Art for Politics: Reflections on the Whitney Biennial

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The title of this essay is of course a play on the title of the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial for 2006--"Day for Night," which ran March 2-May 28. These phrases--this for that--suggest to us that two seemingly contrasted, even contradictory, ideas have become difficult to tell apart. As Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, states in the Biennial catalog, "Today's artistic situation is highly complex, contradictory, and confusing. It is an environment few can make sense of." (1) Much of this confusion is regrettable perhaps, but confusion itself is not something to avoid. Yes, it is admittedly dangerous, but it is also a source of tremendous creativity. We live in confusing times and we find ourselves forging complex maps across this exciting and terrifying terrain. The artists in the Biennial are helping us to imagine these maps.

To be frank, much of the challenging terrain before us is explicitly political terrain. We live in a time of war. We live in a time of political divisiveness. We live in a time when the struggles for power at home--over issues of race, of corporate power, of the environment, of faith matters, of gender, and of so much more mirror similar struggles that span the globe.

Enter the curators and artists of the Whitney Biennial. Art is made in the world and of the world, not in some distant isolated space of quiet reflection. If these are confusing times, then the works of the Biennial are perplexing as well. If we face rocky terrain, then these works give us a disconcerting map that is hard to read, and on which the roads are hard to find. If our troubles are in part political, then so too are the works of "Day for Night."

In response to the political dimensions of the current Biennial, I want to raise five questions that we need to consider as we try to make sense of the art of our time. First, can art ever be political? On one level, the answer to the question is a resounding yes, simply because we have so much political art. But what I really mean is: are we willing to allow art to be political? Will we tolerate political art coming into our lives, our ways of thinking, our museums? Politics always forces us to think about power--a tough issue to be sure. We rarely see or acknowledge all the ways that we benefit from the existing power structure of the world. But political art demands that we think differently about the world of power. It demands that we acknowledge our privileges and calculate how much we are willing to sacrifice to give more freedoms and privileges to more of our neighbors. So if we allow art to be political, we will also have to allow our world to change, perhaps quite drastically.

Second, is art ever not political? This question turns the last topsy-turvy. To put it another way, is all art political and is it always political? Given that power always brings us into issues of danger--the danger that the powerless face at the hands of the powerful--we could ask whether there is any art that is safe. Is there art that we need not be suspicious of? Art that has no agenda? Art that is not produced within the structures of power (whether near the top or the bottom of those structures)? Do we need to find a political slant to every work of art?

Third, does politics cheapen art? It is common, though by no means universal, to think of art as one of humanity's noblest pursuits. We tend to treat art as sacred, as evidenced by the enormous and beautiful temples we build as houses for the arts (such as the Whitney). When we introduce issues of power and policy into our artistic practices, is the sacredness lessened? What if an artist said that he created a work that was strictly political and that he really had no artistic goals in mind at all? Would we think less of the work? That is precisely what Richard Serra says of one of his works in the Biennial. In fact, he says so on the audio commentary. So again, does politics cheapen art? …