Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Engages With"

The phrase "engages with" is one of the more irksome in the art world. Along with "necessary" which means "this thing aligns with my simplistic acadamy-approved leftist politics" it is the phrase that most vigorously provokes my temper.

Political change in this world occurs in precisely two ways: Someone votes for something, or someone shoots someone else.

Everything else boils down to persuading people to do one thing or the other thing. Ghandi and Martin Luther King worked quite hard to persuade people in legislative bodies to vote in certain ways. Lenin worked quite hard to persuade other people to shoot yet other people.

Politics, political action, therefore, must ultimately come down to asking people to either vote, or to open fire. At the end of the process, you need to persuade people to vote "Yes" or "No" on a specific thing, or you must provide people with guns, bullets, and an identifiable target. One step removed from that, you can talk about the general shape of things which ought to be voted for (or shot). You can step back a little further and talk about changes you'd like to see in the world, and what kinds of things we might choose to vote on, and who ought to vote for them.

Art which "engages with" an issue invariable takes another ten steps back, and merely deplores the way the world is.

This is, to be sure, a starting point. You've got to clearly delineate what's wrong before you can proceed through the next steps. You need to explain what's wrong with the world as it is before you can hope to open a discussion of what the world might be, and thence the discussion of things we might vote on (or shoot), and thence the discussion of wording and how to persuade people to vote, and thence the persuasion to actually vote, and thence the counting of the votes and finally the battle to see the results of the vote actually take shape.

"Engaging with" is easy. You simply pick out something all your friends deplore, and deplore it. There is no intellectual effort here to even work out what the next step might be, let alone any of the actually difficult slogging through the steps after that one. The game is entirely to develop new and ever more outré ways to express how sad you are. "I know, I will make a sculpture of Donald Trump out of my own shit" (except I assume that's already been done). I see no way that a fecal sculpture of Donald Trump leads to impeachment hearings, or even a US president from another party in 2021. It will garner shivery and excited reviews, though, which is rather the point.

Gene Smith's Minamata, one of my big touchstones here, details what happened inside the Japanese government and judiciary, it details the response of Chisso. Aileen Smith took a side trip to Canada to investigate methyl mercury pollution there, and identified specific things the government was not doing, what the government was doing that was insufficient and thwarted.

While the Smiths did not call out specific remedies, and did not call for so-and-so to be shot, they did dig deeper than simply deploring the situation in Japan and Canada. They named names, they called for specific actions. They provided a historical record as a template. They were not lazy, nor were they merely working hard but ineffectually.

Another personal touchstone. You might say that Sally Mann's work on racism is too far removed from concrete steps of political action, and it certainly does not do much more than detail and deplore the situation. I think her work is more of a personal lament than a call to action. I don't see it as an attempt, particularly, to foment change. Perhaps I am giving Mann a pass here, because of my fondness for her and her work.

There is no denying, though, that Mann is doing difficult emotional labor here. She is examining the world around her, but at the same time herself. While it might be a stretch to say Mann's photography is really about Sally Mann, certainly there is a lot of Sally Mann in there. One can usefully grasp the work as being about Sally Mann (whether it presents a true telling of her is another question entirely, but it is certainly a telling if not the telling.)

Art that "engages with" leaves out the hard political work of devising next steps, but also seeks to avoid the difficult emotional work of the lament for how things are. In this sort of hybrid of a call to political action and of a personal lament, the artists are able to pick and choose the bits and pieces, somehow always selecting the easy bits, the trivial bits, and leaving out the hard ones.

These people want to use the documentary methods, to retain their safe distance and avoid emotional, personal, labor. Yet they also do none of the work that ought to follow a political call to action. They abdicate all responsibility, in favor of the cheap and simple deploring of whatever it is that their friends agree is deplorable.


  1. Thanks for posting this. Victor Burgin (author of The Camera: Essence and Apparatus), interviewed in Tank magazine (Autumn 2018) makes the point that " 'Political Art' ... preempts criticism: as the artist's intention is 'political', then it is irrelevant to criticise the work on aesthetic grounds, but as the work is 'artistic' then it is equally irrelevant to require a rigorous political analysis from it... Such artists instrumentalise the misery of others while parading their moral narcissism in pursuit of their careers." I think he is less than impressed either politically or artistically. The interview is a great read even if in places he might as well be talking in Welsh for all the sense I can make of it (sample: "the tecnic therefore is to be conceived of as not only as inextricably imbricated within the corporeal, as prosthesis, but also within belief systems, the aesthetic, the affective and so on.").

    1. There is such a thing as good, even great political art. Mexican and German artists in particular seemed to excel at it. Think Posada, Orozco, Grosz, Dix. For Americans, cf. Thomas Nast. Most art that one may legitimately criticize is half-baked, and political art is not excused from this condition merely for having good intentions.

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    1. Mr. Anonymous certainly is voluble today! I think this is about it, though.

  3. Yes, but these guys only ‘engage’ with ‘contested’ stuff. The good news is that anything can be ‘contested.’