Art Activism: The Assault on Art from Within


I have recently become aware of an unsettling phenomenon at art exhibitions curated around themes of social activism. Although I find myself to a great extent on side with their political leanings, my responses veer from completely unmoved to flat-out exhausted, the work itself quickly forgotten as soon as the last of the vernissage fizz has been opportunistically swilled down. Any glance at the arts calendar reveals that curatorial themes around social justice are far from a rare occurrence, with institutions, funding bodies and sponsors all keen to present a progressive and caring image as part of their brands. With over 200 biennales worldwide, the arts have become fully integrated into marketing campaigns for their host cities, the exhibited work functioning as a filter of political discourse for the wider public. Yet the stirrings of discontent are evident, exemplified by negative reviews of such international arts events as Documenta14. Although garnering a range of responses, the consensus was that the quinquennial caved under the weight of its own guilt, using accusatory art to shame its audience in a configuration both shambolic and alienating.

Employing art for the purposes of activism is nothing new and many artworks of this kind have stood the test of time. Take, for example, the collages of British artist John Heartfield, who became such a powerful critic of Nazi propaganda that he rose to number five on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list. One of the most iconic artworks of the twentieth century, Picasso’s Guernica, depicts the aftermath of bombing by Nazi German and Italian warplanes at the request of Spanish nationalist forces. The painting brought worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War and helped fund Spanish war relief through its touring exhibition. The threat artists pose to the status quo has been acknowledged by many leaders, including Queen Victoria, who once said, “Beware of artists, they mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.” Cases of censorship worldwide provide further evidence as to how those in power understand the potential of artists to influence and disrupt the established order. This begs the question as to why so much current art activism fails. Rather than making us feel on the much-touted right side of history, why do current exhibitions feel more like being cornered by a killjoy at a party?

The Question of Taste

Many complaints about activist art come from those who claim that any noble intentions behind the work are a substitute for quality. The age-old question of how to define artistic worth cannot be easily summarized. Since the art of the twentieth century has deconstructed notions of taste through various avant garde movements, many would dismiss any attempts at definition as futile.

I am not about to propound a fist-clenching all contemporary art is rubbish sentiment. Undoubtedly, much is, but this is also the case with novels published and films produced. The reason these other media don’t elicit calls for a return to oral poetry recitals around the fire (in the way that some demand contemporary art return to more traditional forms) is that people accept that not all films or books are going to be to one’s personal taste—yet exactly the same is true of contemporary art. Furthermore, works incorporating bodily fluids and fecal matter are purposefully selected for their shock factor as examples of contemporary art’s degeneracy. These hereby become representative, giving a distorted view of the wide range of work being made today. In any case, calls for a return to more traditional approaches miss the point that the classics of today caused uproar in their own times. By its very nature, art tends to be at its most interesting and relevant when employing innovative techniques and media, tackling its subject matter in an original way.

Those who state that contemporary art is a free for all and that matters of taste are irrelevant to how a work is valued are being disingenuous. At the very least, unless they fit into the outsider artist category, those making art today have an awareness of art history and their place in it, whether this place constitutes a continuation or annihilation of preceding movements. Today’s artists are expected to reference their place in this history throughout their education, and in any funding proposals or pitches to galleries thereafter. Indeed, if work in any media can be classed as art, then it is often this referencing of art history and concepts alone which allows us to make sense of what we are seeing.

The reliance on language to explain artworks can have a negative impact, though, not least because of the much derided, magniloquent nature of impenetrable artspeak — meta-mechanical rhizomatic permutations, anyone? The requirement to write about art has created an over-dependence on language and rhetoric, which has in turn lead to the creation and curation of artworks that dictate a specific message, rather than allowing the viewer to draw her own conclusions.

The lot of the artist is as precarious today as it ever was. Many artists are supported by funding bodies and institutions that have long maintained a social justice activism agenda. For example, the Arts Council England’s goals include: 1) excellence, 2) access for everyone, 3) resilience and sustainability, 4) diversity and skills, 5) making art available to children and young people. Many worthwhile social projects have been created as a result of these goals, but the downside is that such objectives can create a supply and demand feedback loop. This may lead to the stifling of creativity, as artists attempt to meet funding criteria. The preconceived nature of the creation process may cause the artwork itself to become dictatorial in tone. One reason why the haranguing tone of a lot of art activism is so grating is that such activism contains direct messages—and these are detrimental to the aesthetic experience, recent theories of neuroaesthetics suggest.

The Eight Laws of Artistic Experience

Ramachandran and Hirstein’s eight laws of artistic experience define the ways in which pleasure is gained from viewing an artwork through various modes of perceptual problem-solving. They claim that, through manipulation of features such as symmetry, contrast, repetition and exaggeration, the artwork’s meaning or form is often purposefully rendered elusive. Effective use of the artist’s tools, rather than appeals to rational argument, is what allows the artwork to attract the viewer. This is the result of our neurology. To use a classical example, many nude paintings include the model wearing a small piece of jewelry, as a way to emphasize her nudity by providing a counterpoint to it. The artist may also use composition to employ different constellations of groupings for the viewer to respond to, either on a conscious or subconscious level. According to the theory, the search for understanding in art through interpreting and processing such visual cues is rewarding in itself and produces an aesthetic experience.

Gestalt closure
Gestalt closure, an example of perceptual grouping

The eight laws of artistic experience relate not just to more traditional art forms, such as painting or sculpture, but to media employed by contemporary art. However, in direct contradiction to these principles, opportunities for problem-solving and the pleasure it brings are missing in much activist art of today. An underlying agenda prevents the viewer from coming to any conclusions other than those directly prescribed by the artist. Whilst it is possible for an artwork to take the form of a documentary and still employ Ramachandran and Hirstein’s principles, the increasing preponderance of such films presented in a contemporary arts context reveals that such artistry is barely being employed in many cases, replaced instead by more straightforward reportage.

We live in an age in which being found non-politically correct is considered the greatest sin, particularly within the creative sphere. Rather than risk offence by creating an aesthetic influenced by a different culture—a practice which has always played an important role in the artistic process—many artists prefer to play it safe with verbatim sources or community work when representing marginalized groups. As a result, good art is sacrificed to good intentions.

Take for example Assemble, winners of the 2015 Turner Prize for their Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool. A collective of architects, rather than artists, Assemble launched the Granby Workshop, a social enterprise whereby local residents were trained and employed in making household products that took inspiration from the area’s partly derelict terraces. This is an ethical business model, no doubt—even though a lampshade made out of rubble and sawdust is a depressing sight for anyone outside the art world elite—yet it does not include any of art’s aforementioned pleasure-giving properties.

For once, the winners prompted questions of the is this art? variety not from an outraged tabloid press, but from within the art world itself. In choosing Assemble, the jury made a statement as to what art should be in our present time: utilitarian, benevolent and rooted in social justice. It is almost as though the Turner Prize Jury has become self-loathing: hating art for its decadence, demanding that it get a proper job and deeming it indulgent to even label oneself an artist (no one working in the arts has ever heard that one before). Yet, even if you believe that aesthetic experience is irrelevant and the eight artistic principles hokum, the other question here is whether art can be effective as activism.

Art as Activism

The extent to which art may be effective as activism is difficult to analyze. For one thing, such artworks vary considerably in their media and treatment. Artistic activity and production also take place within a wider culture, where ideas cross-pollinate between different fields of the arts and sciences, making the influence of art alone difficult to isolate and measure. However, we can look at the ways in which activism may potentially function on a theoretical level. In his 2014 essay “On Art Activism,” art critic, media theorist and philosopher Boris Groys outlines the prerequisites for art activism’s success, as he sees them: a combination of design aestheticization and art aestheticization.

Design aestheticization is defined as the improvement of a tool by making it more pleasing to use. This could mean, for example, an update to a smartphone that makes the interface more intuitive, but may also include symbolism associated with a political regime to make it more appealing. To admit that Nazi uniforms and paraphernalia are aesthetically pleasing is considered taboo and even some of our most treasured musicians have been chastised for doing so. Whilst I have nothing but contempt for the nature of Nazi ideology itself, to deny that its symbolism is aesthetically pleasing is to ignore the fact that it was created for that very reason, to seduce the masses into submission. In the context of art activism, design aestheticization would similarly involve enticing the viewer by illustrating a better, more appealing method of functionality for a targeted social system, as with Assemble’s project.

Art aestheticization, on the other hand, is the opposite of design aestheticization: it involves the reduction of a functional object to something dysfunctional and purely for display. The reason for employing this mode, Groys argues, is to critique a current system by presenting it as already dead. He provides as his example the permanent exhibition of Lenin’s corpse, as ordered by Stalin, which Groys claims was designed to kill off any longings for a return to Leninism. He adds that this form of aestheticization is a more effective method of destruction than iconoclasm, since the visibility of the old order and its treatment as a dead object does not allow for any nostalgia. In the artistic sphere, Duchamp’s seminal Fountain employs art aestheticization by transforming the urinal into a dysfunctional, decorative object. This acts as a critique of the art world’s status quo. Duchamp challenges the authority of art institutions and seeks to usurp their power by asserting the autonomy of the artist.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

Art activism, according to Groys, lies at the crossroads of both design aestheticization and art aestheticization. Art activism seeks to improve the present condition through political design, whilst also accepting the failure of the status quo and prefiguring its implosion. This contradictory position is hailed as a good thing and supported by the enigmatic claim that “only self-contradictory practices are true in a deeper sense of the word.” Only art, he writes, is capable of allowing us to envisage a reality outside of our present desires and expectations.

In order to test this hypothesis, we can take as an illustrative example Dutch artist Renzo Martens’ documentary film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. Made in 2008, it follows Martens as he travels to the Congolese interior. The artist convinces a group of local photographers to profit in the same manner that he claims Western media and foreign aid agencies do, by exploiting misfortune by selling images of suffering. The film involves scenes in which Martens coldly instructs the natives how to take the best photos of starving children so that their ribs jut out. When the project inevitably fails, the artist arranges a party, erecting a neon sign stating Enjoy Poverty and bluntly tells the locals that, since they cannot improve their lot, they should learn to enjoy it. Martens employs art aestheticization as his methodology, showing that the present status quo is doomed to failure. Representing the white Westerner with a Messiah complex, the artist wades in to fix a problem, but leaves behind only shattered hopes and dreams.

However, the problem with this kind of activism is that it states the obvious and only succeeds in perpetuating the same modes it sets out to lambaste—the voyeuristic nature of viewing others’ suffering. If this is what art aestheticization means, it is difficult to see how it could be effective. Martens is the star of the show and his co-stars are reduced to stooges he exploits in order to meet his artistic goals. That the artist does this self-knowingly does not change the fact that his actions are unethical.

In the second part of the project, the Congolese plantation workers are taught to make clay models, which Martens scans so that they can be cast in chocolate and sold by his gallery. Here, design aestheticization is employed to provide a new line of work from which the locals can profit. This is a rather forced scenario, which I presume was concocted so that the tale could have a happy ending. However, there have only been severely limited sales of the sculptures since the project began—insufficient to generate meaningful revenues for the former plantation workers. Whilst it’s up to the viewer to decide whether the work fails as art, Martens’ mask of irony cannot hide the fact that it does not function as activism. The spectacle of poverty is consumed by the Western viewer, and the art world system remains unchallenged.

Herein lies a common problem of art activism: it often involves work conceived by comparatively wealthy Westerners that includes the marginalized people those Westerners claim to be helping. By maintaining control of the narrative, the artist often achieves very little in the way of change and the exercise becomes merely one of virtue-signaling. Given the ability of social media to connect people and raise support for good causes, art activism today often appears a futile gesture. Usually engaging only a small segment of society, it often lacks the tools needed to influence people on a mass scale. In our everyday lives, we are bombarded by increasingly partisan messages and the continuation of this onslaught into the gallery space is fatiguing. If it is the place of art to go against the mainstream, as Groys suggests in his definition of art aestheticization, then ironically art activism fails in this. Criticism of the status quo is exactly what is expected of today’s artists.

The Useful  Uselessness of Art  

Much work of this kind is made on the premise that if the state funds art, then it is the artist’s place to criticize the state. We might argue that funding given to artists by the government or other bodies makes the artist a propagandist of those institutions, wittingly or unwittingly—but this is a circular logic which traps the artist in an inescapable feedback loop. It means that the current political order dictates the boundaries of the artwork. This does nothing for artistic expression and disallows a variety of possibilities for the work’s interpretation.

Many art activists would no doubt oppose Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum that “all art is quite useless,” yet to do so would be to miss the nuances of his fuller later statement: “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct or influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.” In the same way that many seemingly useless activities provide an essential opportunity for the brain to process information, art can influence us through sensory stimulus.

Many art activists do not appreciate the power of art at all. It is the artist’s skill in managing his media and subject that can affect people and allow him to bestow a unique vision of the world and reveal insights that go beyond carefully worded arguments. That is not to say that art should not be political, but rather that art offers the possibility to engage with the political in a unique way. Entering into the artist’s space allows us to reassess prejudices or allegiances, no matter what political identity the viewer may have. However, this aim is defeated when art activism holds up a mirror to its viewers, making them hyper-aware of their social identities and appealing to the audience’s sense of tribalism.

Critic Jan Verwoert has provided some insights into to why contemporary art has become so self-conscious. For Verwoert, art can be divided into three phases: the gift, the delivery and the best. During the gift, the artist is absorbed by her creative process, driven by the feeling she has something to share. The freedom to follow instinct and spontaneity during this phase is under threat when considerations regarding how to tailor a work in order to obtain funding are given too much credence.

The delivery is the seduction of the viewer by the artist when the work is exhibited. It is also here that, in today’s climate, art has come unstuck. Verwoert argues that audiences have become so jaded by attempts at seduction via mass media saturation that, rather than wishing for submission, we find ourselves suspicious. Yearning only to be untouchable, this state of being above emotional manipulation is the ultimate desired position, what he refers to as the best.

As Verwoert sees it, art has lost its fun in an attempt to get around the mistrust of the viewer. Exhibitors present work to appeal to reasoning and vanity, rather than providing seduction via aesthetics. The viewers are given only a reflection of their own interests in the artwork, flattering their group identity, rather than transporting them into another way of experiencing the world. Furthermore, as we are no longer allowed to indulge ourselves, without social pressure to feel duped or ashamed of our privilege, then in order to be made to feel something, we are given the worst instead. As in Groys’ theory of art aestheticization, we see the defunctionalization of the functional, the presentation of the status quo as already dead. This all leads to an art that dare not be art any more, lest it be accused of manipulation or exploitation. In its place, there is a cynical double bluff at play. The viewer is always made aware of the frameworks within which art operates and how he himself is complicit in their continuation.

The ritualistic element of art isn’t entirely lost, but takes on a dimension outside of the artwork itself—in the social events of openings or tour groups visiting a show, the sharing of selfies on social media, and, in more elite circles, the consumption of copious amounts of hard drugs. The art itself plays second fiddle to the social setting of the work and its function as PR for the progressive ideals of the city or institution it has been chosen to represent.

One way in which contemporary art may come to terms with the issues discussed here is through a metamodernist approach. Whilst attempts to describe the movement remain somewhat vague, the 2011 metamodernist manifesto defines metamodernism as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.” In other words, it is possible to be sincere and ironic at once; meta-narratives exist but are not entirely, inherently bad; we can recognize the limitations of art and the art world, yet still engage with the viewer sincerely. To use Verwoert’s terminology, this enables the artist to once again bring the gift to the viewer via the delivery in order to achieve the best. Metamodernism proposes a way for this process to occur even if everyone is fully conscious that this is what is happening. Whilst it may be argued that to even make such a concession to political and social frameworks is to dilute the power that art has in its own right, the metamodernist approach could provide a way to deliver art from the impasse of a back and forth dialogue rooted in social justice. In addition, the employment of the artist’s tools that Ramachandran and Hirstein describe could allow the viewer space to arrive at his own conclusions, rather than being subjected to the oppressive, one-sided nature of the art activism that has been allowed to come to prominence.

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  1. Glad to read this. It appears to me that far too that much of what is exhibited as politically engaged art is neither good art nor sincere activism. As you mention, John Heartsfield’s work is an example of genuine political art. However I think it is important to point out that he was not British. He was born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld and was forced to flee Berlin in 1933 after being beaten by Nazi supporters. He fled to Prague where he continued his anti-fascist efforts (this according to Wikipedia and https://www.johnheartfield.com/John-Heartfield-Exhibition/helmut-herzfeld-john-heartfield/artist-john-heartfield-biography).

  2. I’ve long thought that art has become a pious ritual for the middle classes. Religion has died but its impulses remain, so sermons and self-flagellation have been replaced with a detached sort of self-abasement by attending galleries filled with ever more abstruse (and therefore enlightening!) references to the sins of Western civilisation. I feel as though we could equip gallery attendees with little whips to lightly rap their own backs whenever they had looked at abstract pile of objects representing colonisation or similar, and they’d go along with it without a trace of irony.

  3. as a painter I’ve long struggled with the idea of presenting a clear, complex narrative and messaging in a stactic visual piece without it being shoved down the viewer’s throats and/or requiring additional explanation to be understood. I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s extremely difficult, and even at the hands of masters it appears to be a clunky proposition. take Guernica above: without knowing from it having been explained to me before in books and art history class, would I be able to discern it’s meaning based solely on the image? I would probably have a vague notion that it’s anti violence, and I might even conclude from that that it’s about the horrors of war. but which war? and why? and on which side -if any- of this conflict do Picasso’s sympathies lie? I would have to have all of that explained to me by somebody. fortunately Picasso was one of the most celebrated painters in the world, so all that information would be fairly easy to find. but if he weren’t, I’d surely be lost, and my interest in the piece would be largely aesthetic. yet that was not the intention.

    it’s telling that such literal communication was not Pablo’s typical mode of operation. for the most part he, as most artists of his time, dwelled largely in vague feelings writ broadly, and things that are difficult to capture in mere words. I can’t really tell you what The Old Guitarist or Nude Descending a Staircase says to me. they definitely say something very clearly to me, but I could write a dozen paragraphs on what that is and still only capture a shadow of what it says to me. the ideas being expressed there are not the domain of words and linear thinking. they are more subtle than that. and that’s what a single static image is equipped to convey.

    they can also just capture a moment in time, and the viewer can connect that to common understanding and discern that it’s a famous moment, or associated with one. but it can’t tell you very much about that moment other than how it’s subjects felt about it. or you can break the image up into several images and create a sequence. with that you can really build up a context, BUT… why not just write a graphic novel at that point? that would get your ideas out to more people, and would allow you to be more literalistic. and especially if that sequence takes the form of a series, what happens when that series is broken up (sold, pieces lost, ignored, what have you)? then context gets lost. we all love the final section of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but few people would even recognize the first two parts of that triptych, and crucially, the reasons we love the hell section so much are probably in direct opposition to the artist’s intention. which again shows how hard it is to communicate effective polemics in static images.

    some artists try adding words to the equation. this lends itself to labeling things, and very quickly takes on the unnuanced character of a political cartoon or propaganda. and now you’re well into beating the viewer over the head with your ideas. all of this, it seems to me, is trying to make static visual art covey things it’s not very well equipped to convey, while putting to the side the things that it conveys better than any other form. and I was told by a lot of my peers that it’s an artist’s duty to be political in their art. this is not quite true: it is an artist’s *perogative* to be political, but it’s not a duty. if it is, then it is a forlorn hope, because it’s not something you can reasonably expect very many artists to accomplish very well.

    personally, I bypass all of that. my ideal for my art if for it to sit in someone’s home and give them something to take their mind of their hectic day, sit and contemplate, find a moment’s peace, and to inspire them in some way that words can’t quite define. I have a hard time understanding why a person would want to look at a polemic piece every single day, and I expect most people wouldn’t, and that such a piece would find it’s way into an attic after the initial novelty has worn off.

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