Round-Up: Art, Politics and Play

By Suchin, Peter | Art Monthly, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Round-Up: Art, Politics and Play


Suchin, Peter, Art Monthly


The interface between art and politics is a prominent theme in recent art publishing. In the introduction to her anthology All Art is Political, Sarah Lowndes quotes George Orwell in support of her title, citing his suggestion that it is 'better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations'. Lowndes's foregrounding of the visual over the linguistic implies that visual or conceptual art somehow 'speaks' without, or beyond, conventional language. By 'pictures and sensations' Orwell the writer could hardly be suggesting that artists and writers should not use words; rather, perhaps, that a writer 'materialises' an image via words. Quoting Orwell in this way is therefore rather misleading. Of the six artists discussed or interviewed here--Mayo Thompson, Keith Rowe, Thea Djordjadze, Richard Wright, Susan Hiller and Dieter Roth--it is Hiller who is also cited to support the claim that art is extra-linguistic. But Hiller's position as one of our most articulate artists militates against the idea that she might be 'against' conventional language. Furthermore, the title of Lowndes's book is truistic; the volume contains some interesting discussions around artistic processes but that is where the emphasis lies, not with politics and art.

Claudia Meeson's Art and Politics does, however, report in depth upon these two figures. 'In the wake of ... major world events,' writes Meeson, 'politically engaged, activist, or guerrilla art has increasingly come to characterise a key new direction in art production.' With chapters on art during the Cold War, on post-colonial identity, peace, feminist and gay movements, environmental art, and art and anti-globalisation, Meeson's book provides a substantial introduction to many aspects of 'political art'. But despite this there are some important omissions. There is, for example, no mention at all of politically driven collectives such as Art & Language or Critical Art Ensemble, nor is there any reference to Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof paintings, to Gustav Metzger or to Terry Atkinson. In his 1988 exhibition catalogue Mutei, Atkinson, together with Susan Atkinson, published a powerful critique of the category 'political art', seeing it as central to capitalism's management of dissent within the pluralist marketplace of contemporary art. Meeson concludes that 'art continues to be a full participant in realising social, political, and economic change' but, as her book fails to examine how capitalism co-opts dissenting practices ('Against Political Art' AM376), the difficulties surrounding 'political art' remain unresolved.

Andrew V Uroskie's Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art takes a detailed look at the moving image's migration from the 'prison' of the conventional cinema--the 'Black Box' of the title--to the rather different social space of the contemporary gallery. Uroskie traces the notion of artistic expansion back to key 1960s figures such as Robert Morris and particularly to the New York 'scene' of underground filmmakers designated by the label Expanded Cinema.

These artists, Uroskie argues, recognised that 'one needed to change the total situation within which the moving image was exhibited and seen'. In explaining how such transformations occurred, the author considers works by Nam June Paik, Claes Oldenburg, Jean-Isidore Isou, Andy Warhol and many others. …

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