Among artists opinions vary. Art has always played a social role, and yet time and again some artists have insisted that art belongs to a sphere of life that is autonomous, separated from the social and the political.
Given that we now live in an interconnected, global world, has the social role of art changed? Has it become more or less important?
Several of our artists are already answering this question in the work they have submitted. Check out our gallery of work on the site that we believe takes on a social or political role.
I strongly believe in using art to discuss Social Issues. Its a form that can teach people in the most receptive manner. As artists we can teach, but also give the viewer a space to form their own opinion. You add another layer of deminsion to your work when your image speaks to the viewer. I'm not saying it should be a clear message, because you lose richness in your work that way, but your work should definitely have a larger purpose.
As it becomes easier to view art from around the world (and publish art that anyone around the world can see), I think the artist is losing her power to say whether her work is political at all. To make this point, I want to look at two artists on EAS.
Mahdi Barajethi's "unerwa" offers an explicitly political piece of art. Literally, the relief bags full of flower and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) video present a political body in action (politics is present in the photograph). Figuratively, the interplay between the actual relief (the bags) and the promotion of the relief (the video) is also political: the promotion hangs above the ruffled and keeling bags of flour, draping them in color on an otherwise empty floor. This is a political argument, a critique of how a political body behaves. Mahdi very clearly wants to make this point, and does.
Alternatively, let's look at one of the pieces by Sydney Lowe -an artist that might want to say something political, but there is no reason to believe that based solely upon the piece itself. Her third photograph down from the top, the single cropped black and white image of a woman, is a perfect example. Literally, this photograph has no political images: there is a middle aged woman of color with her elbows perched upon the bar of a diner, staring off into the distance. Perhaps the choice of black and white film, or the certain way her wrists and hands are pictured as particularly worn, offers a political interpretation. However, this is a stretch at best--a far cry from the explicit political messages Mahdi offers. In sum, I don't necessarily see any reason to view this photograph as political. (If you disagree with me, this is a great place to do so! Why do you think this piece is explicitly political?)
Yet, this photograph is ripe for interpretation, and as more people can view this photograph, the greater number of potential interpretations grows. If you grew up in the 1960s, this photograph could represent the freedom riders, and the state of civil rights today. If you are a philosopher, this could be a comment on challenges of being both a woman and a person of color--the intersection of minority roles in America and the challenges that come with that. If you live in a city, this could reveal the weird and troubling feeling of isolation that you feel even when you're amidst so much activity. My examples are United States-centric, and I do this only because I do not want to pretend to know the potential interpretations of those from other cultures. But my point is that they will see this photograph in their own way--everyone will see this photograph in his or her own way. Sydney has no control over this.
I don't know whether the political role of art has changed, or whether it should change. What I do suspect, though, is that--now more than ever--it is not in the artists hands to determine that answer.
One artistic discipline that is confronting this question has been identified as socially engaged art, or "social practice." In the past five years, this discipline has rapidly received academic and institutional recognition and popularity amongst both artists and their audiences. Pablo Helguera is a pioneer of socially engaged art and his project School of Panamerican Unrest (pictured above) is one of the most far-reaching and enduring public art projects on record. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Art Practical in which he speaks about how he sees this discipline's development:
You know, in truth, it’s not a new thing that social practice suddenly discovered. What I think is happening is an extreme reaction against modern and postmodern notions of the artist as this demigod who comes and reveals the truth to the world and becomes this kind of cult figure. So many people who are working in this realm of socially based work renounced that to the extent that nothing associated with that idea can possibly be admissible.
But this is what I was going to say: What happened is that we started treating social practice as something that’s not even art. Now, we don’t even say the word art. We say, “I’m a social practitioner.” I think it’s very meaningful that we have done that. We are trying to detach from the whole thing. We’re trying to turn it into a technique or maybe into a profession.
That’s a very contradictory thing, because on the one hand, we’re saying we’re amateurs, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re professionals. The problem is that art just can’t be professionalized that way. Because art has a degree of ambiguity that cannot possibly be pinned down, ever.
Whatever you do, what’s powerful about art is that it’s ambiguous. It’s something that has multiple values in different moments and contexts. I always remember what Matthew Barney said once, that “everything that I do, there’s a degree that I don’t want to know about.” I always leave a blank section of questionable aspects of the work that even I don’t understand—that viable room for not making it completely didactic, or completely spelling out exactly what it is.
And that’s a very important thing to preserve, and that is the one thing that no other scientific disciplines have. You don’t do physics just for free expression! The scientific approach is trying to prove something and going through these processes, but in art, you can just say, “I'm going to do this crazy stuff, and nobody knows what it means and it’s okay.”
Pablo Helguera, a pioneer of socially engaged art, has used installation, photography, drawing, writing, musical performance, and large-scale projects as elements of his work. Helguera’s work takes a pedagogic approach to exploring the relationship between art and language, as well as the social dynamics of contemporary art and our daily lives. In addition to his art and music practice, Helguera is Director of Adult and Academic Programs at MoMA, and he formerly served as the Head of Public Programs in the Education department of the Guggenheim Museum.
EAS Contributer Nat Zingg responds with two variations of a Marxist analysis:
Rigid interpretations of Marxist historical materialism (notably in the reactionary theories of an early Trotsky) suggest that the “formal” features of art are subservient to its content (and that all art is just a superstructural reflection of underlying class structure), but revisions to this dogma emerge in the 1920s and 1930s that begin to consider “form” with more seriousness. This next wave of Marxists delves into how formalist decisions might have a politics of their own...
Maddie Blake: Given that we now live in an interconnected, global world, do you think the social role of art has changed recently? Has it become more or less important?
Koshal Hamal: Yes. Since we are dealing with a global world, the social role of art has also changed. Art has become a key medium of communication which mainly deals with the questioning of global themes, rather than creating a specific pure identity of a particular culture or nation. Thus, in order to be more identified in one circle, the role of contemporary art has become more important to unite the globe.
Alejandro Moralesre: Winter Topic: Art and Social Issues
Even when you try not to show a raw, immediate real issue, you are political. An artist can't hide in a position that tries to 'evoke anti-depressant emotions rather than depicting the bleak, hopeless and painful.' What an artist should do is to give tools not to change the reality, but to create new ways of interpretation.