In repressive states, the role of the artist is unambiguous: to assert the individual imagination, the singular power that all dictatorships fear. I remember once talking to the Czech dissident and writer Ivan Klima, who had been subject both to the arbitrary horror of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and the long grinding years of Soviet occupation in which he had become a “non-person” for two decades, harassed constantly by secret police and unable to speak or write in public. He survived by “living in truth”. “I have always pursued inner freedom,” he said. “I have never been censored.”
Klima was part of that group of artists and writers who gathered in the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague in 1989 to orchestrate the “Velvet Revolution” and see their dreams of liberation realised. And how did it feel to experience freedom, to have the external world finally correspond with that interior life for the first time?
“It is interesting that a man very quickly accepts freedom as a normal thing,” Klima said. “Though we had fought for it for so long, after a few weeks or months we did not think about it. Rather you start to see things you would like to change, things that make you angry, corruption and so forth, environmental problems, the obsession with the market…” Habits of protest die hard.
There are, of course, many courageous artists across the world with Klima’s stubborn courage. Ai Weiwei is only the best known, but he remains a crucial figure, one irrepressible man living in truth who reveals the billion lies attending China’s advance into the world. Weiwei used to reject the idea he was a political figure, insisting that he was only an artist (as if the two were distinguishable). After his imprisonment in 2012, his tone seemed to change. “People are always wondering if I am an artist or politician,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just clearly tell you: whatever I do is not art. Let’s say it is just objects or materials, movies or writing, but not art, OK?”
How do you stick it to the man when the man is a tax-dodging global network of information systems run by smart hippies?
In Russia, Pussy Riot have acquired something of Weiwei’s power – the power to prove the futility of censorship and the integrity of protest. They took their inspiration from the Voina, a group which, like all the best art political movements, trailed a manifesto. Point one read: “Create the rebirth of heroical behavioural ideals of an artist-intellectual… the artist as romantic hero, who prevails over evil. Produce lively romantic models in contrast with today’s soulless commercial conceptual art.” Voina’s most famous performance was a protest against the 2008 election of President Medvedev. This “lively romantic” act took place in the Moscow Biological Museum, beside a stuffed bear. Five couples from Voina undressed and had vigorous sex in the hall. One of the participants, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, described the work as the only honest portrait of pre-election Russia: “Everybody fucks each other, and the puppy bear” [a nickname for Medvedev] “looks on with an unconcealed scorn.”
In the west, where freedoms of speech are, theoretically at least, guaranteed in law, the challenge for an artist to make an effective political statement is more complex. Where anything goes, where we are flooded daily with millions of uncensored images, what honestly gives us pause, or makes a statement? Perhaps as a result of this, the art world, that moving spectacle of expos and fairs and biennials – Voina’s “soulless commercial conceptual art” – can appear to exist in a self-referential bubble. The suddenly hardening political moment, however – where across Europe and in the US, liberal certainties feel under threat – seems to call for a different kind of artistic engagement. What that might look like is still under construction.
Street art and the outlaw sloganeering of Banksy was one effort to test the in-house freedoms of the gallery in less permissive spaces. Another, more rigorous attempt would be the inspiring project of the American Theaster Gates in Chicago’s South Side. Gates is using the material of his historically blighted neighbourhood, repurposed as art, to regenerate entire blocks of that community and connect its residents with a radical civil rights past, making black lives matter in bricks and mortar. His 2011 collection, In the Event of a Race Riot,coiled a series decommissioned fire hoses from the civil rights era in gilt-frame boxes. They sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and Gates ploughed the money directly back into community projects.
Other artists pursue different strategies. Protest, which opens later this month at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, will dramatise some of them. It is a show, in some ways, nostalgic for the dualities of 60s protest (currently celebrated in the V&A exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution?). Taking as a starting point the American painter Alice Neel’s prophetic 1936 painting, Nazis Murder Jews, which depicts a Communist party torchlight parade through the streets of New York City, it collects new and recent pieces that address in different ways our own disorienting political moment. Work that confronts, often obliquely, the struggles around migration, censorship, Black Lives Matter, the rise of surveillance and the re-emergence, across Europe and in the US, of the populist right.
I wanted something that existed outside any system… a living platform for the artists to experiment'Doug Aitken
Speaking to some of the artists involved in the show in the past week, I found a consensus about two things. The first was that, with the phenomenon of Trump in America and the threats to cohesive democracy in Europe, the need for a politically engaged art has rarely been more urgent. The second was that the means to that end are necessarily nuanced. It is harder to challenge power if, in a globalised world, you don’t know precisely where power lies. How do you stick it to the man, when the man in question is not a state or a corporation, but, increasingly a tax-dodging global network of information systems run by smart former hippies with untold wealth?
Western artists are generally uneasy at being viewed as political in the way that Weiwei has come to accept; they see it as a limit on their asserted freedom. Michael Elmgreen, one half of the celebrated provocateur duo Elmgreen & Dragset, winced a little when I used the phrase “protest art”. He doesn’t, he said, feel comfortable under that banner. “I feel that more political activists like Pussy Riot have a different kind of approach. Our statements are more influenced by ideas of infiltration.”
Masses of information is coming at us and the speed of it makes the hierarchy of what to protest against very slipperySarah Sze
Why not something more direct?
“Take something like Occupy Wall Street,” he says. “You’re making yourself as an otherness, an opponent, you try to fight power in that way. Unfortunately, in 99% of cases you lose because you are not strong enough to fight an established power structure. So we prefer to go in and try to clarify how easily these existing structures could be changed. Show how fragile and unstable they are.”
Most famously, with this project in mind, the duo built a replica Prada shop in the middle of the howling Texas desert, to suggest even artful capitalism would pass.
When showing work in China, some western artists have had a small taste of what Ai WeiWei encounters daily. Sarah Sze
Our participants in their own words:
Anuradha Vikram is a Los Angeles-based writer, curator, and educator.
Most of my work deals with the representation of diverse perspectives among artists, predominantly contemporary, but I also work in modern and increasingly early modern art history as well. In terms of how my work fits in with this conversation, my motivation is to flip the percentages of representation of the artists that I work with. Most large institutions work with 75% white artists and 25% artists of color, and I try to invert that ratio in my work.
Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts administrator.
I primarily have a development background, and am interested in conversations around equitable funding practices in the arts. As a writer, I’m invested primarily in the history of black art critics over time—a really big topic—which led to the creation of ARTS.BLACK, a platform for black art critics globally. In that work we are hoping to contribute an editorial perspective, new voices, and acknowledge black critics whose work has been historically excluded from the art historical canon.
Ryan Wong is a Brooklyn-based writer and exhibition organizer.
I work with Interference archive in Brooklyn to produce exhibitions focused on visual cultures of social movements—I see social movements as extremely productive times for artmaking and culture making. As an arts writer, I try to examine artwork in exhibition reviews and essays as a full political being myself, acknowledging topics like race, class, and gender and how these broad historical forces are inseparable from our understanding of works of art.
Ellen Tani recently received her PhD in Art History and is currently a curator based in the Portland, Maine, area. She has been a contributor to The Art Genome Project since 2013.
For any feedback on the roundtable or to contribute to the conversation, please send to firstname.lastname@example.org.