Monday, November 5, 2012

Discussion: Art Museums and Political Discourse // Elephants in well-lit rooms

A while back, I asked you, “Does the artist bear a certain social responsibility to challenge the status quo? Or is it enough for the artist to entertain? What, exactly, is the role of the artist?”

Now, with Election Day in the U.S. less than 24 hours away, I’d like to not only revisit this conversation but also expand it from the individual artist to the art museum. In “Voting Against Ruffled Feathers,” the New York Times addresses American museums’ tendency to tiptoe around politics, raising such questions as:

Should public museums be places where political argument happens? Why is this so rarely the case, especially when compared with politically engaged programming in museums in Europe, Mexico, South America and even parts of the Middle East?

Says New York artist Jonathan Horowitz, whose election-based “Your Land/My Land” installation is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina:

“I wouldn’t say that museums have a moral obligation to engage in political discourse any more than artists have a moral obligation to make work that does. I will say, though, that hermetic art about art is generally not of that much interest to me, and this seems to be the direction that art is trending.”

How do you feel about art for art’s sake?

Shrinking the dialogue back to the individual artist:

It may, however, also speak more fundamentally to the role of the artist in American society in the 21st century, a role whose political authority has eroded along with that of novelists, poets and philosophers. “The figure of the artist can still be heroic, still an outsider and still transgressive in Europe and many other parts of the world, whereas that’s seems less and less the case here,” said Negar Azimi, a writer and editor at Bidoun. 

The article does consider certain factors that may have contributed to this difference, reasoning that “structure and history account for U.S. museum programs that, by and large, address a very large public,” which is why they find explicit political pronouncements so difficult to make.” It’s also careful to end on a less cynical note, with Horowitz’ belief that “it is possible for the institutional art world to help people think more critically about the country’s political future.” That said…

What are your thoughts on the subject? What do you think the art museum’s role within society should be?

(Also, make sure you add your voice to last week’s discussion about how you view art!)


  1. Jenny, I really appreciate your blog article. I found it through the CA discussion board on Linked-In. It's nice to see a post with substance.

    My opinion on this is that I don't like the word "should" in art. It creates rules and barriers to something that, by it's nature, is an open and subjective field.

    At times, political exhibits will be important and relevant to a community, and at other times it would not be appropriate. Ultimately, it rests on those running the museum to make the best judgement for their unique community and exhibitors.

    1. "
      My opinion on this is that I don't like the word "should" in art. It creates rules and barriers to something that, by it's nature, is an open and subjective field. "

      You put that very well. Sometimes political art serves a purpose. I don't think 'shock' art serves any purpose other than to waste time. But if someone is putting down what's flowing and it's genuine who's to say it fits into any box, unless that artist agrees. No?

  2. If political argument is part of contemporary discourse, Art Museums should be a location for promoting discussion. Unfortunately, because of their financial needs, they are often complicit. i.e. the Koch brother(s) as a trustee of the Met and LAMOCA with Eli Broad.

  3. Political art is a balancing act. If it leans too hard in the direction of polemic, it ceases to be art and starts to resemble an advertisement or a cartoon. If it concentrates on the artistic aspect too hard, then the political message becomes ambiguous and diluted. Visual art isn't really the best way to convey nuanced political messages either; it's best at simple statements that touch the emotions rather than the intellect. That's why the most memorable pieces of political art, like Picasso's "Guernica" or Goya's "Desastres de la Guerra", don't delve into the complexities of history but present timeless tableaux of human suffering and cruelty.

    Political art isn't limited to protests; art has been used as a political tool by rulers throughout history, if only to show off their wealth and magnificence. Art is used to commemorate their rule, with statues and monuments being erected as visual reminders of their potency. Of course, when a ruler is toppled, these statues suffer the same fate, as we saw recently in the case of Saddam Husein's statue and his crossed-swords monument, and the even more recent destruction of Hosni Mubarak's statues in Egypt. This is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years, in accordance with the principles of sympathetic magic. After the reign of the precociously monotheistic pharaoh Akenaten, nearly all his monuments were literally defaced, often having their eyes scratched out and noses smashed in an act of posthumous revenge. One might think that we'd outgrow this primitive urge as civilization advanced, and be willing to leave statues alone as a reminder of history, but apparently the need to take out our feelings on inanimate objects is still too strong. Even in the present-day United States, some politicians are actively campaigning for the elimination of various pieces of public art that they believe was conceived from viewpoints different from their own.

    Andrew Werby

  4. The role of some art museums in society should/could be to be an energy transference conduit to catapult peoples experience at the moment/day OUT of society into the real life that they will remember and can draw on from memory and project new paths into the future. Stop them in their tracks. Remind of real life. Life of the natural spirit.


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