PaganStudio Writings

Art and Politics

This causerie in between Guven Incirlioglu, Atif Akin and Victor Burgin is originally published in DOXA magazine. It is a bilingual (English and Turkish) quarterly art magazine based in Turkey.

Güven Incirlioglu ve Atif Akin: Recently we observe the rise in the number of contemporary artists exhibiting works which are inspired by ‘politics’ as the pop culture of our time, and see that they somehow  gain popularity within similar mechanisms which worked for Pop-Art in 1960’s. The difference is that the figures or icons utilized within these works are more likely to be the political figures and events of the day.

Art and politics, or in other words art in the context of politics is one of the precious areas to dwell and we hope for a theory which will relate politicization of art and the popularization of artistic practice. Maybe then we can have an idea about popularity of politics. So, do you think we should take ‘spectacle’ as put by Debord as the main keyword to explain this new phenomenon? Or, in parallel, in the age of the web as real-time news media, isn’t ‘politics’ as ephemeral as everything else, and how shall we contextualize these artworks in some future time?

Victor Burgin: It is most important to develop an understanding of the form of politics specific to art, rather than, for example, investigative journalism or agit-prop. Art with an obvious political content does not necessarily have a political agency. I am not qualified to speak of the situation in Turkey, but I can say that art in the Western liberal democracies with which I am most familiar has no direct political agency. When I joined the protest march against the Iraq war in London, when I joined demonstrations against the National Front in Paris, I acted as a citizen, not as an artist. When I refused to cooperate with ‘obligatory’ but intellectually ridiculous government-imposed university research assessment exercises, or when I refused to join a ‘compulsory’ training day for academic staff run by a private management consultancy (part of the continuing attempt in the UK to subordinate the universities to the market needs of ‘business’) I acted as a university teacher, not an artist. The work of ‘political artists’ usually harms no-one, and I would defend their right to make it; what I cannot support is their complacent and self-serving assumption that it ‘somehow’ has a political effect in the real world. In a university art department, I would prefer as my colleague the artist who makes watercolours of sunsets but stands up to a reactionary administration, to the colleague who makes radical political noises in the gallery but colludes in imposing senseless and educationally disastrous government policies on the department. The political agency of artists is not ‘on the ground’ in everyday life – at this level they must be content to act as citizens and/or, in my example, teachers (I have always considered teaching to be my most important political activity) – the agency of artists is in the sphere of representations. Here, the political agency of art is situated at the level of form rather than of content.

I have always measured the political and critical dimensions of my own work by their relation to the mainstream mass media – as the media is most responsible for the production of a subject for the political process, most instrumental in delivering votes to politicians. In seeking to address itself to ‘the people’, art with a populist agenda must inevitably derive its forms and contents from the media. ‘The people’ cannot be known empirically; they – or ‘it’ (for the ‘people’ also functions as a collective noun) – are a discursive construct. In the case of the political address the ‘people’ is constructed around points of interpellation (for example, ‘being patriotic’, or ‘being unemployed’); in the case of a cultural address – in the form of a work of visual art, a novel, a film, and so on – the ‘people’ is an imaginary construct formed with reference to the best-selling sectors of the mass media: the ‘people’ are the majority who read ‘popular newspapers’ and ‘popular fiction’, and who watch ‘popular’ television programmes and films – in all these cases ‘popularity’ is measured by market share. We can see that for some long time now the art world has provided media-ready art much as supermarkets provide oven-ready chickens.

I agree with you that ‘political art’ – once unorthodox – is now the new orthodoxy, but it is ‘political’ only in the way the media understands the term. For example, the enthusiasm for ‘documentary’ in the art world of the past quarter-century has provided a spectrum of gallery-sited narratives – from intimately anecdotal ‘human interest’ stories to exposés of the devastation of the human and natural environment by rapacious global capitalism. But there is nothing in the content or analysis of these stories that is not already familiar from the mass media, and I have seen only insignificant departures from conventional media forms. Such ‘artworks’ solicit the same range of interests and the same reading competences that the media assumes in its audiences. Complementing ‘documentary’ work in the art world are other kinds of work offering spectacle, decoration or scandal. Here again we have not left the discursive space of the media, we have simply turned the page or changed channels. Brecht defined ‘criticism’ as that which is concerned with what is critical in society. My own sense of what is now fundamentally critical to the Western societies in which I live and work is the progressive colonisation of the terrain of languages, beliefs and values by mainstream media contents and forms – imposing an industrial uniformity upon what may be imagined and said, and engendering compliant synchronised subjects of a ‘democratic’ political process in which the vote changes nothing. The art world is no exception to this process. Artists making ‘documentaries’ usually encounter their subject matter not at first hand but from the media. The audience for the subsequent artworks will instantly recognise the issues addressed, and easily understand them in terms already established by the media. What is ‘documented’ in such works therefore is not their ostensible contents but rather the mutating world view of the media, and they remain irrelevant as art if they succeed in doing no more than recycle facts, forms and opinions already familiar from these prior sources. I would emphasise that I am talking about documentary in the art world. As I write, the Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi is in prison – primarily, it seems, because he was making a documentary about the mass protests that followed last year’s dubious elections in Iran. The political value of documentary is conjunctural, context is as important as content. The political value of art primarily bears on neither content nor context but upon language. I see no point to ‘art’ that calls upon the same general knowledge and interpretative capabilities I deploy when I read a newspaper.

In debating the kinds of questions you have raised we really need to be careful to define our terms. I understand the term ‘populism’ in both a political and a cultural sense, albeit the two senses may overlap. The English word was coined in the USA in the 1890s by supporters of the People’s Party, an organisation of farmers protesting the growing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of railroads, banks and land speculators. The People’s Party called for the return of government to the small producers, the ‘plain people’. Such a ruralist populism had been differently anticipated in Russia in the 1870s. Russian populism, Narodnichestvo, was the creation of revolutionary intellectuals who envisioned a socialist society based on the model of the peasant commune. Both the American populists and the Narodniki sought to preserve traditional forms of small scale agrarian production and social organisation against the forces of industrial modernisation. Conversely, in the 1940s and 50s, the term ‘populism’ became applied to a Latin American phenomenon, best represented by Peronism in Argentina, in which an emergent industrialist bourgeoisie contested the power of wealthy wheat and cattle producing landowners, and sought the support of the urban working poor in this contest. Since the 1980s a wide variety of forms of populist political tendencies, movements and parties, have emerged in Europe from left to right of the political spectrum. What these many variants have in common is a distrust of established ruling elites and a revendication of the autonomy of the common citizenry, ‘the people’. The word ‘people’ derives from the Latin term populus. In ancient Rome the ‘people’ were one of the two principle classes of society, the other being the ‘senate’, those who governed the people. Membership of the senate was largely, albeit not exclusively, hereditary. In modern democratic societies those who govern are elected from the ranks of the people, with the intent most famously expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. Populism in this sense can tend towards a democratic extremism suspicious of any form of representation and which calls for direct majority rule, a kind of ‘hard-core’ populism that tends to favour the referendum as the primary instrument of political decision-making. In large modern technologically advanced and multi-cultural societies the ‘people’ can only ever be a contingent discursive construct, interpellated by appeal to common points of identification. For example, when Ségolène Royal made a speech in which she formally presented herself for selection as the Socialist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election she addressed herself to ‘the millions of wage-earners, salary-earners, owners of small businesses and their employees, young and old’, and declared herself to be for ‘Le drapeau tricolore et la sécurité sociale’ – ‘The French flag and social security’.

In its most widespread use in a cultural context the term ‘populism’ is defined in opposition to the term ‘elitism’. The English word ‘elite’ is derived via the French verb élire – ‘to choose’ – from the Latin word for ‘elect’ (eligere). Etymologically speaking, the word ‘elite’ applies to any minority selected to govern a majority. In this literal sense, the members of a national government constitutes an elite, as does the officer class of the military or the executive class of a corporation. When used pejoratively, in its literal sense, ‘elitism’ names any practice which serves to support the narrowly patrician interests of a select ruling class at the expense of the majority of those they purport to ‘represent’. Much of the production of the media must therefore be considered ‘elitist’ to the extent that it perpetuates and disseminates hegemonic corporate and political values and beliefs. The charge of ‘elitism’, therefore, is applicable to much of the ‘popular culture’ (more accurately speaking, industrial mass culture) that cultural populists deem most ‘accessible’. When cultural populists redefine the word ‘elitism’ by opposing it to the term ‘accessible’ the word slips its etymological moorings and lends itself to various opportunistic appropriations. For example, an article in the literally ‘elitist’ right-wing French newspaper Le Figaro proclaims: ‘It is necessary to overturn the spirit of our teaching which suffers from the illness of elitism.’ This ‘illness’ – for which Fascist, Stalinist and Maoist political populisms offered their various cures – afflicts language, both in the literal and in the more broadly semiotic sense. Much like the cornea, language is considered to be naturally transparent when healthy; if it is not transparent then it must be diseased. Here, a clear-eyed democratic appeal on behalf of intelligibility and commonsense implicitly pathologizes, stigmatizes and discredits those who do not speak in a popular idiolect.

Art and the mainstream media have both become increasingly populist and ‘anti-élitist’ over the last quarter-century or more, a process that was at first commented on, to take the UK example, in frequent references to the ‘dumbing down’ of the ‘quality’ press – now a fait accompli that no one mentions any longer. This consequence of the political demagogy of the ThatcherReagan-BushBlair years was accompanied by a new demagogic spirit in art – incarnated most visibly in the UK by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi and his protégés – and a corresponding mutation in the audience for ‘art’. The art world congratulates itself on the fact that art today has a larger audience than at any time in its history – but this is simply an epiphenomenon of the increasing mediatisation of art. As the saying goes, ‘we get the art we deserve’.

Güven Incirlioglu ve Atif Akin: We must say that we agree with much of the issues that you bring up and would like to contribute a brief comment on what we observe around us in Turkey. The country apparently being under the spell of a number of open conflicts of ethnic and religious kind, we see that the whole public sphere is politicized. And unfortunately this is a type of polarization, redundant as it is, that does not produce any actual policy to act upon, incapable of mobilizing the public and possibly the mass media has the leading role in agitation. In this instance, we see it as a genuine trap that certain artistic output follows suit and picks upon these obvious rifts in the public sphere. We think that the ontological ground for the work of art should rely heavily on its multiple layers, offering multiple readings. This is the only possibility for any work to ‘re-produce’ itself, (retrospectively or adjusted-in-time) and be relevant in some future time, unlike, for example, the political commentary on current affairs. And this, not for the sake of complexity or for being obscure, but in order for the work to be mindful of its own ‘art’ condition. As long as art is not about communication, it has its unique ability to bring out the unsayable. And this is where the artistic expression deviates strongly from mass media and where the artwork can avoid to be a media-ready piece. Finally, once again we cross over your perspective as we are also more of an academician rather than artists. If only the processes of art education could be customized for each individual student (positioning) as an artist, instead of a person in an academic, legal relationship and be subjected to state or market oriented regulations, then we can hope for a new generation of artists who are at least practically independent in terms of their art production.