an understanding that art shown outside the normal circuits of distribution adheres to values also outside of those circuits. Compared to shows in more established circuits, any search for inconsistencies and contradictions within this show was likely to yield a greater wealth of applicable knowledge for political practitioners and politicised artists alike. 

Art is more than what a person does in front of a blank canvas. It involves decisions that stretch far beyond the idealised moment of creation. It necessitates forms of organisation and administration, and leaving this out of our thinking around artistic production gives an unfinished picture. As much for critics as for artists, those with a political practice should think about how they can bring this to bear on their artistic practice, and vice versa. Arguing for artworks and art criticism to be featured on democratically organised political platforms can be one way of doing this. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Engaging article but intrigued by the lack of conceptualisation of what is meant by practice (theory v practice) and the assumed unexplained difference between political practice and art practice.

    • This is a fair criticism, and that unvoiced note would need to relate a theoretical position on the unification/separation of vanguard politics and avant-garde art in the practice of class struggle. Basically, I think vanguardism is needed to instil discipline against reformist tendencies in politics, and art must show contradictions in reformist ideology. There should be a material relation between these two types of work, I.e. some element of shared organisation.

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