Originally Written for Boot Print Volume #2 (St. Louis, USA)
Proximity to Politics:
A Review of Three Recent Published Dialogues on Contemporary Art and Activism
By Daniel Tucker
In an attempt to broadly survey the current terrain of contemporary art in relationship to politics, I am turning to three invaluable new resources published in the last year.
There are three important conversations that have been recorded in the last year and published in book form that I will focus on in order to shed some light on the current challenges and concerns facing contemporary artists who are concerned with commenting on and participating in politics. They are:
“Subversive Multiples: A Conversation between contemporary printmakers” by Meredith Stern with responses by Icky A., Morgan F.P Andrews, Courtney Dailey, Josh MacPhee, Colin Matthes, Roger Peet, Erik Ruin, Nicole Shulman, Miriam Klein Stahl, Shaun Slifer, Chris Stain, Swoon, Pete Yahnke, and Bec Young.
Featured in “Realizing The Impossible: Art Against Authority” edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press 2007)
“War Culture” with Doug Ashford Moderating a conversation between Gregg Bordowitz, Paul Chan, Peter Eleey, Deborah Grant, K8 Hardy, Sharon Hayes, Emily Jacir, Ronak Kapadia, Steve Kurtz, Julian LaVerdiere, John Menick, Helen Molesworth, Anne Pasternak, Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, Ralph Rugoff and Nato Thompson. Published as the final of 3 conversations in “Who Cares” (Creative Time Books 2006).
And for some historical context:
“Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) Interview” by Brett Bloom with PAD/D members Gregory Sholette, Janet Koenig, Jerry Kearns, and Barbara Moore. Published in “Group Work: A book of information and dialogs about creativity and collaboration in groups” by Temporary Services (Printed Matter, Inc. 2007).
The reason why these rich conversations are useful for my observation is because they are recently published, all equally ambitious efforts, attempting to simultaneously record collective histories, articulate the concerns of a moment in time and be inclusive of conflicting and contradictory view points. Additionally, because of this ambition and rigor of the participants and organizers,my text cannot be seen as a complete summary of all the issues and ideas raised in these dialogues. My goal is to make observations based on these dialogues and use them as an illustration of a wide range of perspectives–much wider than any one conversation would be alone, or than any gathering/discussion that I could orchestrate myself. For these reasons, these resources can be said to be invaluable, and you should certainly check out the books in their entirety if the questions I raise here compel you at all.
These dialogues are in service of different audiences, and likely the participants know little about each other, but they are more similar than you might imagine. Read together, they provide a unique insight into a diverse group of U.S.-based cultural producers’ perspectives on what it means to be effective, how and why artists might organize themselves, and what kinds of groups and institutions artists can, should and shouldn’t collaborate with. I will now elaborate on some of the similarities and differences between these conversations in order to introduce them and prepare to discuss them as an interrelated context.
The Subversive Multiples and the War Culture conversations are similar because they bring together a group of artists who do not necessarily know one another or work together to reflect on present day questions, and the Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) interview is made up of three separate conversations with four members of the early 1980s art network PAD/D.
The War Culture and PAD/D interviews are similar in that they deal mostly with New York City-based artists who are generally connected enough to either the academic theory or art universe to experience a certain heightened level of mobility. However, there are certainly participants in the Subversive Multiples conversation who have enjoyed their share of commercial art or academic success, while some adhere strictly to punk or other subcultural communities and marginal
The PAD/D and Subversive Multiples conversations share a focus on simple means and forms and participatory production, implicitly identifying their roles as participants in social and political movements. On the other hand, War Culture deals primarily with artists who require significant financial support to produce their work and a portion of the conversation is actually focused on reforming arts funding while the rest primarily deals with what many participants observe as a lack of grassroots art and activism in NYC, and their positions in relationship to movements vary greatly.
The objective of the War Culture conversation was to be explicit about working during war time; the Subversive Multiples conversation was an attempt to survey and introduce a recently emergent community of activist printmakers of anti-authoritarian political leanings; and the PAD/D members were interviewed to shed light on their history and the history of related NYC art activist groups of the last 40 years–their group process and their active archiving practice of cataloging the work (mostly posters) of thousands of international artists who dealt with political content during their existence from 1980-1988.
War Culture” moderator Doug Ashford describes, “that the Who Cares conversations would be justified in themselves, separate from any use they might have in the future; and separate, certainly, even from their potential publication. The discussions were justified simply in the bringing together of individuals in a temporary space of mutuality.”1
The three areas of concern which will allow me to interpret the concerns and objectives of the artists participating in these conversations and make broad generalizations about tendencies in art as it relates to politics are economy, political movements and the evaluation of efficacy. I will now quote, compare and contrast the engagement with these categories of social life according to their appearance in the above mentioned conversations.
In reading these conversations together, I was able to get a sense that money isn’t an easy thing for anyone to discuss now. It generally isn’t with most people I know, and so I cannot imagine that it would be that different for artists. The pickle seems to be that while everyone participating in these conversations is politically Left and has an analysis that presumes that capitalism structures social life and economies in such a way that is unbearable to most people, everyone has different ways that they have to participate in the system or the logic of capitalism on a daily basis.2 In other words, the people whose voices are represented in these conversations all work within and participate in capitalism through their labor and consumption everyday. The main difference between them is how they interpret that participation as being part of the “problem.” The other main concern that is interrelated is that of funding–how is your work funded, or how is a general movement or community financially supported.
“I think of the time that we made the RNC map, The People’s Guide to the Republication National Convention…We weren’t going to wait for a grant. We robbed, lied and stole for that money,” Paul Chan reflected during War Culture.3
The printmakers in Subversive Multiples talk explicitly and honestly about the sale of artwork. While some of the artists focus on the way that it feels to sell something as a negative way of relating to others, or as being a matter of “conscious.” Others reflect on the positive aspects of supporting yourself through your work. Swoon, the only participant with NYC gallery representation that can offer regular pay, speaks candidly about her working history: “I was a waitress for a lot of years and when the opportunity started to present itself for me to be supported by the things I was already doing, and loved, I was very ready…. I hate the idea of what I am making being narrowed down to its value as an object for investment or sale. On the other hand, selling art has allowed me to realize larger and more difficult projects…”4 In response to the same question, Josh MacPhee comments “Unfortunately, we live in a society where the dominant economic model is one where the value of things is defined by how much you can sell them for. This isn’t a good thing, but I’m not a purist. I sell art because I don’t know how else to survive while making it.” He goes on to say that most of his work sells as prints for $5-$50.
It should be stated that with some exceptions, the War Culture participants are more directly tied to the professional art world, funded by sales, teaching fees and foundation grants. This funding dynamic is the often unspoken context in which most of the participants make reference to economies, with almost no explicit assessment of how capitalism structures their lives or practices. Gregg Bordowitz argues, “Now is the time to fund things that cannot necessarily be proven, to reaffirm the notion of art as an experimental field, and to allow for a great deal of uncertainty over what the people you are funding do.”5 In addition to a long conversation about the possibility of reforming the funding practices of cultural institutions and foundations, the discussion takes a turn towards the issue of space and real estate, and the economic struggle most cultural producers (even those with ties to elite institutions) often face just to stay in the city. The participants speculated on what impact this competitive climate may or may not have on the existence of critical practices in NYC.
War Culture moderator Doug Ashford states,
“The market dominated the early 80s, it was a gigantic art sale, and it was junk bond world–a market explosion. But there were also artists taking over buildings, there was Group Material, there were artists working dialogically in the Bronx and Brooklyn, there were people going to Cuba and Nicaragua and working with unions and activist groups and coming back and starting formal experiments, there was public theater, grassroots health campaigns and client-based ‘educational movements.’ I’m not saying its great right now, I’m just saying I think it’s a little bit too easy to blame this lack of cultural activism on market domination. We had a junk bond art world in the 80s and there was experimentation. There’s experimentation now that goes undocumented.”
What is surprising to me is how few examples of contemporary cultural activism the participants in the Who Cares conversation are able to muster. With few exceptions, the participants seem to have a genuine difficulty identifying compelling and worthwhile practices currently taking place, even in their hometown of New York City.
The issue of accessing models and documents that can assist in generating this kind of memory is exemplified with the PAD/D interview. Greg Sholette admits in the end that they are very glad that the PAD/D archive of thousands of political art documents of the 1980s is now housed in a place with the resources that can take care of it, but finds it a double edged sword to work with the Museum of Modern Art which is a very “corporatized institution.” Still, the legacy of PAD/D has to be read in relationship to the early 1980s economy. There was an affordable housing crisis, which had emerged in the late 1970s that was still making waves in NYC, and there was this emergent art market that promised to eat up anything in its path. The PAD/D members reflect on their legacy and why they think their work was influential, but not entirely absorbed into the art world or art history. Greg Sholette comments “PAD/D in less direct ways, and Group Material perhaps more overtly, did alter the art world landscape in favor of ‘political art’. In some ways you can say that we were the victims of our own success because by the end of the 1980s, everybody wanted to do political art. However, it had lost its connection to activism and to broader political issues.” Barbara Moore from PAD/D continues this line of thinking by reflecting on PAD/D’s legacy and the progressive popularity of political cultural work and art since their heyday, “.. It’s interesting to see how it gets into the broader public consciousness and the mainstream. And eventually, no matter how subversive you are, 90% of the time, somebody will find a way of marketing it.”
“Our goal was to become involved more directly with cultural activism as part of direct political action. We saw the need to become part of the community-based organizations in the city. We wanted to directly use our art as a political tool in support of progressive causes,” states Jerry Kearns from the PAD/D interview.
It is in this field of questions–art’s relationship to political movements–that surprisingly dramatic differences are demonstrated by our case study discussions.6
From PAD/D, Jerry Kearns and Greg Sholette elaborate on the links between their group and the New Left of the late 1960s and early 70s that is commonly associated with student activism and national independence struggle. Sholette describes their organizational structure:
“I think that, in general, we did inherit some of the structure from previous groups…. The model was a kind of Leninism with pastel shades. But as much as artists try to be disciplined in a radical revolutionary sense, it is not very sustainable. But there was definitely a kind of organized self-control there…One of the reasons for that was Jerry Kearns, who had come from a group that Amiri Baraka had founded called the Anti-Imperialist Cultural League. It was very much a Leninist-Maoist style, 1970s splinter group from the New Left/SDS era.”7
In War Culture, participant Nato Thompson argues for artists’ participation in protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), Paul Chan discusses his connection to Christian leftists protesting wars and torture, and Greg Bordowitz recalls the transformative moments of being a video producer in the 1980s working with AIDS activist network ACT-UP.
Surprisingly, the printmaker’s conversation deals the least with actual participation in social movements. Despite working collaboratively with other artists in art collectives, these artists had very little to stay about organized politics–except for being incredibly suspicious of anything that would be perceived as having any answers or authority. An exception is Eric Ruin’s response to historical quotations about the role of art in revolution, where he comments, “I’d be excited to see more work either envisioning the future of our society, playing a direct instructive role in revolutionary struggle, or both.”8
Evaluation of Efficiency
“How do you gauge the effectiveness of your work? For you, does this relate to your ability to express yourself? Does it relate to how the audience sees your work?” asks moderator Meredith Stern to the printmakers.9
Its hard to evaluate how effective something is if you don’t know what the goals are. And it’s hard to evaluate something if a significant portion of its objective in being created is actually part of a messy and intangible social process. The printmakers in Subversive Multiples reflect in their conversation motives for creating art in the first place: “To create a sense of possibility,” says Pete Yahnke; “Enrapture and enrage,” Roger Peet;
“To tell stories of the forgotten, the underrepresented or the voiceless,” Colin Matthes.
These motives tend towards creating an affective impact, which is hard to evaluate. Did your art create a sense of possibility? Sure. Did it enrapture and enrage? Sure. Did it tell stories of the voiceless? Sure. Did any of these experiences move the viewer to action, to educate him or herself, to make more art? This is most likely not going to be answered.
Josh MacPhee says, “On the one hand, by claiming a piece of art is political, it takes it out of the realm of ‘pretty pictures’ and adds some element of utility. Once there is a claim of utility, you can’t avoid wanting to quantify that, to define what works or what doesn’t. Otherwise, what’s the point of claiming politics? At the same time, art can’t be boiled down to purely quantifiable factors; it is and always will be qualitative, that’s what makes it art.”10
Gregg Bordowitz echoes recent critiques of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex put forth in the book “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” during the War Culture conversation, by saying that we have lost ourselves to quantification based analysis of what is effective in our work because of funding streams.11 He says, “We accepted the corporate cultural inclusion into the independent world and slowly gave over the notion of legitimizing our activity according to quantification, revenue production, and efficacy models that were totally inappropriate to emerging political activities or radical art making.”12
War Culture also shows NYC artists discussing relevance and realness. They debate the possibility of working on cultural work outside the logic of the commodity, about who cares what art they make when fucked up shit happens everyday, about meaning making under a dominant meaning making regime run by the State and the Church. They seem to have questions and conflict in regards to scale and effect–what work matters–when and where?
Several questions for PAD/D members deal with the legacy of their work specifically. While most members feel that PAD/D had a kind of subconscious or subliminal influence on groups and individuals in NYC making self-identified political art and upon the “mainstream embrace of political art in the 1980s and 1990s,” they don’t feel like PAD/D received credit for its role in that history.13 This is partially, occurring to Jerry Kearns because, “Most of mainstream art history takes structure in the recognition of individual achievements which reinforce the market perspective of the system. PAD/D did not do that. We did not fit that agenda.”14
And what can we learn from this mash-up sampling of three radically different conversations? Should they be read as separate strands, sects or traditions? Should they be read together, as interrelated tendencies? What do people gain from participating in these separate networks and tendencies? If there is a desire to achieve a goal or to organize an effective and functional network of cultural producers committed to engagement with politics, are these differences able to be negotiated or worked through?
One initial step towards answering this might be to be honest about what politics is. When I say it, I mean views about social relationships involving authority or power, with specific recognition that capitalist states have a monopoly on the form of power that structures most of our lives. In relation to artistic practices, the political relevance is not as easily understood, as it is in, say, organizing workers or communities, running for government office, or taking direct action to make a point.
These dialogues leave me wondering: How do any of these artists or authors relate to political organizing on a mass or micro-political scale? They are well intentioned, all of them, but missing an honest self-reflection of where they are operating and what can happen in that position, and what could happen if their positions were different. This lack of self-reflection plagues artists and cultural producers interested in being relevant to contemporary politics and power. Being honest about the economies we participate in; our relationship, and potential relationship, to social movements (that are emerging, currently existing or in recent memory); how we want to evaluate our work, in what context we think that evaluation should happen and against what standards–read together, these criteria will give a viewer, a critic, or a participant the capacity to understand the work’s proximity to political concerns. It is through their proximity to politics that we can evaluate the role of these practices and their potential to inform or shape politics.
1 Doug Ashford’s Introduction to “Who Cares” (Creative Time Books 2006) p.19
2 Some fragmented examples of that logic: The entrepreneurial spirit of self promotion, the speculative potential of our spaces existence as a piece of real estate, the competitive process of outdoing each other or avoiding cooperation, the labor power that it takes to maintain space for “political art” and its subsidies through people’s “real jobs”, the labor power it takes to create the world around our spaces and our art and the simple fact of exploitation on all levels of the food chain from bike messengers, food servers, day laborers, to freelancers all having a precarious status which is necessary for their industries to function.
3 Paul Chan Quote from “Who Cares” (Creative Time Books 2006) p.135
4 Swoon Quote from “Subversive Multiples: A Conversation between contemporary printmakers” in “Realizing The Impossible: Art Against Authority” edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press 2007) p.106
5 Gregg Bordowitz Quote from “Who Cares” (Creative Time Books 2006) p.135
6 “Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) Interview” by Brett Bloom with PAD/D members Gregory Sholette, Janet Koenig, Jerry Kearns, and Barbara Moore. Published in “Group Work: A book of information and dialogs about creativity and collaboration in groups” by Temporary Services (Printed Matter, Inc. 2007).
7 Ibid. P78
8 Eric Ruin Quoted from “Subversive Multiples: A Conversation between contemporary printmakers” in “Realizing The Impossible: Art Against Authority” edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press 2007)
9 Meredith Stern’s introduction to “Subversive Multiples: A Conversation between contemporary printmakers” in “Realizing The Impossible: Art Against Authority” edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press 2007) p.112
10 Josh MacPhee quoted from “Subversive Multiples: A Conversation between contemporary printmakers” in “Realizing The Impossible: Art Against Authority” edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press 2007)
11″The Revolution will Not Be Funded” Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (South End Press 2007)
12 Gregg Bordowitz Quote from “Who Cares” (Creative Time Books 2006) p.132
13 Quote by Jerry Kearns in “Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) Interview” by Brett Bloom with PAD/D members Gregory Sholette, Janet Koenig, Jerry Kearns, and Barbara Moore. Published in “Group Work: A book of information and dialogs about creativity and collaboration in groups” by Temporary Services (Printed Matter, Inc. 2007). P.91
14 Ibid. P.91