Art & Politics

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

unpublished talk delivered for the Forum series, Hobart School of Art, Hobart, 1983

There are many things I take for granted - not out of apathy or routine, but because my experiences of procedure and conceptualisation have left me in a position that ladens me with a certain orientation of place, of perspective. For example, I don't think that you ever get to where you are going, in that the goal of your pursuit, the end of your struggle, is endless. I am not referring to grandiose philosophical ideals of reason and belief, but to the more mundane area of trying to understand things, know them, theorise and articulate them, explain and describe them. Such is the preface and the premise for my discussion of art and politics; of the artistic and the political. I will talk about art and politics - and I won't get anywhere. But more importantly: you won't get anywhere, as the lack of resolution would be more problematic and more frustrating for you than it is to me. We (a spacious category in itself) won't arrive anywhere - and why we won't is what I shall discuss.

Firstly, the juncture between art and politics is not a point. Nor is it an intersection. Nor is it a collision. It is, in short, a non-event. An overlapping of one dimension upon itself - inseperable in terms of areas: indivisible in terms of layers. Historically, to speak about art in terms of politics has warranted strategy - strategy being the keystone in the myth of political effectivity. But the concept of strategy here is no more than a procedure of separation, of rationally subdividing art and politics in order to construct a juncture that can only exist under the conditions of such a separation. To date, it is this effect of separation that has constituted itself is the point of centrality around which the political discussion of part rotates and gravitates. Art is thus often measured either primarily or solely in terms of its distance from politics, i.e. political content, political implication, political commentary and political effectivity. The struggle is to bridge that gap (which in itself is already a deconstruction) and join art and politics and live happily ever after - which all sounds like an episode from Love American-Style (reference for those who watched television in the early 70s).

In our feverish pursuit of the truth, the centre, of achieving our goal and getting there, we all too easily see things in terms of what they are intended to represent (i.e. their truths) rather than acknowledging them as representations (i.e. their only truthful status). Art practices resultant from such a perspective function in a similar way, but as we move fairly comfortably within the proliferation of political art, let us not disregard the image of art; the image of politics; and the image of their juncture - because the only substantiality and the only effectiveness of working and theorising in this domain is in the congealed image (the stylistic concretisation) that these topics and tactics carry. I digress and describe to you here and now a different sort of image: a long, sleek, slender female leg, naked, clothed only by a shiny patent leather stiletto shoe. As I utter it, as I describe it, and as you formulat it by reconstituting it as an image for yourself, we have become intertwined in a series of codings that in this field of debate are painfully slanted. We're bogged by our context, rotted by our position; in other words - trapped by image. You see, an image is not an object - it is a process. It cannot be described because an image happens. And, images are forever 'happening one another'. Political art, social commentary art, etc., has an image that has very little to do with its imagery and content. Its (their) Image is defined more by its intention and, once again, its separation from 'apolitical' art - art that either (apparently) condemns, rejects, disbelieves in, is silent upon or is simply unaware of its relation to politics.

'Political' art (so called) is essentially art that believes in its intention and process. It is an art that loses sleep over achieving its goal and defining its truth. It is in this sense that political art (remembering that political art is a category that names itself, as evidenced by the plethora of artists' statements) suffers certain delusions; namely, that it presumes it has the power to either implicitly or directly name other art as being 'apolitical'. Having suffered this accusation as a writer and speaker myself, I would be extremely offended if I didn't first realise how dumb and naive a declamation it is; for there is no way in the world - and I intend the tone of finality that this carries - that anyone can show me how or why art A is more or less politically minded or effective than art B. And if you attempt to do so, your only recourse would be to a self-perpetuating substantiality generated from the centrality of how one is meant to connect and disengage art from and with politics.

There is a view of the artist that I have vaguely entertained for sometime now, and it tends to become more concrete as time goes by. It is of the artist as someone who theatrically controls meaning; not meaning as in the social coatings of iconographic or markings, but meaning as in a stream of communication directed primarily from the artist. It is a status that is historically bound by intentionality, which in turn perpetuates and guarantees the status of the artist over and above the work, honouring the meaning and intention of the markings over the much more problematic and intangible concept of deciphering the markings themselves. It is a state of affairs that filters through the histories of Romanticism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Conceptual Art to name a few. It almost appears as no surprise that it exists also in political art, in that once again the artist theatrically controls meaning, in the sense that he or she implies that they have some sort of monopoly on addressing society, on commenting on the world around them in order to make those of us who aren't aware, aware. The theatricality resides in the process of surfacing their conscious and consciousness for us to see. To put it bluntly, political art (as opposed to art that is political) merely states that it is aware, coding its message more or most in its statement rather then its awareness. The specificity of its awareness is inconsequential because its effectiveness is unable to be gauged. All one is left with is a personal statement couched in intention and carried my metaphor - such is the image of political part. Art can be and is made political - but not by the artists or the art itself, but by institutions, systems and apparatuses into which the art is inserted and from which the art is appropriated. Such is the case from Picasso's La Guernica to Peter Kennedy's November 11th banners.

There is nothing to being political. Everyone is political, whether they know it or not - and whether we know or not whether they know or not. To politicise oneself is to declare oneself, to state oneself as a peculiar entity. The political statement is unfortunately inextricably mixed up with personalism, the only twist being that one ought to feel responsible for certain things. The current climate of political art and of the juncture between art and politics I find to be so pathetically moralistic that I can find calm and serenity in my wavering between nihilism and solipsism. Politics in art thrives in an age of banners, T-shirts, slogans and buttons - them all being more linguistic commodities then commercial products. The statement and the message is hurled back and forth across society like a fiery ball that encapsulates the problem and the problematic, infusing statement, intention, metaphor, strategy and result in one glorious swipe. As we look up into the skies, our faces aglow, dialectic interaction fundamentally degenerates into one word - the word is "yeah!" It is a word that has become an icon of rhetoric, usable in any artistic/ political situation. Some murmur it solitarily; others call out in a chorus. But others, like myself, say "bullshit!" Political awareness would have to be the most oppressive force that grew out of the counter-culture revolution of the 70s. We're moralistically told things in terms of conditionality; that art should this, that society should that, that we should this, and that the government should that. Such people have got all the right questions and answers except being able to explain (short of fascism) why I should engage myself in a certain way with certain things.

But let us step sideways for a while before we start repeating stale debates and mouldy arguments. First off, underneath the contrived controversy of what I'm saying are two fundamental criticisms - (i) that politically-concerned art denies that its personal statement of Self is a departure for catharsis; and (ii) that the effect of its effectivity is generated, maintained and located by metaphor. Together this means that such art (or such artistic theory and practice) attempts to speak in a chorus, working as a magnetic metaphor for like minds bound by democratic communalism. The voice of the artist (archaeologically flattened to merely represent depth and multiplicity in its chorus effect) is supposedly replaced by the repressed voice of culture and society that cannot find a voice for itself, a voice the artist offers itself for as a medium for its message, which consequently orientates the art as a means to an end where the repressed voice is finally heard and its message acted upon. Such is the painterly picture of political struggle in the arts: a canvas of gaudy brushstrokes pleading honesty, realism and the truth. However, it is this very notion of struggle, of its conceptualisation as a Romantic ideal, that generates the cathartic energy which propels the art, giving it the impression of movement as opposed to stasis. It is, in the truest sense, 'poetry in motion' in that the belief in politically concerned art causing social change in some way or another is a belief based upon the metaphor - not the result - of the political statement. And most unfortunately, yet most pragmatically, negative criticism of politically-concerned art's is levelled at and resultant from its concrete ineffectiveness (caused by its own unawareness of its self-status as image) and not its aspirations and intentions. Thus, another category of 'apolitical' art has to be noted: that which rejects the myth of effectivity that enshrouds so-called politically-concerned art.

One is reminded of the notion of 'the social role of art' and I question: who is the performer? What is the performance? Who plays what role and what for? Obviously intended as a call for realism, 'the social role of art' is an ironically theatrical concept, centring on a moralistic designation for art in an essentialist view, i.e. that part should pay its debt to society and the artist should be a responsible being. But I feel that this view of responsibility is pushed here more to be in keeping with the notion of the artist controlling the meaning(s) in his or her work, in the sense that if one publicly claims to be responsible, one implies that one has control over and of meaning. A further fallacy is also produced, which is the idea that the artist actually understands society in the first place, misrepresenting the subjective (i.e. fragmented and often misinformed) as the objective through the presentation of the art object as a political object.

Art and society are ultimately worlds apart, mainly because change in art is measured by articulation and movement; change in society is measured in its silence and stasis. The power of society is precisely in its dumb silence, watching the artist pitifully distance him or herself from society by the very presence of his or her voice. I deny art as having social value because to do so is to be absurdly moralistic in one's art practice; and irony of all ironies, when liberal-minded moralism of this sort eventually confronts society on its terrrain (on the battleground of naturalism) it gets converted into self-centred fascism. Try your sociological preaching of politically-concerned art concepts in your local supermarket and see what happens. To fully be an artist is to gain a voice at the loss of speech - once you have that voice you're at odds to communicate through silence. OK - so you do Street Theatre in the city mall; you perform your play at lunchtime in factories; you work on a mural project with unemployed kids; or you commune with aborigines in Central Australia. It is not my role to condone or condemn such activities. It is my option to voice a question that we should all ask each other continually - only in order to keep up with the silent stasis of society - "what now?" Politically-concerned art generally holds fast to its originally articulated strategy for social change, stopping short after its artistic gesturing, expecting society to pay heed, pick up cue and do all the actual changing. Society owes artists nothing, and for artists to believe so is a gross misunderstanding of the relation between the two.

It is a real cop-out to call pass for the "what now?" question by claiming that you've "done your bit" or that "Rome wasn't built in a day". Such answers have consistently formulated the intangibility of the political effectivity of art by expanding and extrapolating the relativity of arts and society into the most nebulous of areas. But perhaps what is the more major concern with this dichotomy of political and apolitical art is not so much the art itself (most of which I find it boring and I'm interesting) as it is the theory and criticism that purports to locate it in a certain way, fixing an historical direction for its thrusting power. It joins most criticisms in a methodology of inclusion and exclusion, bolstering the parameters of its ideologically-sound arts, nurtured by the critic's parental concern for such art being made more and more public. But what such a critical voice too often forgets is that its power lies only in its Otherness, and that once such ideologies hegemonically gain power (as in certain contexts they have) their power has to be redefined, re-oriented and redirected. Or, to be crass about it: what to do once there's nothing left to whinge about? The critical arena of socially- and politically-concerned art moans within a context it shouldn't even be in. What has social change through art got to do with the subculture of art theory and criticism in Australia? Or is that subculture needed to give critical consensus of an articulated nature that society itself - in its dumb silence - is unable to deliver? It appears that certain desires are in conflict with certain objectives. Such critics confuse art and reality too often, confusing the 'unreal 'nature of art with an investment with art as a mode of realism having an effect upon reality. Art is seen to either have or lack 'real' substance; to have power in its communicative force or to sit impotent. Implied in such divisions is that the critic is able to gauge the effectivity and measure the relevance of certain art practices - a godly seat if ever there was one. Still, we must neither neglect that socially-orientated art criticism afforded, for awhile, a comparatively more substantial practical form of articulation of art than the flowery ideals hung over from the Romantic tradition of the tortured artist severed from society, struggling for new heights of creative communication. But such comparativity is historically lost, and the then-welcomed 'realism' in the language of art criticism and theorisation has outgrown its welcome, giving rise to questioning how operative and functional the arts - minus its annexed articulation - is today in its current state as impotent linguistic commodities.

Perhaps the articulation has to be changed or reinstated to accept the art for the theatrical state it is now rather then the realist domain it originally was situated in. Perhaps the art itself has to change. Or perhaps a different sort of contextual mechanics has to be sorted out and experimented with. Perhaps certain desires have to be realigned with certain objectives. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Such concerns don't take up too much of my time, although perhaps they should. But they don't. And perhaps they shouldn't. You might talk about art and politics. All I can hear is impotency and moralism. The former I live with and refused to deny. The latter I detest and refuse to acknowledge.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Mao.