"Political" Art: A Failed Project

by Allison Hewitt Ward

Lessons from the 2016 US Election

Days before the 2016 presidential election Beyoncé, Jay-Z and a gamut of other celebrities appeared onstage with Hillary Clinton for a political rally-cum-concert. Beyoncé and her ensemble, all in pantsuits, performed her hit Formation for an excited crowd. The implication being, quite obviously, that it’s time to get in formation behind Hillary and the Democratic Party. A pop song lauded upon its release for its subversive celebration of black female power was deployed in service of a politician who advocated welfare reform in which single mothers who couldn’t name their child’s father were rendered ineligible for aid. No one seemed to notice the irony.

This endorsement may be easy to write off if what is at stake is the political activities of artists today. But for many Americans who are shy to distinguish between high and low art, Beyoncé is without a doubt an important artist. And she’s not the only one to declare #ImWithHer. In August, Larry Gagosian co-hosted a benefit auction with Chelsea Clinton for the campaign, with works donated by heavy-hitters Jeff Koons, Sara Sze, Chuck Close and Barbara Kruger, among others. Deborah Kass and Carrie Mae Weems are among several artists to have issued artworks-as-endorsements. And even more artists, while not explicitly endorsing Clinton, have taken up the facile task of lampooning Donald Trump. Perhaps most notable is Kruger’s New York Magazine cover, the “Dewey defeats Truman” of our moment.

Donald Trump enjoyed no such endorsements. But Donald Trump won.

The most important artists and cultural producers of our time sided unequivocally with Hillary Clinton, that is, with the status quo, with more of the same. It should come as no surprise that their efforts failed to sway the election for the Democrats. They were talking to themselves and each other. They did nothing to address the real conditions that gutted the livelihoods of so many Americans and propelled Trump to victory.

The effective slogan of the vast majority of the political art of the past 50 years has been more of the same, but slightly better! This folly is not limited to American artists. Leading up to the Brexit vote, Wolfgang Tillmans created several free-to-download posters and t-shirts favoring the Remain campaign. It had all the trappings of a 21st-century darling of an art project: political involvement, ambitions of popular efficacy, participation and free distribution. It failed, however, to sway the vote. What Tillmans offered was the status quo with good design. The working class has had it with the status quo, well designed or otherwise. They are desperate for change.

The best art of modernity sublimated these desperate desires. It confronted the world we live in with the possibility, however remote, of another one. The art of today has abandoned this project. It has failed to express the possibility of freedom. In its place we have an orange businessman of dubious acumen with a terrible hairdo.


The Paradigm of the '60s

The blame for the failure of art does not lie squarely at the feet of its practitioners. It is a symptom—much like this election—of nearly a century of political regression. But that does not render artists, critics and curators blameless. For half a century, we have operated under the mandate of the late modern art and artist-as-activist model of the 1960s: it set a course for emancipatory art through the ideals of participation, popular access to institutions, explicit relevance of works of art and the inclusion of women and persons of color in the artistic canon.

Groups like the Art Workers Coalition and Black Emergency Cultural Coalition formulated a model of the artist as political actor and the museum as public square. They realized that social ills and class relationships were reproduced in their institutions, and sought to address them in turn. These artists were keenly aware of labor struggles and positioned themselves in solidarity with the global working class. They aligned themselves with the efforts of the civil rights and women’s movements and sought to extend the terrain of those efforts into the public museum. At the same time, artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt created works that formulated an active viewer. The passive, contemplative viewer born alongside modernist art was eclipsed by a kinetic, embodied political subject.

In the 1980s the paradigm of the '60s was transformed by the culture wars. While artists continued imagine themselves and their viewers as political actors, the political content was drained from their work and replaced by the assertion of personal or group identity. The right wing reaction against works like Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio only served to enforce arts worker’s conviction of their political import. Action was collapsed into representation: the image of an identity other than the norm was conceived as itself a political gesture. We see this tendency take form in the emergence of Group Material’s AIDS activism and hit its zenith in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. It is telling that subversive political art was born protesting museums, went on to find alternative homes, and was eventually embraced and championed by the very institutions it once turned against. (Such is the dynamic of the Culture Industry.)

Let me be clear: it is not my intention to denigrate the efforts of artists in the 1960s or 1980s. These artists made work that expressed their moments in important and challenging ways. The problem is that 50 years later, artists still operate under the same ideals, now deformed and bankrupt of content. The election of Donald Trump demonstrates that this model is overripe to the point of rottenness. Its time has passed.


The failed project

Are we to accept that the field of artistic production—unique in its capacity to butt up against the world as it is and imagine a world as it should be—offers only an endorsement for a political stalwart? Are we to accept that a reactionary buffoon of a man has better expressed the desire for something, anything, other than what is given, better than any artwork produced in our lifetimes?

Are we to continue to insist that our products have agency when all evidence indicates that they do not? Take for instance Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 Gramsci Monument, which was far more successful at bringing white liberals uptown to the Bronx than it was at meaningfully engaging the residents of the housing project that it occupied. It was popular precisely because it proposed a pragmatic and aesthetic intervention in the daily lives of impoverished working class people. The fact that it didn’t even come close to delivering on this proposal barely damaged its reputation.

Or consider the numerous attempts on behalf of museums and other arts institutions to exhibit art that is socially-engaged and accessible to the people. What have these accomplished other than a boon to tourism?

Of course, it is not only the field of artistic production that has an uncertain future in Trump’s America. This election has dealt a damning blow to the project of neoliberalism. So it should come as no surprise that the paradigm of the late sixties, so similar to the identitarian slogans of neoliberalism, was impotent in the face of the frustrations and desire for qualitative change stirred by Trump’s campaign. The field of art lost sight of alternative worlds some time ago.

Arts workers are not responsible for Trump's victory. But they have been complicit in reproducing the conditions from which it arose. As we evaluate the results of this election and prepare for the yet unknown transformation to come, one thing is clear: we do not need more political art. Political art has failed. It recommended a neoliberal hawk and left us with right-wing bigot. Art has insisted for decades now that it is politically important, that it is a ground for radicalism, that it desires to, and can, change the world. These claims are false.

We do not need more “political” art. We need better art, art that is challenging, critical and uncomfortable, art that provokes instead of soothes. We need to drain the swamp and reevaluate our field. We have a choice: will we continue to impotently champion a social and political reality that has failed us time and again? Or will we dare to imagine something, anything, different.


Barbara Kruger's cover for  New York Magazine's  2016 election issue.

Barbara Kruger's cover for New York Magazine's 2016 election issue.

Deborah Kass,  Vote Hillary , 2016.

Deborah Kass, Vote Hillary, 2016.

Wolfgang Tillmans, post from  EU Campaign , 2016.

Wolfgang Tillmans, post from EU Campaign, 2016.

Artists Attack MoMA , published in the  East Village Other , January 1969.

Artists Attack MoMA, published in the East Village Other, January 1969.

Thomas Hirschhorn,  Gramsci Monument,  2013.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013.

Donald Trump's victory speech, via CNN.

Donald Trump's victory speech, via CNN.