Is all contemporary art political? This question is much easier posed than answered and very much simpler than the solution. In this writing, however, I would like to begin by stating two starting points; the definition of contemporary art and the definition of political. According to Storr (2009), contemporary art is defined by the distinction of ‘practice’ and ‘praxis’, in which, quoting Karl Max, ‘praxis’, in definition, is the transformational act of oneself (Bourriaud 1998). Contemporary art is characterised with cultural expressions and delivering meaning and ideas (Lewis 2005; Goll 2003). William S. Lewis stated that, contrasting from art sphere before Modernism era, in which the meaning of art itself was defined solely by institutions, contemporary art is even more complex and difficult to classify as it is an action that, he believes, is derived from democracy. It is also believed that contemporary art, as based on the desire to liberate humanities and driven by the raw perception of the history, is supposed to transform the culture, living conditions and way of thinking of individuals (Bourriaud 1998; Jenefsky & Russo 1998).
On the other hand, the term ‘political’, I believe, has to do with the movement that one (or collective) performs that brings about an effect to others (or other collectives) within that social body (Mesch 2014). Birnbaum, as cited by Grau (2012), states that the occurrence and involvement of collectivity and the urge to have a say are an act of politics. Art weighs into politics in terms of giving a new perspective of aesthetics, philosophical thinking, and influencing communities (Demirel 2012). Thus, art and propaganda, although separated from each other, is parallel. It is tough to separate art and propaganda (Lewis 2005). Deducing after the points above, I believe that all contemporary art is political. Thus, in this essay, I would like to cover four ideas; the difference between ‘all art is political’ and political art, the political critique of art towards conventional aesthetics, the political movement of art against capitalism and institutionalised ideas of art, and political movement of art through one’s ideas and opinions.
The arguments above, which are a nod to my belief that ‘all contemporary art is political’, may bring about another question: if all art is political, what, then, is political art? Eko Nugroho, an Indonesian contemporary artist, is well-known as a political artist. His works are intended to criticise the government and expose the contradictory state of politics to the function itself (Wang 2016; Arndt 2016). It is true that there is a form of art that is deliberately active in terms of its politicism—a work that is used as an instrument depict one’s dogma on politics using visual arts (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012); however, contemporary art is an act of conveying ideas; whether it contains meaning or it has no meaning at all, which is a political act of actively exposing opinions and communicate one’s view about a particular matter (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Thus, contemporary artists, although do not deliberately identify themselves as political, are political.
Contemporary art, as a work of ideas, was a start of rebellions against authorities and institutions (Bourriaud 1998). Art has been dependent and very much controlled by institutions and bodies of authorities; may they be conglomerates, governments, or religious organisations (Birnbaum 2012). Art sphere was squared by institutionalised perception of social manners, philosophies, and value, and seen through conventional aesthetics, luxury, and currency (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012; Bourriaud 1998; Léger 2012). This movement motivated the rise of capitalism, thus, the supremacy of art was merely dominated by Western artists and was highly regulated by the rich (Bishop 2004; Steyerl 2010). Hal Foster, as cited by Claire Bishop (2004), stated that institutions dominated the artwork itself, and thus, the art became a show that retracted capitalists, and the curator became the main spotlight of the work. As an example, Cattelan’s A Perfect Day (1999) (fig. 3) was a critique to this matter. Maurizo Cattelan literally attached Massimo De Carlo, the curator of a gallery at which he had an exhibition opening in Milan, on the gallery wall as an act of rebellion for the liberation from the institution and authority (Bourriaud 1998; Galerie Perrotin 2016). Another example is a work by Hans Haacke in 1970, known as MoMA Poll (fig. 4), which was presented with the intention that the viewers responded to his question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not voting for him in November?” by placing white paper into a see-through box (Mayer 2009). It is believed that this was not only made as a poll to government; it is no less posed as a critique towards the institution itself, as the institution was also run by the Governor. It is true, that art circle has grown towards dicentralisation by the numerous production of art and the effects caused by contemporary art itself. It is also true, therefore, that contemporary art is political in terms of their movements against authorities and questioning institution’s conventional ideas (Steyerl 2010; Bourriaud 1998).
A critique towards authorities cannot go too far from a critique towards conventional aesthetics, as Steyerl (2010) believes that it is fashioned by the institution itself. After the Modernism Era, artists started to revise question on the definition of aesthetic and became concerned about conventional aesthetics that are merely made-up ideas produced by media and commercial interests (Groys 2008; Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Bourriaud (1998) states that art has been a piece of luxury in public sphere for centuries. One of the characteristics of contemporary art is that it has something to do with rebellion, controversy, and an ‘alarm clock’ that wakes people up to the issue and persuade society to question the same thing (Rothstein 2007; Mesch 2014). Artist’s Shit (1961), an art piece by Piero Manzoni is one of the examples of the idea that art is a critique towards conventional aesthetics. Manzoni, by this work, questions the philosophy behind aesthetic itself by producing a piece that is made from his own feces, canned it in a tin, and sealed it with his signature; however, Howarth (2000) stated that it was an irony to sum the number of people that purchased his artwork. Groys (2008) states that art and politics are linked by the idea that both parties are monarchies, in which a struggle for credit, identification, and acknowledgement is being respected and appreciated. Contemporary art is an argument, or perhaps, a discourse, to add on a matter of equal rights, including equality in aesthetics. The concern that is expressed by contemporary artist is the reason behind conservative and orthodox idea of beauty. It is stated by Bourriaud (1998) that contemporary art is also a revolt that contradicts the idea of predetermined historical growth and historical criticism. If, and it is true, according to Mesch (2014), that communicating ideas to other people is a political act, then, it is true, that contemporary art is political.
Fig 5 Manzoni, Piero 1961, Artist’s Shit (Merde d’Artiste, tin can, printed paper and excrement, 48 x 65 x 65 mm, Tate London.
To sum up from the arguments above, it is true that contemporary art is an instrument to expose one’s ideas and opinions. The key characters that build up the idea of contemporary art are the meaning, the content, and the context behind the works (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Politics, as stated before, dwell within the collectives and how one’s opinions and dogmas are prominent and influential to others (Mesch 2014; Birnbaum 2012). There is a large number of artworks in Postmodernism Era that deliver contemporary and issues that, however began as personal matter, have a meaning to be exposed to those who have or have not experienced the similar matter—which, is always a political subject (Birnbaum 2012). Contemporary art wants to be seen. Contemporary art wants to be heard (Steyerl 2010). How can contemporary artists who are unquestionably true to their vision, idea, philosophy, and dogma, and are exposing their inner self and thinking with such outspokenness and frankness, not be seen as uttering a political statement (Rothstein 2007)? Contemporary art, either submissive or offensive against the culture and society, is political.
Fig 6 Ali, Anida 2010, Otherance, 1700 Project, Live performance, Sullivan Galleries.
Figure 6 shows a performance art by Anida Yoeu Ali, titled 1700% Project (2010), which was an attempt to depict her writing about her identity as a Muslim. The work was made with white vinyl-based letters that are stuck on white wall, for her further intention was to hire four persons to cover the wall fully with runny black paint. She stated that on the following day, the wall was ruined with inappropriate doodles with the black paint and offensive words within her writing are highlighted; ‘Islam’, ‘kill’, ‘die’, and so forth. Ali believes that her work is nothing less than a political work. The fact that the work is provocative and contentious, and creates negative attention to society by the presentation of identity and culture of oneself, proves that it is political (Ali 2016; Muller 2005).
Another example is Andres Serrano and his work, titled Piss Christ (1987), evokes the idea of expressing his religious belief in Christianity by putting Jesus sculpture in his urine; however, his work is not only a controversy to media, it is also a controversy, particularly to Christians, to an extent that it evokes a questioning to his belief and whether his artwork is considered as blasphemy to Jesus Christ (Serrano 2015). On the other hand, Serrano regards it merely as an exposure of his faith and the fact that he grew up being a Catholic. This indicates that contemporary art contributes another perspective, directing communities, and communicate meanings (Demirel 2012); meanings that are not always as expected as the others, but solely dependent on one’s true self. Therefore, I would like to repeat Rothstein’s question again: How can contemporary artists who are unquestionably true to their vision, idea, philosophy, and dogma, and are exposing their inner self and thinking with such outspokenness and frankness, not be seen as uttering a political statement?
Fig 7 Serrano, Andres 1987, Piss Christ, 152 x 102 cm.
Art, as a product triggered by democracy (Lewis 2005), is an act of provocation to influence people (Bourriaud 1998). It is clear that all contemporary art is political. Contemporary art, laying in a midst of thick book of neoliberalism, is an instrument to deliver meaning to collectives; to address critiques and expose rebellions against institutions and authorities, to express questionings against conventional beauties, values, aesthetics, and dogmas, to have a discourse, dialogues, and social exchanges with people and communities, and to speak of one’s ideas and opinions to public.
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