But Is It Politics?

But Is It Politics?

These are notes that I drew upon for a talk at Dreaming the Americas: The Body Politic and Performance conference at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, NYC, February 22, 2008. These notes are pretty cryptic and not that well thought out, but I think there’s something here. — SRD

I. Introduction

A fine collection of essays on art and activism edited by Nina Fleshin was published about a dozen years ago. It’s title was But is it Art?

This morning I want to pick up on the same theme, but explore it from what I think is an underdeveloped perspective, asking a different question of activist art: “But is it Politics?”

I’m not an artist (though I did attend art school, only to discover how talent less I am) but I am an activist who has used art as an integral part of my activism for many years. With Reclaim the Streets, Billionaires for Bush, Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army and scores of other political groups, me and my friends have employed the arts – mainly performance, but also the graphic arts – as a way to:

  • speak to a public that turns off at the first sign of political preaching
  • to grab a few minutes attention from a blasé mass media
  • to entertain our fellow protesters (for even the converted need something to keep them going).

Throughout all these endeavors, a question has haunted me:

  • How do we know when what we are doing is effective.
  • Indeed, how does any “political artist” know when she is successful?
  • How do we even begin to think about such a question?

In the mainstream of the arts world there are clearer criteria:

  • Commercial Success: gauged in terms of prices fetched for a piece of art, or attendance at and length of run for a show
  • Institutional Success: Approval by critics and peers, grants received, institutional support (CUNY) and so on

What is our criteria for “good” political art?

This is what I want to explore today. And I mean explore.

• I don’t think it is helpful to come up with a definitive definition of what is, and what is not, political art – that way leads to lots of performances and portrait of tractors and the glory of forced collectivization

• But I do think it’s helpful – indeed necessary – for those of us who think of ourselves as political artists to seriously think about what this means, and how we might do it better.

• In other words, we need our own metrics for success

• Think of this as a thought experiment – we’ll see where it goes

II. Definitions

To begin we need some definitions. What is “political art” ?

What is art? I’m not going to touch. There’s probably more ink spilled on figuring out that question than any other, and I can say with some certainty we are no closer to a consensus.

But it is necessary to come up with a broad definition of what we mean by politics. Here’s mine:

Politics is about POWER:

  • Power to decide what sort of a world you want to live in
  • Power to articulate this decision
  • Power to actualize this vision

This definition of politics applies to both sides of the power spectrum:

  • Power to change the world
  • Power to contain change

III. Different Ways to think about Art’s Political Effect

The next, and probably most important, step in this though experiment, is to explore the different ways in which art might have an effect on power and politics.

In other words: asking the question: What sort of a political impact do we, as artists, want or expect to have?

I’ve come up with a handful of possible answers:

Direct Material Result

  • policy change, election result, etc

Direct Ideological Change

  • immediate opinion shift

Long-Term Ideological Shift

  • Positive: new vision of the future
  • Negative: new critique of the present

“Re-Distribution of the Sensible”

  • Jacques Ranciere
  • Changing language, vision, our very sense of what is in and outside of “the sensible”

Transforming Experience

  • Re-articulating bodily practices
  • Re-configuring spaces to alter experiences

Creating Counter Cultures

  • Building a counter culture (practices, beliefs) within the dominant society

Preaching to the Converted

  • Education and entertainment of a movement, or a counter culture


  • Experimentation with new languages, visions, experience to see what happens
  • Outcome is undetermined
  • What doesn’t work is as valuable as what does

Making Art That Doesn’t “Work”

  • A politics of anti-instrumentality against an instrumental world
    (Though I would argue that this is pretty naïve in this day and age)

Reinforcement of the New/Old Order

  • Propaganda to create and maintain hegemony

(I am sure there are other ways to think about this and so please, please come up later and tell me — or, as I have to leave early today — send them to me.)

These goals are, of course, frequently complimentary.

  • For example: As we live in a democracy, where public opinion matters, ideological change and material change are often linked.

And one goal may fail while another may succeed.

  • For instance: you may fail to sway public opinion in the short run only to discover that your work set into motion a sea change of thought that only bears fruit years later
  • Conversely, an immediate shift in public opinion may be a flash in the pan, and its effects dissolve over time as the idea or vision is co-opted back into the dominant system.

The goals I’ve offered up are not exhaustive, and they are not mutually exclusive, but if you know what you are shooting for, then your aim will be truer.

IV. Audience

Once we’ve given serious thought to what political effect we are aiming for, it brings into focus other, key, factors that are useful to think about in producing art for political effect

The primary question being: Who is the audience and how do you reach them?

  • If your goal is Preaching to the Converted then the symbols you use, the knowledges you presuppose, and the stories you tell all need to resonate with an already persuaded audience and their alternative media
  • If the task you’ve set for yourself is Direct Ideological Change then you have to need to consider what languages you might use that are already in use by a wide swath of the public, and what aesthetic choices might make your art conducive to being picked up and amplified by the mass media.
  • If your goal is to have Direct Material Impact then the language and aesthetics of politicians and policy makers (to either seduce or frighten) have to be addressed and so on
  • And if your hope it so change the “Distribution of the Sensible” then you need to think about communicating in a language that very well may not be understood by any audience at all.

VII. Success

The next critical question can now be asked: How do you know if you’ve succeeded in reaching this audience and/or affecting change?

Or to go back to my archery metaphor: So how do we judge if we’ve hit the target?

This seems to be an impossible task — which is why, I think, that most of us have ignored this question.

Instead we often opt to make our statement and hope that something happens. A sort of “magical thinking” better suited to Alchemy than modern political strategy

But once we’ve developed a way of thinking about what sorts of political effect we might have, or want to have, we can begin to develop a methodology for gauging success.

Some cases are obviously easier than others:

If your goal is Direct Material Result then the proof is in the pudding: Did it work?

  • Did a policy or law get defeated or enacted?
  • Was a politician elected or overthrown?
  • Was a community garden saved, or bulldozed?

If your goal is to Direct Ideological Result, then it makes a certain logical sense to sample public opinion.

  • Advertisers and politicians do this, why not artists?

If your goal is Creating Counter Cultures, then has it worked?

  • Are there institutions, languages, norms and mores that a group shares that it didn’t share before and are markedly different than those on the outside world?

Some effects may not be discernable, not in the short run or even in our lifetimes – mass changes in sense perceptions or bodily patterns, for instance. So how do you judge success here?

  • You probably can not.
  • And this is OK, and we need to make peace with that.
  • Changing the world is a long project…and we shouldn’t get dispirited if it doesn’t happen overnight.

My point here is not that there is some sort of simple methodology for gauging efficacy.

Nor is it to privilege one approach or one criteria over another. One could even, as I outlined above, argue for making a “political” art against the ideal of political efficacy

The goal here is for artists, artists who think of themselves as political artists, to think, and think seriously, about what they hope to politically accomplish.

And I hope that what I’ve done here is give us the beginnings of a methodology for doing exactly that.

IV. Objections

Doesn’t all this strategic thinking and planning and success run counter to the ineffable, sublime quality of great art?

In other words: Aren’t these just lessons for producing propaganda?

This presupposes that the two – great aesthetics and efficacious politics – are not connected. They are intimatey connected.

I’m not arguing this on a grand theoretical plane: that what we consider aesthetically pleasing is determined by larger social, historical and political forces (although this is certainly true) but on a grounded, more pragmatic level: bad art makes bad political art.

  • Without the power to attract, move, and challenge the audience, political art is useless.
  • Art that is an aesthetic failure will also fail in its mission to change people’s hearts and minds and thus change the world.

To those who would charge that thinking through the efficacy of political art turns art into propaganda I would say: absolutely. But sublime and successful propaganda


1) Art and Strategic Thinking

One might object that thinking strategically about the possible political efficacy of art limits the creative process. Art is a qualitative process (expression) and what I’m arguing has a quantitative (efficacy) component that will ruin art.

But strategic thinking happens all the time in the art process, we use

  • criteria of aesthetics: does it look or feel or sound as it should
  • criteria of the market: is this something that my audience will like

All I’m arguing is that another, additional criteria be added for those who call themselves political artists: will it have a political impact

2) Diversity in Tactics

We should always remain open to how we want to take on power:

  1. Whether it be considered in the short term or long term
  2. Whether it be tied to mundane structures like presidential elections or more profound and far less apprehensible indicators like shifts in language and consciousness

But the one principle that I believe any person calling themselves a political artist must adhere to is that political art should have a political effect.

Otherwise, what’s its point?

Leave a comment