Saturday, August 31, 2013

Art reader's digest

from "Transgressions: The Offences of Art," by Anthony Julius

Politically resistant artworks have divided audiences: those against whom they are directed, and those whose morale they are intended to lift.  The stance of the artist is thus both oppositional and representative.  His artworks are pitches against one audience, but made on behalf of another one. They are transgressive and affirmative -- in a sense, transgressive because affirmative. Politically resistant works are exceptional.  There is no place for them in two contrasting kinds of state.  There is the state whose citizens take for granted, correctly, that they order their own lives, and that institutions exist to serve them.  Politically resistant artworks are not needed in such a state.  And then there is the state where these assumptions are not made and in which politically resistant artworks are not possible.  Such works will be exceptional, then, either because of the acquiescence of accommodating states or the harshness of repressive states.  One kind of state is usually too hard to offend; the other kind of state is usually too quick to respond.

Compare the anti-Vietnam War art in the United States with the art briefly on display at the September 1974 Moscow 'Bulldozer' show.  While the former, with exceptions, was unable even to engage the state's attention, the latter could not survive its brisk dismissal.  In Moscow, artworks were thrown into skips and destroyed, and visitors chased away with waterhoses mounted on trucks.  On the one side, then, there tends to be a surplus of political works, existing, as artists experience it, in a vacuum of indifference, while on the other side there is a dearth of works, surviving against expectation.

Kathleen Loomis, War Rationale 2, 2004, (existing in a vacuum of indifference) 


  1. This was really good Kathy. It explains why I never respond to art that makes a blatant political statement. I also think that visual artists are not the best candidates for political discernment. Nor are literary artists or clergy. There are plenty of public intellectuals that cover politics, political philosophy and ethics. A great one died this month: Jean Bethke Elshtain.

    1. I'm not sure I agree with you -- discerning or not, artists have played very important roles in politics in the past. Think of Harriet Beecher Stowe, allegedly (apocryphally?) described by Lincoln as "the little lady who started the big war." Think of Zola with the J'accuse letter. Think of Arthur Miller and "The Crucible," written at the height of the McCarthy hysteria.

      Perhaps less so with visual artists, although I can think of a lot of political art that I find extremely powerful. (To your point about discernment, arguably artists always have to overstate their cases; it's the nature of the medium. But you're certainly right that when it's too blatant it can just turn us off.)

      I wouldn't want to do without our public intellectuals, but I wouldn't want artists to stop dealing with politics, either.