Isaac Butler ponders the big ones in the third installment of his new weekly column: The Enthusiast
An interior monologue about art and politics
When is talking about the politics of art necessary?
This question kept bouncing around my head as I wandered through “I Want To Believe,” Cai Guo-Qiang’s remarkable self-designed retrospective at the Guggenheim. If you can see the show, I recommend that you do. “I Want to Believe” combines breathtaking large sculptures with his signature gunpowder drawings and videos of his performance pieces. The Guggenheim’s legendary interior has seldom been used to better effect, and the art is so immediately placed you can go up and lick it. Accompanying his works are the standard-issue wall placards that are supposed to help put the artist and his work in context. Missing from these placards is any concrete examination of Cai’s politics. This does their visitors a disservice; not only is Cai Guo-Qiang’s work deeply political, but glossing over its politics also means glossing over the historical and cultural context of his work.
Wandering up the spiral of the Guggenheim, I encountered a sculpture in praise of the Cultural Revolution, built in China in the mid-‘80s. Accompanying the sculpture was the following quote from Cai:
Are we constrained by something? Are we really free to create what we want? I do not know whether it is the artists of the Cultural Revolution or us who hold the strongest attachment to art, but the people of that time believed in a new society and an ideal for mankind.
Nowhere in the museum is there a description of how the Cultural Revolution was or the roughly half million people who died during it. Viewers unfamiliar with that period of Chinese history—and I’d have to imagine that most of the European teenagers that made up the vast majority of the viewing public that day didn’t know what it was—were given no way to learn what Cai Guo-Qiang was actually examining with his art.
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Would a discussion of Cai Guo-Qiang’s politics be reductive?
Any approach to the viewing of art that looks at only one aspect of it is going to be limiting to some extent. This holds true whether it is the biography of the artist, the techniques involved in the making of the art, the politics, or the influences from other works. The “reductive” charge gets thrown around a lot when particular modes of looking at art are distasteful or unfashionable. When I was in college, the English Department made it clear that looking at the biography of a writer for keys to understand their work was reductive, while in the Drama Department, it was considered a necessary phase of research.
We tend to think of political art only as art that makes a clear political statement, like the work of Karen Finley or Michael Moore. The reality, however, is that every work of art, regardless of medium, contains strands of the political. We, as human beings, are shaped, in part, by the politics of the world around us and by our own actions. Even work that seems to be apolitical flows from the artist’s political choice to eschew politics. This is not to say that discussing the politics of a particular work of art is always helpful. Little would be gained by discussing the politics of a Donald Judd sculpture or a song by Big Star.
The danger, however, is in avoiding the discussion of an artist’s politics when it is relevant. Such discussions do not have to be reductive. We can focus in on one feature of an artist’s work, and then zoom out to look at how that facet interacts with other aspects. The Whitney did this recently with the work of Kara Walker, who uses explicit references to iconography of the antebellum South to deconstruct American race relations. Imagine putting such a show in Bombay with no explanation of what the Antebellum South was. Our interactions with the art would be fundamentally compromised, as they are in our viewing of “I Want to Believe.” In order to fully understand and grapple with art’s power, we need to recognize that some of that power is political.
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Do I only want a conversation about Cai’s politics because I disagree with them?
Perhaps what I really want is for the Guggenheim to denounce Cai’s politics, even as it celebrates his remarkable talents. After all, even the Chinese government believes the Cultural Revolution was a disaster, and I firmly disagree with Cai’s belief that there is “no creation without destruction.”
When the politics of a work of art are mentioned, they’re frequently mentioned in order to either elevate or dismiss the work on political grounds. Instead of evaluating the work of art as art with its politics in mind, we look at it as political action with its aesthetics in mind. It is this way of evaluating art’s politics that cheapens art.
There are many examples of how this way of evaluating art has proven increasingly problematic. Most recently, in Britain, a group of high school students at a Jewish school refused to take an exam on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because of the anti-Semitism present in The Merchant of Venice. Shockingly, they have received encouragement in doing this from their parents and their Rabbi, who is also the Principal of their school. While I am a Jew and find The Merchant of Venice to be an anti-Semitic play, it is impossible for me as an artist to support the girls’ actions. I may find Shakespeare’s view of Jews unacceptable, but he is still the greatest and one of the most influential writers in the English language, and avoiding study of Shakespeare on political grounds serves no purpose other than to guarantee the student’s myopia will remain unsullied.
If we can use a work’s politics as a way of deepening rather than flattening understanding, exposure to art that comes from worldviews we don’t agree with is an essential part of the human experience. Art evolved out of our need to express ourselves, and it is one of the main ways we as a species have of processing the world and communicating our experience. Shutting ourselves off to art because we don’t approve of an artist’s life or politics serves only to reinforce our already small worldviews. Expanding our limited visions of the world is one of the values of art that is most essential to the human race. Understanding art’s political context can and should be a way of enabling art’s power. When we avoid knowledge of or contact with works whose politics we find troubling, we stunt our own growth. When we keep others from fully understanding what they are seeing, we stunt theirs.
Read more from Issac Butler in his blog: Parabasis
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