Simplifying art for the sake of politics

Updated 27th March 2018
Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, by John William Waterhouse
Credit: © Manchester City Galleries
Simplifying art for the sake of politics
Written by JJ Charlesworth
JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and online editor for ArtReview. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, discussing the art of the Russian Futurists, once wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."
Trotsky was criticizing the Futurists' rejection of realism in favor of abstraction, questioning whether art could ever be a "hammer" without holding a "mirror" to society. But while subsequent generations of artists might disagree with Trotsky's politics, the idea that art can and should represent real experience and have an impact on politics has become commonplace.
"Reframe" (2016) by Ai Wei Wei.
"Reframe" (2016) by Ai Wei Wei. Credit: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Contemporary art has become a site where artists respond to the political issues of moment -- Chinese art-celebrity Ai Weiwei made a documentary about the European migrant crisis, while Turner prize-winner Lubaina Himid's sculptures and paintings address the history of race and racism in Britain. The notion that art should remain separate and aloof from contemporary concerns nowadays seems eccentric, even bizarre.
Right-wing commentators often complain that art has been "taken over" by the "cultural left." There's an element of truth to their paranoia -- since the 1970s at least, contemporary art has increasingly been claimed as a space of political representation for political minorities and marginalized voices.
"Piss Christ" (1987) by Andres Serrano.
"Piss Christ" (1987) by Andres Serrano. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's and Andres Serrano
Those "culture wars," started in earnest with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, produced important controversies -- such as that over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or the scandal that attended the work of queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe -- over whether art has the right to offend conservative and religious sensibilities. Artists have continued to shock and shake up mainstream opinion ever since.
The idea of art as a political weapon and a form of protest has become mainstream, and artists have taken on the role of political activist. In the UK's bitterly fought EU referendum campaign, the art community rallied around photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' pro-EU posters. Jeremy Deller's rather less polite poster criticizing Prime Minister Theresa May's declaration of "strong and stable" government ("Strong and Stable My Arse") appeared on London streets last year. As the referendum result and May's subsequent re-election demonstrated, art as a political intervention isn't always such a big hammer.
"Strong and Stable My Arse" (2017) by Jeremy Deller.
"Strong and Stable My Arse" (2017) by Jeremy Deller. Credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
But the possible limits of art's political impact hasn't deterred artists, it has spurred them on. In the polarized atmosphere of post-Trump, post-Brexit politics over the last year, contemporary art has become an even more important arena for emphatic, unambiguous political statements of protest and resistance. What's particular -- and new -- about the past year, is how art-as-politics has turned from a debate about artists' right to exhibit works that offend mainstream opinion, into one about taking down works that offend the identities of disadvantaged or marginalized groups.

The politics of 'takedown'

In the U.S., the biggest artistic controversies of last year have been the display of Dana Schutz's "Open Casket" at the Whitney, because a white artist was accused of profiting from black suffering, and the removal of Sam Durrant's "Scaffold," after protests by Dakota Sioux activists claimed that the sculpture insensitively appropriated the history of violence against Native Americans as subject matter for privileged audiences.
"Open Casket" (2016) by Dana Schutz.
"Open Casket" (2016) by Dana Schutz. Credit: Courtesy Petzel, New York
It's too easy to make the complaint, as many on the right do, that in these "new" culture wars, the takeover of art for political protest has become an exclusive platform the "correct" kind of opinion -- the "virtue signaling" of social justice movements. But there's actually a bigger problem with artworks taking on the role of message-making and position-taking. Political positions are often simplistic, oppositional and dualistic. Reality, on the other hand, is a lot more complex, and artworks can be just as complex in how they deal with reality.
Take, for example, the publicity surrounding the removal of John William Waterhouse's 1896 painting "Hylas and the Nymphs" from the walls of the Manchester Art Gallery as part of a project by British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce, whose retrospective is now showing there. Waterson's famous pre-Raphaelite painting imagines the Greek mythological subject of a young warrior seduced (and later abducted) by water nymphs -- beings depicted as naked young women.
"Hylas and the Nymphs" (1896) by John William Waterhouse.
"Hylas and the Nymphs" (1896) by John William Waterhouse. Credit: © Manchester City Galleries
In a blog post titled "Presenting the female body: Challenging a Victorian fantasy," the gallery explained that the intervention was intended to "prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks." One curator commented that the project was "about challenging the outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling," and about the representation of women as "either femmes fatale or passive bodies for male consumption."
Here the art-politics of "takedown" was meant to provoke debate about gendered power in the wake of #metoo. And yet, in their insistence to try to make an old, sexist painting into a vehicle for contemporary concerns, the curators simplified and reduced the complexity and ambiguity of the painting.
As professor of classics at the University of Nottingham, Helen Lovatt, pointed out in response: 'The nymphs need not be sexual objects: they can instead be subjects with their own desires, a celebration of female desire. It's up to us to choose how we see it.' In other words, it's an artwork that can't be reduced to a cliche about Victorian sexism.

The power to challenge

Whatever side one takes in this debate, the withdrawal of "Hylas" shows that artworks can't easily be reduced to simplistic political statements or side-taking. Art can and should respond to what's going on in contemporary society, but when it assumes the form of protest or issue-pushing, it becomes little more than an extension of those messages.
Does art have the power to bring about real change? Intelligence Squared will explore the topic in an upcoming panel.
Does art have the power to bring about real change? Intelligence Squared will explore the topic in an upcoming panel. Credit: Courtesy of Intelligence Squared
If art is used as political protest or propaganda, there's little to distinguish it from protest or propaganda. Yet too many artists today fail to realize that when art becomes protest or propaganda, its particular place in social life -- its ability to speculate, fantasize, envisage alternatives and go against the grain -- disappears.
Art has the capacity to confuse and disturb orthodoxies, and that gives it a particular sort of political power. This isn't a matter of the right against the left, or of "good" messages against "bad" ones. Rather, it's a matter of whether we allow artworks to explore the things that trouble us, without immediately demanding that they be taken down because they don't conform to our own views.
What we risk losing today is the value of an open culture that tolerates strong differences of perspective and opinion. The alternative is a narrow, intolerant culture -- one in which art becomes a mirror for our own assumptions and prejudices about the issues of the day, not a hammer that reshapes them.
Does art have the power to bring about real change? Intelligence Squared will explore the topic in an upcoming all artist panel, which will feature Olafur Eliasson, John Gerrard, Lu Yang, and Shirazeh Houshiary. CNN Style is the media partner for the event.