We were asked these questions by the folks at The Art Newspaper…
Is political art more relevant today?
Stephen: Political art, or at least artistic politics, have been around for a long time. Think about the Bible: it’s a story before it’s anything else, Moses and Jesus were pretty stellar performance artists, and their acts were archived effectively in stained glass windows and through oil paintings. All this at a time when religion was politics. So the relevancy of political art is nothing entirely new, but here’s no denying that we live in a more artistic world today: we are positively bombarded with signs and symbols, images and narratives. And politics, in our nominally democratic age, is all about communicating with people. Artists are the people in our society who we’ve trained to be particularly adept at working with signs and symbols, images and narratives, so its no surprise that political art has become increasingly relevant.
Steve: Relative to the year 30 A.D., today we receive a lot more of those signs and symbols. Thousands of persuasive messages reach us daily, not mention the increase when election season ramps up. One thing that makes political art more relevant is its sincerity. No one practices art seeking outrageous fortune, certainly not political art. Those who make great political art speak from the heart and the audience can intuit that passion. Politicians, network media, and advertisers certainly have more resources than artists. But political artists have a couple clear advantages. Political art has the ability to speak to a mass audience with a freedom and complexity those groups can’t and art cuts through the other clutter because of its sincerity. And that’s powerful.
Does it achieve anything?
Steve: This is the tough question! The most commonly asked question of political artists and the question that haunts artists themselves late at night.
Stephen: It depends upon what you set out to achieve. Some activist artists want immediate results, other are more interested in the long term. If your goal is to get a politician elected or a policy passed and ou link yourself into a campaign and the politician or policy wins, then you can say: I helped achieve that, at least with as much confidence as you can say this about any singular act in an overall campaign. But if your goal is to change the way people think about an issue, or even more radical: recalibrate how people perceive reality — what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the “re-distribution of the senses” — well, that’s going to be pretty hard to measure and know when and if you’ve achieved it.
Steve: When thinking about achieving a goal, it’s important for artists to know what they’re measuring and how. If not, two terrible things can happen. The first is overestimating the impact: “I made this painting of Dick Cheney covered in oil and now everyone will see and everything will be different!” The second is underestimating: people who are working hard on those long haul goals, really making progress, but disappointed in themselves because the revolution hasn’t come yet. The world doesn’t need any more former activists who are burned out, bitter, carrying a lack of personal agency, and moving away from activism in defeat.
Can art be effective activism and vice versa?
Steve: In our research for our upcoming book and in working with artists at our Center for Artistic Activism we’ve found that in practice, art and activism aren’t separate things. For the people on the ground doing this work, they’re not thinking of themselves as artists OR activists, but artists and activists. These practicioners have the ability to fluidly move between many roles and take advatage of the best strategies and tactics from each. Ultimately this makes them more effective.
Stephen: Art can be a part of effective activism. I’d go further: it NEEDS to be a part of activism if activism is to be effective. One, for the reasons I laid out above: we live in a semiotic wonderland today and artists are particularly good at working in this environment. The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage; artists can do this. But two, because art, at its best, does what good activism does: it doesn’t tell people what to do or to think, it opens up spaces and provides opportunities and prompts for people to do that for themselves. In this way good activism, if not art itself, shares some of its aims.