POLITICAL ART/ART AND POLITICS: Part One.
Political Art as a category or genre of art history in the West is generally associated with the 1960s. A Marxist theoretical agenda gave it shape, form and legitimacy even if many who practiced or experienced it were hardly experts in political economy or understood the fine points of communist ideology. In the 1950s the world entered an era of apparently suffocating conformity dominated by the triumph of US politics and economy in the post-war era. This produced a generation of children who had known comfort and security – the first generation to have done so en masse for some time. In response, they turned against the mode of life and ideologies of their parents. This phenomenon first crystallised in Europe, but the same processes emerged in the US, Australia and elsewhere. One of the outcomes of US post-war triumphalism was a series of vicious post-colonial wars (most destructively in Vietnam), the rise of consumerism and mindless conformity at home, and the struggles of non-whites against the position of subordination and exploitation they had experienced for generations. The legacy of slavery within the US, the position of indigenous people in settler colonies (Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand) and the sense of revulsion against the imminent threat of nuclear catastrophe played a part in the emergence of new political movements around the world in the 1960s.
France was the hotbed of the new revolutionary consciousness and the idea of political art emerged from this matrix. Art as an expression “of the people” rather than “of the elites” linked to socialist ideologies which went back to the Russian Revolution and was inspired to a degree by the same writings: Marx, Lenin and others. Among the most famous of the Leftist students in Paris was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, generally known as “Danny the Red”. He took a leading role in articulating the relation between Western capitalist society and political and social oppression, and remains a vivid presence in French intellectual circles today, now known for his environmental activism.
“Danny the Red” in 1968. Source: Haaretz, Israel, April 11, 2014. http://www.haaretz.com
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now “Danny the Green”. The Independent, London. Saturday 13th June 2009.
The young people caught up in the revolutionary sentiments of the 60s and 70s regarded a new popular form of art as an integral part of their revolutionary commitment. In Paris where politics was being played out daily and dramatically in pubic places students took over art studios and printing shops and produced a range of posters which appeared overnight on streets and buildings.
“Workers Unite: French and Immigrant” “Be Young and Shut Up”
Students riot on the rue Gay-Lussac, Paris, 23 May 1968. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone/Getty Source: The Observer, McKenzie Wark Review.
View an 8 minute video from French National Archives summarising the key elements of the confrontation between police and students in May 68.
Following the failure of the revolution, the political movement in France splintered. Ideology, tactics, and the mysterious role of particular individuals (especially Louis Althusser, prime theoretician of the student Left movement) resulted in the loss of any coherent platform or any means of continuing the struggle. The difference between political forms in the late 1960s and the mid-1970s was remarkable. Many subgroups and movements quickly emerged. Some attempted to overthrow the system through violence – including the first terrorist movements such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Brigadi Rossi (Red Brigades) in Italy.
Later, peaceful groups maintained opposition to the system through cultural processes. The “Situationists Internationale” (The International Situationists) took their inspiration from the earlier cultural movements of the twenties and thirties, especially the dadaists and surrealists. They developed a contemporary style of communication which used cartoon and graphic novel styles to try to analyse why the revolution had failed. They did not want to “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the bourgeois classes) but to work out what had gone wrong with Leftist theory. They combined a Marxist-style political analysis with a libertarian commitment. Theories which emerged from this movement included those of Guy Debord, who wrote presciently of The Society of the Spectacle, and Jean Baudrillard, who focussed attention on how media created reality, especially in his best-known early books The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972).
Other forms of art which became popular in the sixties and afterwards included abstraction, pop art, installations and happenings. These challenged the conventional gallery-based form of art, almost by definition, but political art needed to go further and directly challenge oppressive and anti-revolutionary social forms.
An enduring result has been a continuing tendency to identify and support forms of art which can be clearly understood as anti-normative. Social movements of the 70s and 80s led into some clearly articulated programs aimed at raising consciousness of moral and ideological issues otherwise suppressed or hidden by social normativity. One of the most powerful and pervasive was the rise of feminist art, or rather, forms of art which challenged the idea of patriarchal domination and demanded recognition and legitimation of feminine experience from a woman’s point of view. Art of course had for centuries been mainly the preserve of men, and women (and children) appeared as subjects of art, not creators of it. The feminist art movement demanded not just the inclusion of women as artists in their own right, but the recognition of women’s experience as a legitimate topic of art. Gay and Lesbian rights movements, the rise of AIDS, the position of immigrants and people of colour and recognition of the rights of the disabled also provided the ground against with a politically committed art could emerge. These elements remain today.
However the question of what is political in art has become far more complex. Theories of the 60s and 70s for instance identified all activities associated with warfare and militarism as an aspect of patriarchal class domination. War and violence were seen as part of masculine culture, to be challenged and rejected by all who sought a more just society. Those who experienced the expression of US imperialism, in particular, were cast as victims and if they were to play a role in this social construction of morality, it would be through their suffering. But the black and white clarity of such a view has faded to Fifty Shades. Contemporary art has moved beyond the simple dichotomies which made it so easy to identify “political art” in earlier decades. The question “What is political art” today is very hard to respond to.
Our analytical understanding of the image world, for instance, might suggest that now there is never anything but political art. Advertising offers an endless cornucopia of imagery directed at constituting our collective self-identities as consumers rather than citizens. Consumption and material signs of affluence have become central to the idea of art itself. Even if we reject the idea of advertising as a form of art (but how can we, when we consider for instance the fantastic creativity which goes into the photographic representation of luxury goods) the meaning of art, especially for its practitioners, has become relentlessly commercial. Artists are graded according to what their work will fetch in the market. A complex and immensely valuable infrastructure supports the circulation of fine art especially. (Isaac Julien explores this issue through his own art (below) and I will discuss the commodification of high art in a later piece].
To clarify the transformations in the concepts of political art from a feminist viewpoint it is interesting to compare the work of two very different women artists working across the period from the 1960s to the present. Nancy Spero throughout her long career created art works which directly challenged the injustices and insults suffered by the victims of US aggression in Vietnam, but went on to express, in dramatic forms, the cruelties and unfairness experienced by women throughout Western history. In contrast, An-My Lê, originally a Vietnamese refugee, focusses on military might and images of warfare from a much more nuanced point of view, creating remarkable images of the aesthetics of militarism.
“Fuck you/Merde”. 1960, gouache and ink on paper.
Photograph: Nancy Spero @ Pompidou
“I have deliberately attempted to distance my art from the Western emphasis on the subjective portrayal of individuality by using a hand-printing and collage technique utilizing zinc plates as an artist’s tool instead of a brush or palette knife. Figures derived from various cultures co-exist in simultaneous time … the figures themselves could become hieroglyphs – extensions of a text denoting rites of passage, birth to old age, motion and gesture … Woman as activator or protagonist dancing in procession, elegiac or celebrator a continuous presence engaged directly or glimpsed peripherally; the eye, as a moving camera, scans the re-imaging of women.”
Nancy Spero from an unpublished 1989 statement by the artist entitled “The Continuous Presence”.
Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was a well known New York City artist whose career spanned the years of the 1960s and 70s and stretched into the 2000s. Throughout this time she expressed a consistent political awareness and, working mainly in more ephemeral forms, remained an active participant in an art world which over time moved on beyond her primary commitments. Like a number of other women artists, she was married to an artist, Leon Golub, with whom she on occasion collaborated. His profile was at first far higher than hers and as was customary for the era from the 1940s-1960s she took second place to him, ran his home and looked after the children. But in later years, Leon Golub has been almost completely forgotten, whereas Nancy Spero went on making her remarkable and challenging art works into old age. She was a well-known activist strongly engaged with contemporary political and cultural affairs. She was also one of the pioneers in the representation of women’s personal and intimate experiences, including the delerious pleasures of birth and the cycles of life. Throughout her career she mostly worked on paper, using not only gouache and ink but also handprint and printed collage. This seems to have been a deliberate rejection of the oil-on-canvas forms of art, perhaps repudiating patriarchal conventions.
In the late 1950s-1960s she and her husband moved to Italy. She began to express interest in modernist representations of the human form, using narrative and art historical themes, even though Abstract Expressionism was then becoming the main trend in contemporary art. She was also exposed to and interested in the format, style and mood of Etruscan and Roman frescos and other antiquarian objects. She painted a series titled Black Paintings, depicting mythic themes including lovers, prostitutes and hybrid human-animal forms. In the 1950s she worked on a series on the theme of mothers and children. These heavy, blocked works look strong and contemporary today.
Mother and Children, 1956.
Returning to New York she was influenced by the images of Vietnam on television, and this led to her War Series (1966-70). These were small gouaches and inks on paper, showing the obscene destructiveness of war. The published pictures of her work of this period is fascinating in its simple schematism and sketchy mark making. While some images were over-blown and unsubtle (Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ 1968), others expressed a tentative grasp of the suffering in Vietnam without preaching (Helicopter and Victims 1968).
Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ Helicopter and Victims
By the 1970s she, like most other politically active women, switched her attention to women and their representation in various media. Torture in Chile (1974) and Torture of Women, 1976 – a long scroll 125 feet in length – wove oral testimonies with images of women through history. Notes in Time on Women was another long scroll (210 feet), and again in The First Language (1979-81) she created a series of hand-printed, painted and collaged figures as a kind of “cast of characters”. By 1988 she developed wall installations, where printed images were moved directly onto the walls of museums and public spaces. Her wall paintings in Chicago, Vienna, Dresden, Toronto and elsewhere continued to focus on the validity of female experience.
Victimage to Liberation
By the 1990s her style had undergone a complete turnaround. Rich and complex, sometimes reflective of art of the ancient world (e. g. The Flautist, 1995) her work in the 90s took on more certainty and determination.
In older age, her work continued to focus on themes of power and war. One recent project created installations based on small images of headsblown up and printed on aluminium, the metal prints then being cut out and suspended.
She died in 2009 at the age of 83. Her political commitment was expressed in the US press after her death, especially her anti-war activism and commitment to raising the status of women artists in a male art world. A retrospective of her work was shown at the Serpentine Gallery in London (6 March 2011), featuring a lifetime of work which questions the artist’s duty in response to violence and suffering.
Her recurrent themes were evident in this show. Iconic feminist figures: Lilith, Medusa, the siren, the harpy, the Celtic fertility symbol with its open vulva were torn from their time and place and placed in conjunction in a delirious feminist chorus of “we are all here now”. One of her more recent works, Azur, consisted of an entire wall covered with panels assembled in a massive frieze showing vestal virgins, Egyptian goddesses, porn stars and women being tortured.
Azur, Centre Pompidou Museum Publicity October 2010
She is sometimes compared with Louse Bourgeois. Both were married to more famous men, and both were rejected by the mainstream. Spero was not just an outsider, but much of her work looks like “outsider art”. The thematics of anti-war and pro-feminism are pushed very far in her work, although there is also demonstration of great subtlety and intelligence.
One critic, Laura Cumming, commented that her less overtly political work is her best. Perhaps this is because overtly political work itself no longer has a positive place in contemporary art, at least in comparison to its earlier dominance. Assessment of work so clearly connected with a life-long political commitment, anti-war and pro-feminist, is difficult today especially as the work itself seems rather obvious and its themes generally outmoded or at least by-passed. While there are many admirably aesthetic and socially interesting elements, it becomes increasingly difficult not to turn aside with a degree of irritation at the obviousness of the imagery and its implications. The viewer today is inclined to say: well yes, obviously…
An example of a very different form of political art, although with some common sources, is the work of Vietnamese-American photogapher An-My Lê. She was born in Saigon in 1960. Her family managed to leave Vietnam in 1975 as refugees and were resettled in the US. Today she identifies as Vietnamese-American and lives and works in New York, but has continued her connection with Vietnam. Her work is stimulating and unexpected. She examines war and its consequences, using elements of traditional documentary photography, frequently in conjunction with re-enactment. At first it is hard to see just where she is coming from with her work. On the one hand she seems to be looking at war as an historical event, showing the full panoply of military power through hardware and organisation, but in another way she forces a kind of beauty and aesthetic pleasure out of this normally severe and patriotic topic. In her on-going series “Events Ashore” – begun in 2005 and continuing – she documents her travels with the armed forces as they move to different sites of operation.
“Tanks” from Small Wars 2001
From jungle warfare training in Indonesia to shipboard scenes her images remind us of the immense global circulation of people, resources, power and capital which continue unabated from year to year. Her eye captures strange moments and juxtapositions: a soldier in uniform sits patiently next to a Buddhist nun in Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship, Mercy, Vietnam (2010). This brilliant shot shows their equivalence in spite of their divergence. Both are bald, or almost so. Both sit facing the camera with their hands crossed in their laps. Both are silent – because no doubt they cannot speak to each other, yet there is a companionable kind of communication going on here.
Patient Admission, Hospital Ship, Vietnam 2010.
Although she shows military images which can be recognised at once as part of the canon of military representations in modern warfare, she also documents humanitarian missions such as those to Ghana and Senegal, relief efforts in Haiti, an aircract carriers deployed to Afghanistan and eventless days on a passage through the Suez Canal.
Beach Landing, Haiti, 2010
Her earlier work consists of careful and very traditionally shot photographs – relying on old style cameras using film resulting in the kind of picture which harks back to the golden days of black and white and to the visual or topographic documentary function of the photographer. Her work is now widely shown in the US, although there is little information available about her current reception in Vietnam.
Small Wars (Ambush 11) 1999-2002
Her photographs range from expansive to intimate, with machines dwarfed by vast landscapes in an expressive beauty. Her work has a debt to old-style landscape and portrait photography, expertly printed in a middle-gray scalereminiscent of Robert Adams. Returning to Vietnam in 1999 she expressed ideas of a lost homeland, evoking smell, memory, childhood stories and connection to war in the landscape. The alarming beauty of modern warfare, experienced by combatants wherever they are, is never far from her lens.
Small Wars: Tracers Source: http://www.aperture.org/shop/books/small-wars
Her Vietnam images do not document relics but engage the viewer with Lê’s own struggle to reconcile memories of her childhood in Vietnam with the landscape which now exists. In many of her photographs, calm tropical scenes are intersected by disturbing images which might be dive-bombing planes but are instead birds, while fires in the fields and structures on construction sites recall the presence of massacres, graves and napalm. In this way, Lê is using photography to trace a memorial landscape which does not any longer exist but which has left its traces as much in her mind’s eye as in the camera’s lens. This is an imaginative creation of a different kind of war photography.
At the end of this project she became aware of the existence of Vietnam War re-enactors in North Carolina who restage battles as well as the daily life and training of soldiers – both ex-Viet Cong and US forces. She photographed and participated in Vietnam War battles for four summers. Both documentary and staged, the work is conceptually rigorous and fascinating. Re-enacting soldiers sit for portraits and battle compositions reproduce classic war photojournalism.  These men have a passion for military history and take a formal approach to the precise re-enactment of specific battles and situations. Obviously guided by deep-seated psychological motivations, Lê found this a way to enter her own experiences of war “and adolescent fantasies about soldiers in uniform”. She says:
The re-enactors and I have each created a Vietnam of the mind and it is these two Vietnams which have collided in the resulting photographs. Here I experience Vietnam in America as I experienced America in Vietnam: worlds of conflict and beauty.
(Lê 2001 np).
An-My Lê. Small Wars: Explosion. 1999-2002. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Murray Guy Gallery, New York.
Her series 29 Palms (2003-7) documents a military base of the same name located in the California desert. Soldiers train here before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. This then is a rehearsal for war, rather than a re-enactment of it.
The importance and uniqueness of her vision is receiving increasing recognition. She will have a solo show in Baltimore in 2014, with twenty-one pieces selected from four of her series, “Vietnam” (1994-98, b & w); “Small wars” (1999-2002, b & w); “29 Palms” (2003-4, b & w); and “Events Ashore” (2005-present, colour).
Her work highlights the role of artist as observer, using artistic freedom to engage with the topic of military action which many would have rejected as complicit with a masculinist ethos. Of course today, with women participating equally in the military at every level, it is hard to maintain that war itself is anti-female. She is exploring a kind of politics, but one well beyond the conventional understandings of political art. Without doubt her identity as Vietnamese-American gives her a subject position which allows the development of this vision. What might seem, coming from another artist, to run the risk of being American hooray propaganda is in this context a kind of meditation on the meaning of war beyond the crude idea of national sovereignties. It reflects connections between past and present, and often opens up the sense of common humanity between those in combat and those they are working among. It is a shame she was not permitted to work in Iraq; the kind of documentation she might have provided would have given a dramatic balance to the conventional war images from television and movies. She gives a profound sense of “Being There”, no matter where that is.
Lê Family Photograph, Hûe, 1961. This Long Century.
An-My Lê. 2001. Small Wars: Landscape Stories. Cabinet, Issue 2, Spring, np. <http://www.landscapestories.net/issue-13/ls_13-019-an-my-le-small-wars?lang=en> [Accessed 17/4/14]
An-My Lê. nd. This Long Century. Photographs. <http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=4254&c=120> [Accessed 4/4/14]
Centre Pompidou 2010. On Nancy Spero@ Centre Pompidou. December. <http://artkritique.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/on-nancy-spero-centre-pompidou.html> [Accessed 14/4/14]
Bui, Phong. 2008. Nancy Spero in conversation with Phong Bui. The Brooklyn Rail. July 16th.<http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/07/art/nancy-spero-in-conversation-with-phong-bui> [Accessed 5/4/14]
Falby, Mac. 2013. The military is not simply the military. Bmore<Art>, December 23.
Ivry, Benjamin. 2010. Nancy Spero and Leon Golub: a politically relevant artistic couple. Jewish Daily Forward, 16/4/2010. Retrieved: 7/7/2011. <http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/127345/nancy-spero-and-leon-golub-a-politically-relevant/> [Accessed 12/4/14]
Mathews, John. 2010. On Nancy Spero @Centre Pompidou. ArtKritique, December 20th.http://artkritique.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/on-nancy-spero-centre-pompidou.html [Accessed 17/4/2014].
Vine, Richard. 1997. Where the Wild Things were. Art in America, May, pp. 98-111.
Walker, Joanna S. 2009/10. Nancy Spero, 1926-2009. Art Monthly , 332,
 This description comes from the bookshop site at: http://www.aperture.org/shop/books/small-wars#sthash.cel7dHmY.dpuf