Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Russell Smith: Do not be afraid to doubt the political power of art

Across U.S. media, artists and critics seem to be united in the idea that the role of artists in the United States must be to "resist."

"Countering the brutalism of the new Performance Artist-in-Chief may demand an artistic resistance that goes beyond galleries," Salon wrote. "The challenge for artists will be to remain vigilant against each new threat," The New Yorker wrote, "and, where warranted, to meet it with a refusal as energetic as the last." Step up, artists, the line goes. Embrace your social responsibility. Help smash the conservative stranglehold on public policy.

It's not exactly clear how this is to happen. The same inspiring examples of political art are usually trotted out: Picasso's painting Guernica, for example, which depicted the horror of a bombing raid on a small Spanish town by fascists. It is true that this painting became very famous, but it is also true Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War and ruled Spain for 36 years. The painting's military value was perhaps a more useful question to the people of Spain at the time.

Story continues below advertisement

There are more recent examples of art that has united and probably aided popular resistance movements. The blood-red Solidarity logo of Poland, for example, designed by Jerzy Janiszewski, was so graphically powerful, it no doubt helped spread word of the labour-union movement around the world. Dramatic emblems are genuinely helpful to causes in need of passion. A compelling image on a poster may well attract those who are politically undecided to join a side.

A more recent example is the 2008 "Hope" poster of Barack Obama, designed by Shepard Fairey. It, too, was such a powerful image, with an inspiring word on it, that it may well have attracted supporters to Obama's cause. Aesthetics are important in politics as in everything else, and excellent flags and anthems unite.

The kind of contemporary art being demanded and praised by activists and pundits is generally similarly graphical. Comic strips describing the deprivations of a racist/sexist state, and other text-image combinations are coming in for a lot of praise (check out, for example, an anthology of feminist drawings called Resist!).

Not all art can be as simple as a logo or poster, however, and art that is subtle or complex does not tend to reach people who are not seeking it out. Most of the political art being discussed in the pages of magazines – art made by gallery artists, classical composers or poets – will be seen by people who were not likely supporters of Donald Trump to start with.

This does not make it worthless, either politically or artistically: Just as marches and demonstrations serve to boost the morale of those feeling powerless, there is nothing wrong with art that reassures members of a political group that its values are widely held. Its effect is psychologically uplifting to those who are already convinced. That's great, but it does little to affect policies put in place by a president's executive order. For that, I would rather control a single congressional committee than a whole raft of graphic-novel publishers.

This is a highly sensitive topic on the left these days. To critique protest art is to be seen to be questioning opposition itself; it makes one look like a traitor to all that is progressive.

So when doubts are raised by the critical community about the pressures to make anti-Trump cartoons, they tend to be extremely cautious, polite and subtle to the point of being veiled. I suspect that is what was going on in a recent review of a show on 1980s art by The New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl. The review is of a retrospective going on at the Whitney that includes the great stars of the red-hot New York 1980s art scene – the scene that generated Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Peter Halley, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This was a scene that is often remembered with some distaste by contemporary critics, as it was the beginning of the insanity over prices for contemporary works. It was the time when word would spread among the superrich about some hotshot young artist and mad, non-art-related investor speculation would begin. Some would call it a bubble. Many of its stars – Julian Schnabel in particular – were denounced as frauds by critics of the time.

Story continues below advertisement

Schjeldahl, an erudite and eloquent critic, is enthusiastic about this show, and this itself is somewhat contrarian in a time that condemns egotistical millionaire male artists. He remembers "the sensuous, cheeky and grand efflorescence in the painting of the eighties." He even looks fondly on a Julian Schnabel. And then comes the subtle critique of more overtly committed art. "The next generation of leading artists took up themes of multiculturalism and identity politics, with audience-oriented sculptural and photographic installations."

Without dismissing this development, Schjeldahl does not seem enthusiastic about it. He seems nostalgic for the individualist nature of painting – he misses the solitary artist, a heroic figure that is distinctly unpopular in much postcolonial and postmodernist theory – and warns, "It's harder now than it was then to stand out from the crowds that are marshalled by our politics and shepherded by much of our culture."

Yikes. If you are not versed in the politics of contemporary art criticism, you will not realize what a provocative statement that is. That is a challenge to the art-as-activism movement. It is brave to question being "marshalled by politics," as that is what it seems that we are all supposed to do. Schjeldahl will no doubt come under fire for having an ivory-tower approach. But I suspect many more will, in time, like him, grow tired of the idea that the only role for artists right now is to make angry posters. Art can be great propaganda, but it can be other things, too.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨