Friday, September 16, 2016


Lewis Bush has a piece up that has been making me itch slightly for a while now, and I think I finally put my finger on why. There's a few things going on over there, whatever, but one of the themes is this idea that Artists can Appropriate and Subvert things, like photographs. The conceit in this case is that politicians publish photographs of themselves that project one image, and the brave Artist subverts that image and changes the message to something else. One imagines the Artist changes the message from False to True along the way.

What does it mean to subvert something? Well, some dictionary says: to undermine the power and authority of an established system or institution which sounds about right.

Here's a tip, retasking a few campaign photos for an Art Gallery Show that will be attended by you, your friends, a handful of random walkins and, if you're lucky, some of the Art World Elite isn't going to undermine a goddamned thing.

This reminds me of that stripe of activist who feels that it's a great use of time and money to "make people aware of the issue" which mainly means talking to one another about the issues. Making people aware of the issue is great, but you've got to reach people who are not currently aware of the issue and then, of course, you need to actually make something happen other than blathering.

Lewis actually provides us with another wonderful example with his downloadable ebook War Primer III. This this started out as a book by Bertolt Brecht, with some words and pictures that boil down, I think, to "war is hell". Some chappies made a limited edition of this with pictures and text replaced with their own, contemporary, pictures and texts with a somewhat different slant. Lewis took their book and did it again, with a new contemporary, and some efforts made to implicate the usual list of world leaders.

Sure, war is hell, Obama and Merkel aren't doing enough about it, and so on. Whatever. The book is specifically designed to be accessible and interesting only to people who already agree. The book is structurally incapable changing anything, or of doing anything beyond preaching to the choir. It's an Artsy-Cute Collage Thing that's incomprehensible and uninteresting, and probably slightly irritating, to anyone who isn't already in the Art Club.

When you're talking to people about stuff that you already know and agree on, you're not consciousness raising. You're not teaching. You're not effecting change. You are engaged in social positioning. Period, full stop. You are merely confirming to your social group that you agree on these things, and that perhaps you agree harder than Bill and therefore deserve higher status than Bill.

Now, if you're going to make a living doing Art in the Art Community, then social positioning is the name of the game. All the politics are just for show, you're not interested, really, in changing anything except how much of the capitalist lucre flows into your own pocket. Fair enough.

Banksy, while he might be despicable in many ways, actually reaches out to people who don't agree. He sticks his art on public walls, where everyone can see it, sometimes with fairly blunt messages. Of course he too is attracted by the capitalist lucre, but at least he's not hiding his politics in cute little galleries where he won't attract the wrong sort of attention.

All of this comes around to the question of whether Art should be political, whether it should be an agent of change. I suspect strongly that Art with a capital A cannot be, since in its current incarnation is it so much about social positioning, it is so insular. Art with a small A, though, that might be something.

Both of them can be a lot more than that. Perhaps aiming to change the world isn't the only goal, perhaps we just want to change a person. One person at a time, show them something new, enlarge them a little this way or that. Maybe that's enough.


  1. I struggled with posting this, as its personal, and long.
    Art is supposed to be the thing that makes our soul want to fly and become a better person.
    Today, of course no one knows what art is and why its useful. Etymology of the word defines it as "the process of applying one's craft". And the word craft interestingly also has the same etymology, so its self referential? In order to make things make sense to me, I define art thus: the process of pouring into an object, one's obsession, preoccupation, or fear, discomfort, of something that has to do with the world inside or outside the creator. Art is the process of pouring yourself into the object while you're creating it; art is not the object itself.

    Then the artist releases this object into the world. If this object helps someone clarify their thoughts on a unique to them obsession, preoccupation, fear, discomfort about themselves or the world at large, then this object is art to them. If it doesn't help them, then it isn't art to them. And that's ok. There is no universal interpretation of the object, no unambiguous message. It's: what do YOU see?

    Commercial photography is when the creator puts a very strong message into the photograph, and this message needs to be understood by all unambiguously, because its a call to action, and you must obey. The message sells you a product (this beer will erase your problems), an idea (this hungry child needs your donation), or a person (look at my glorious sunset photo, I am an awesome photographer, you want my stuff. Or the Hope posters making you want to vote for Obama 8 years ago).

    I equate commercial photography to adverts; because they advertise something, in order for you to do something specific; even if its to be shocked into remembering the photographer's name. There is no room in my book for capital letters.

    Is there a rule of thumb how to separate art from commercialism? No. But I do follow a rule, so that I'm not confused: if the creator of the object explains what that object means, then its not art. It's an advertisement, in that the creator is advertising the spectrum of the internal conversation we can have about that object, and may even find us to be off topic. Art doesn't have an agenda. But since by my definition, art is art to us because it moved us in the first place, art may be used in changing minds and cultures, politically or otherwise

    1. Thanks for your perspective! I think we agree, any points of disagreement are surely minor quibbles at any rate.

      What do you make of modern political art, of the sort in the cited show? (the link in the first sentence).

      That show feels to me a lot more like an effort to sell the artists to the Art Community -- i.e. more on the commercial end. It feels to me like the pieces in the show are almost irrelevant and that the artists, frankly, don't much give a damn if they help anyone, enlarge anyone, help anyone's soul to fly.

      But that might just be me! I am required by law to register as a cynic in my current state of residence, after all.