Actual Political Art

Public art: Cattelan

I don’t really like Art about issues: global warming, peace, freedom of speech, animal rights. Here’s why.

I believe artists have a moral duty to raise questions and make political and social commentary; this has been true of much of my own artistic (and non artistic) work. Moreover, I believe artists have the responsibility to ask brave questions, and even make their audiences uncomfortable in order to make a statement. I also think it would be foolish and unrealistic to imagine that, through a work of art, we can reach everyone. I think Joyce knew very well that some of his work would be understood by few people, and so did Fellini, or Beckett. To picture oneself “talking to the whole world” might be very “artistic”, but it’s also presumptuous and wrong (and only justifiable if you’re young). Each one of us has his/her own audience, and it’s within that spectrum that the artist should do what I said above. If your audience is already extremely aware of global warming, and you write a theater piece about it, you’re preaching to the choir, aren’t you? Or you really think someone in favor of global warming will watch your monologue and change his mind? Obviously the situation reverses completely if your audience is made up of conservative, religious liberal Trump voters. In that case your song about immigration will produce maximum results. If you sing it to me, I yawn: I was pro immigration long before you. Moreover, since a few years now, topical Art seems to suffer from the Bono Effect: it often feels like you’re telling me something I already know, thus reinforcing my beliefs – a very dangerous practice, when it comes to Art.

Of course there’s a million grey areas: if your song is chosen for the Eurovision contest, you get to sing it to tens of millions of people across the EU (and beyond), and you talk about Gay rights (which is again another issue I’m all for), it makes sense: large parts of the EU (and beyond) are homophobic. If my work is broadcast, displayed in a public space (or illegally installed there), I myself might tackle some issues that are obvious, but it’s ok – because in those cases I’m not talking to YOU. I know you care about the future of our planet.

So what can an artist do? Where should he/she stands? Is this the death of political Art? On the contrary. But a “political” artist should address issues that are relevant to his/her audience. Relevant as in controversial, problematic, thought provoking. Their Art should make the artist’s public ask questions about themselves, and the world they live in. What they consume, what they want and believe. The list of great art made with this idea is endless, I’ll name four people: Marina Abramovich, Jenny Holtzer, Nan Golding, Cindy Sherman. All living artists who routinely challenge their audience. Sure, they may also speak for women’s rights (an issue never raised loud enough, anywhere), but each of them knows their politics (or whatever they call it) is elsewhere.