20 January 2015

Political Art Part 2

Happy 2015, everyone! I'm just getting rolling again after a nice long rest over the holidays. While on vacation I read 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis, a NY City art critic. I had heard about the book from several sources, and was especially interested in it because it speaks to how art relates to the culture broadly, including much discussion about political art. Davis is rooted in Marxist thought and spends a good deal of the book talking about how art as a profession lies in a contradictory space in a capitalist system. It took me a while to get interested in this discussion, but Davis's Theses (you can read the theses here) actually explain a lot of the discomfort that I and a lot of other professional artists I know experience. I don't want to go into a long synopsis of the book, but below are a few rough notes.

According to Davis, visual artists are truly middle class (engaged in self-directed production) rather than capitalist (profiting from the labor of others) or working class (selling one's time/labor). As Davis writes, "the dream of being an artist is the dream of making a living off the products of one's own mental or physical labor while fully being able to control and identify with that labor." Artists hold a certain cachet as people who are able to work with independence and individuality, but since fine art (as opposed to music, film, acting) is not organized around capitalist production, it has very little importance to society. This is an interesting way to contextualize something that I've been painfully aware of for quite a few years now. On one hand I feel privileged, in that I am able to work independently and with great freedom, and people in my world seem to respect that freedom very much. On the other hand I feel besieged, in that earning a living from my art is difficult if not impossible. I feel successful and not successful, all at the same time.

Davis explains this financial conundrum by pointing out that while artists themselves are middle class, the capitalist class dominates the sphere of art (corporations, auction houses, trustees, monied collectors). Because of this, the real roles of artworks in our society are 1.) as luxury good, 2.) as financial instrument, and/or 3.) as a "symbolic escape-valve for radical impulses." That last one is an interesting idea, especially in light of the fact that I consider myself a political artist. I'm not sure yet if I agree with it, but I'm going to look for examples of art as an escape valve…

A simple and obvious idea that I needed to hear explicitly: the word 'art' is double-sided. On one hand, 'art' is identified as self-expression and creativity, thus belonging to everyone, and on the other hand it is a desirable but highly competitive profession. Thinking clearly about this distinction caused a great many of the puzzling interactions I've had with friends and family to make more sense: many times when I'm talking about 'art' with non-artists, we're not using the same definition. I'm almost always talking about the professional definition of the word, and they are most often talking about 'creativity' and 'self-expression.' Just being aware of this will be very useful for me in the future.

Some questions raised in this book about political art:
- Can art raise consciousness, as many artists assert?
- If so, can it raise consciousness enough to spur action?
- To whom is political art addressed? If only to 'art people,' is it political at all?
- How to expand the audience beyond the ruling class?
- What to make of the fact that art usually becomes part of a broader political conversation only in a negative way (eg. under fire from conservatives).

And a favorite quote:
Art making is a complex social act and one of the primary passions; perhaps not so primary as food or love or sex or shelter – but very very important. People will suffer for art, for a shot at creative self-expression.

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