PRINT September 1970

The Artist and Politics: A Symposium

The symposium question which follows was sent to various artists. Some of the replies are printed below. Others will be published in subsequent issues.

A growing number of artists have begun to feel the need to respond to the deepening political crisis in America. Among these artists, however, there are serious differences concerning their relations to direct political actions. Many feel that the political implications of their work constitute the most profound political action they can take. Others, not denying this, continue to feel the need for an immediate, direct political commitment. Still others feel that their work is devoid of political meaning and that their political lives are unrelated to their art. What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?

Given: Art as a branch of agriculture.
1. We must farm to sustain life.
2. We must fight to protect life.
3. Farming is one aspect of the social-political economic struggle.
4. Fighting is one aspect of the social-political economic struggle.
5. We must be fighting farmers and farming fighters.
6. There is no merit in growing potatoes in the shape of machine guns.
7. There is no merit in making edible machine guns.
8. Life is the link between politics and art.
9. Settle for nothing less than concrete analysis of concrete situations leading to concrete actions.
10. Silence is assent.
—Carl Andre

I think the time for political action by artists is now and I believe action should be taken in the art world and in the world at large. Political action need not inhibit art-making; the two activities are dissimilar, not incompatible. In fact all art is eventually political. As the carrier of esthetic experience, art is a powerful effector of choice and action. Primitive peoples knew this and couched their magical rites in colors and forms, story and dance; the ancient Greco-Romans knew it and used it to smooth and civilize barbarians; the Medieval Church knew it and furnished glorious cathedrals for their impoverished flocks; the princes of the Renaissance knew it and hired artists to paint and carve monuments to their great humanism; Louis XIV knew it and ensnared dukes and counts in his total-art court; and the 19th-century bourgeoisie knew it and bought it to reflect their growing opulence and power.

While the political power of art is easily seen in the past, the political effects of art today appear somewhat obscure. This is probably because any contemporary time presents so much material and allows so few conclusions. Aristotle, in the Poetics, provides the most direct analysis, describing artists who imitate the past, artists who imitate the present, and artists who imitate the future (ranking them in an ascending order of value). Past seeking, the preterit mode, sustains the conservative heart, which longs for that idealized childhood where authorities were strong, rules were clear and properties were unequivocally possessed. These desires are reinforced by reactionary art. There is no doubt why Nixon removed all the abstract art from the White House when he moved in. Abstract art seldom provokes a clear affection for the past.

Art which mirrors the present moves in a different way, from another cause and toward another effect. Its mainspring is the status quo. It is unidealized, displaying both the good and bad aspects of the now. Pop Art is the most obvious example but Machine Art, technological light works and most painting and sculpture in plastics are also typical. Other commemorators of the contemporary scene are Earth Art (reflecting the ways of our environment) ; the New Realism (recording the peoples and places of today) ; Protest Art (reproducing sado-masochistic brutalities); and that pair of sexual solipsisms currently known as Concept Art and Color Painting (rejoicing in the separative forces of our old friend, the mind-body problem). It is interesting to observe how intimately these art movements are joined to modern media, with their heavy reliance on promotion for distribution of products (and it is no accident to find their best customers in the bourgeoisie), for all these art ways and works of the present are entertainment commodities. They posit no radical changes and deal with conundrums, not problems. Their net political effect is a tacit support of the present system.

There is a radical art in America today, an art which innovates and is aimed at the future, but elucidation of its effects must wait until that future. Since the consequences of radical art are unavailable, it is only possible to sort out some of the issues engaging radical artists of the past twenty-five years. The most far-reaching endeavor has been the reordering of subject matter so that the art object itself dominates its particular parts. Figure/grounds and hierarchical arrangements give way to paintings that picture their own shapes and pigments and sculptures that render their own shapes and matter. In prior works a figure/ground or hierarchical arrangement is imposed from outside the structure arbitrarily. In the new work, forms arise internally and the materials function to prescribe their own arrangements. Some recent work develops and explores interdependencies between these new configurations and their surrounds, work-process in its relation to material and form, and a reintegration of color with black and white. These new ways have political implications that bear on the sovereignty of the subject and the nature and ramifications of self-determination. Other new work is obsessively concerned with horizontality and edges. Exploring these boundaries creates a newly mobile human scale assaying territorial limits and equality. Some new work occurs in sets or units which explore multiplicity and dispersal. Works of art are no longer presented as a precious class of objects. Will a special class of subjects also be relegated to history?
—Jo Baer

You have asked what kind of political action should be taken by artists, and I can answer only that any particular artist should take whatever political action he wants to. Political things should not affect the making of art because political activity and art-making have never mixed to art’s advantage, and my guess is that most artists are better off out of politics. But it is an individual’s choice. As a subject it really does not merit the attention you are giving it.
—Walter Darby Bannard

—Billy Al Bengston

I think of myself as a container, and what I do as an eruption of what I am. Where do you get nourished? That's where you have something to do. The body of the octopus is full. Its tentacles need only be directed to the caverns of waiting mouths.

I have been involved and will still be involved in: peace benefit shows, weekly group encounter Art Workers Coalition meetings, my own studio, and wherever I happen to be. I have been called upon to donate paintings. I have been asked to tax my half of sales, which, during this recession, doesn’t mean very much, but when money starts flowing, I have stipulated that the art-changers take upon themselves the tax burden—that dead artists support live artists through trust funds collected by taxing the profits from the auction block. Dead artists support live ones spiritually, so it isn’t much of a peculiar demand that they support us financially. In fact our voices would be a lot stronger if our blood were nourished by our dead compatriots instead of the market system, We can use the system as a pipeline, directing the fuel to where the need is signalled. Artists are sensitive people and they are hurt by the rock throwers while standing in line waiting for bread. Artists are the saints of the world eating the continual last supper. The better the food, the richer the art.

It’s all a matter of economics, not politics. Throughout the centuries of art-making there have been wars, investigations, pogroms. The artist does battle on his own field, and resents being forced into combat with strangers, by a government that does not nourish him.
—Rosemarie Castoro

A full statement on the subject you mention and especially at the present moment is quite difficult! We live in a treacherous time. In a most general fashion I can only emphasize that I am first and above all else an artist. This I must emphasize since I am writing now for a magazine which has not once—ever—recognized this fact. If you think about this then perhaps you will better begin to understand.

As for actions, I include two maxims: “The revolutionary is very careful not to do anything that would call for a confrontation between him and the enemy as long as he knows he can’t win that confrontation. The revolutionary does nothing that will serve only to unite the enemy against him.” Who do you think the enemy is, Phil?

On May 18, 1895 José Marti wrote in a letter to a friend: "I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails; and mine is the sling of David.'' For him it worked well.

I am sorry I can not be of more help at this time.
—Rafael Ferrer

I’ve always thought that my work had political implications, had attitudes that would permit, limit or prohibit some kinds of political behavior and some institutions. Also, I’ve thought that the situation was pretty bad and that my work was all I could do. My attitude of opposition and isolation, which has slowly changed in regard to isolation in the last five years or so, was in reaction to the events of the fifties: the continued state of war, the destruction of the UN by the Americans and the Russians, the rigid useless political parties, the general exploitation and both the Army and McCarthy.

Part of the reason for my isolation was the incapacity to deal with it all, in any way, and also work. Part was that recent art had occurred outside of most of the society. Unlike now, very few people were opposed to anything, none my age that I knew. The most important reason for isolation was that I couldn’t think about the country in a general way. Most of the general statements I read seemed doctrinaire and sloppy, both typical of general statements. Most of the advice seemed utopian, impractical or rather fascistic itself; I couldn’t think of any great explanations and gradually came to the conclusion that there weren’t any. All the institutions and their actions seemed like the explanations, overblown and unsubstantial. So my work didn’t have anything to do with the society, the institutions and grand theories. It was one person’s work and interests; its main political conclusion, negative but basic, was that it, myself, anyone shouldn’t serve any of these things, that they should be considered very skeptically and practically. A person shouldn’t be used by an organization of two on up. Most of the emotions and beliefs given to institutions should be forgotten; the bigger the institution the less it should get; I never understood how anyone could love the United States, or hate it for that matter; I’ve never understood the feelings of nationalism. Ask what your country can do for you.

My interest in actually doing something grew partly because my work became easier, clearer, more interesting, so that I didn’t feel I would be swamped by other interests; partly by the example of the civil rights movement, that things could change a little; by the Vietnam war, which presented a situation of either/or—I marched in the first Fifth Avenue parade and I hate group activities (Ad Reinhardt was the only artist I recognized); by the realization that politics, the organization of society, was something itself, that it had its own nature and could only be changed in its own way. Art may change things a little, but not much; I suspect one reason for the popularity of American art is that the museums and collectors didn’t understand it enough to realize that it was against much in the society.

At any rate, I think everyone has to be involved in politics, in organizations that will defend their rights and obtain more, that will decide on what should happen in all public matters. If you don’t act, someone else will decide everything. There isn’t any way to get out or any place to go. Even when I wanted to be out, I didn’t agree with the artists, scientists, professors, church members, business men, whoever, who thought that they and their activity shouldn’t become involved in politics. The social organization by definition concerns everyone; it doesn’t belong to experts; it doesn’t have the specialization of most activities. Possibly the time will come when everyone will spend a day a week or more on public matters. It can be disagreeable but it’s a necessity. Most people seem to think that their representatives are elected to think for them, decide things, rather than represent decisions. One represents thousands only as a practical matter of dealing with numbers. And there is no other way but some kind of representation. The main fact about the people of the United States is their docility, which results in part in their disinterest in using the representative scheme.

It sounds obvious, but isn’t so in terms of what happens, that everyone is a citizen, an equal part of a social organization, a political, public entity, an individual in a group that is only a sum of individuals. The citizen, individual, person has his interests and rights. He or she’s not or shouldn’t be an economic, military, or institutional entity. I think the main confusion of both the right and left is the confusion of politics, public action, with economics. On both sides the individual is turned into an economic being. It’s incredibly stupid that a person’s reason for being should be the production of cars, whether here or in Russia. The people in both places are educated to be useful persons, producers, and not citizens.

The structure enabling people to act as citizens is there but it’s not being used. Other than the general docility and ignorance, the main reason for the failure of the scheme is that both parties, Republican and Democratic, are secondary organizations, in no way necessary or legal, established between federal, state and local government and the people. The parties won’t allow real representative government. If you don’t know this from home, watch any convention, Stevenson and Eisenhower or Humphrey and Nixon. The easiest way to change the United States, and that’s still very difficult, is for citizens to act as citizens and use representative government. If the people don’t learn to be citizens, the slight improvements of a benevolent dictator don’t matter. Nothing matters imposed on people. The lesson, the improvement, won’t stick, won’t count. So much for anyone who wants to start a civil war. If everyone acted as a citizen, many of the peripheral economic wrongs would be corrected. The major economic situation could then be studied as economics, as production, in a practical way. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with either government or private ownership or with large institutions. The main thing is whether the large institution has to be large, whether it works. All economic institutions should be considered exactly as that, as producers and distributors, nothing more, certainly not as political entities. There’s nothing mysterious and necessarily powerful about GM, GE, the Teamsters, Ford or whoever. They’re just cars and light bulbs. Fear of these or adulation is sort of primitive. I thought that about the Art Workers Coalition, too; I didn’t see why they were so excited about the Modern, certainly an indifferent institution.

Another important point about people acting as citizens is that everything that can be done in the smallest group, the local area, should be done there before anything is delegated to a wider area. This distribution of representation should always be watched. Again, both the right and left, in different concerns, would rather the federal government act. Communities prefer the county to do it, counties, the state and so on. If you don’t have local control, you don’t have anything. You certainly have no say in the federal government. That shows in the parties and in the meaningless candidates.

I’m involved with an organization called Citizens for Local Democracy which is starting local groups. It also publishes pamphlets and prints ads. It’s allied in thinking to a journal called The Public Life, whose editors for a year or so were Harvey Shapiro and Walter Karp. It’s now written by Harvey Shapiro. I think a book of the first issues is to be published soon. Anyway, I agree with The Public Life, and that’s unusual. Their thinking is more developed than mine and has influenced mine; but when I read the first issue of The Public Life, I recognized some of the ideas; I hadn’t seen them stated before.

There is a big difference between the politics of citizens and the politics of interest groups. Obviously interest groups are a lot less important and necessary. Often they prevent people from acting as citizens. But if they don’t they’re legitimate. I think there should be an artists’ organization functioning as an interest group. There’s no reason why the organization shouldn’t oppose the war in Vietnam, for example, as long as it knows it does so as an interest group and as long as the members act first as citizens. Certainly one thing an interest group should have is a sense of the integrity of its activity. One thing of the several I have against the Art Workers Coalition is that they were using art for all sorts of things. An activity shouldn’t be used for a foreign purpose except when the purpose is extremely important and when nothing else can be done. I thought the suggestion of the Art Workers that a separate section of the Modern be permanently given to black artists and another to artists without galleries to be useless corruptions of the nature of the activity, one aspect of which is that art is good, middling and bad. Neither, as they think, are all artists equal; citizens are equal, not workers, not doctors, not anything. I’m also unimpressed by SoHo (I hope the name disappears); it’s too narrow an interest group. Unlike the Art Workers, an artists’ organization should decide what it wants and go after it practically and politically. If museum boards should be one third money and otherwise, one third staff and one third artists, as I think they should be, state that and talk to the museums. Allow some for differences in the museums, and those who refuse without reasons can be struck. Why is the Modem so interesting? Why be so eager to demonstrate, to use a tactic that was originally used for a much more serious purpose?

There should be an artists’ organization. It’s very odd to have a whole activity that can’t help anyone in the same activity, that can’t defend itself against carelessness and corruptions. The organization should have its own money; there could be a self-imposed tax by members on all sales, part from the artist’s portion, part from the dealer’s.
—Don Judd

I cannot write about the nervous system inside my work which would respond directly to the question and categories raised in this symposium—I simply cannot. My work of the past ten years has continuously slid along this precipice, but on its outer rim—hoping to reach some other side largely unknown to me at this time. As a political man, born inside this quietude and intense reflection, I feel no comparable reticence. It is the last sentence of the question that seems unanswerable to me. Feeling horribly threatened as fathers of children, as mothers, as makers of paintings, as the hopeful ones, as people—is enough. We have no special case to plead with the American people, we are not European intellectuals, there are no real precedents for our present situation.

A kind of world which has included art has already come to an end, ground down and out in these past five, six years of our battering the civilized limits that everybody thought would hold. In this recent past artists did, like other professional groups in America, appeal to their special audience: art lovers, collectors, museum people, opinion and media. These efforts failed—as efforts made everywhere to influence by moral persuasion failed—to stop this process of a permanent state of war crisis for domestic control by the most bestial elements of our population. What I would propose that artists do, I would likewise propose that scientists do, that doctors do, miners, farmers, sewing-machine operators, nuns, air-controllers, zoo-keepers, do—until, built into the fabric of American life, natural communities of work and sensibility exist to rival the institutional pattern and interests that either overtly or covertly support the war in Southeast Asia and the war on our minority peoples. By continuous waves of strikes, calls, interruptions, demands, non-cooperation, sabotage, resistance, by no business as usual anywhere, by groups, grouplets, individuals closing things down, opening them up, by making the normal full of surprise, the ordinary unexpected, the typical unknown, until nothing can be counted upon to be what it is. To spread out and educate and inform all those who would listen, that we as a nation carry a terribly violent seed in the 20th century that must be resisted here at home in its home and place. By doing this, we isolate the government, not ourselves. People will continue to make art, I will continue to make art, but what happens to it afterward has now changed. There are no distinct boundaries between governmental cultural “boosterism” and individual patronage. But where they are recognizable, artists should choose to withhold their work, deny its use to a government anxious to signal to the world that it represents a civilized culturally centered society while melting babies in Vietnam and gunning down kids all over the states. No.

I will join with people into any direct political action that strikes back at this layered and spaced brutality called the “administration.” The hierarchical make-up of the art world is simply a network of community and interest, filled with art men and women, no more, no less. If it strikes at the war and racism, I will be there, if it doesn’t, I’ll be elsewhere.
—Irving Petlin

Draping works of art in black as a protest is ridiculous. It testifies to its own meekness and becomes an invisible statement. The withdrawing of art from exhibits sponsored by the United States Government is not much better. Both acts are like shutting up shop and turning out the lights. It’s like not growing wheat for some purpose or other or pantomiming what should actually be yelled about. What can finally be accomplished by not doing things?

The United States Government does not need artists to maintain its cultural image to the world and won’t be hurt when artists refuse to cooperate. The sooner artists are on to this the better. I cannot seriously believe that art is the stooge of politics. How can artists, with all their works, compete with the moonshot?

I have excluded political science from my program. As an artist, I lean towards natural things rather than those created by people, which include forms of government, economic patterns and national policies. An objective attitude is one which makes all world events neither bad nor good but only so much data to play with or not play with. I isolate myself and my work continues smoothly with no involvement in any issue. As an American citizen though, I have no trouble seeing how bad things are. And I don’t think the American public necessarily needs to be alerted to how serious it is. It knows. The facts alone are staggering and become a protest in themselves.

The most natural reaction to an injustice is a physical response. Don’t people raise hell when they are mistreated? It seems to be a staple in American history and has accomplished most in American history and always gets government consideration before anything else. The plain truth behind the Watts riots is that the Watts riots were good and beneficial and healthy regardless of loss of life. The Watts riots nationalized sympathy for a gigantic racial injustice.

If silent dissent is going to continue and be a success, it can’t be handled on a part-time basis. It needs meat behind it, so it has to enlist even those who are only remotely in agreement with its ideas. And only when its actions are unanimous will it be effective, if at all.

I don’t think an artist can do much for any cause by using his art as a weapon.
—Ed Ruscha

9 April 1968
C 4, AR 635–200


5–26. Separation to accept employment as a public police officer. Commanders specified in section VI, chapter 2, are authorized to order separation for the convenience of the Government of enlisted men who have 3 months or less remaining in their periods of service and who submit valid applications for separation evidencing employment with a legally established law enforcement agency of a city, county, State or Federal Government. Reserve component personnel ordered to active duty for training under the Reserve Enlistment Program of 1963 are not eligible for separation under this program.
5–27. Definitions. For the purpose of this regulation the following definitions apply:

a. Public police officer. An individual employed by legally established law enforcement agencies of city, county, State or Federal governments. This specifically excludes private or corporate police organizations and elective police positions in local political jurisdictions.

b. Bona fide offer of employment. An employment offer certified by an appropriate official of a city, county, State or Federal police agency, that the applicant has passed established applicant requirements and has been accepted for entrance into a police academy, police training school or immediate employment as a public police officer.
—Richard Serra

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., public, police and pigs celebrated Pig Day, a tribute to the local cops.
Life Magazine

The artist does not have to will a response to the “deepening political crisis in America.” Sooner or later the artist is implicated or devoured by politics without even trying. My “position” is one of sinking into an awareness of global squalor and futility. The rat of politics always gnaws at the cheese of art. The trap is set. If there’s an original curse, then politics has something to do with it. Direct political action becomes a matter of trying to pick poison out of boiling stew. The pain of this experience accelerates a need for more and more actions. “Actions speak louder than words.” Such loud actions pour in on one like quicksand—one doesn’t have to start one’s own action. Actions swirl around one so fast they appear inactive. From a deeper level of “the deepening political crisis,” the best and the worst actions run together and surround one in the inertia of a whirlpool. The bottom is never reached, but one keeps dropping into a kind of political centrifugal force that throws the blood of atrocities onto those working for peace. The horror becomes so intense, so imprisoning that one is overwhelmed by a sense of disgust.

Conscience-stricken, the artist wants to stop the massive hurricane of carnage, to separate the liberating revolution from the repressive war machine. Of course, he sides with the revolution, then he discovers that real revolution means violence too. Ghandi is invoked, but Ghandi was assassinated. Artists always feel sympathy for victims. Yet, politics thrives on cruel sacrifices. Artists tend to be tender; they have an acute fear of blood baths and revolutionary terror. The political system that now controls the world on every level should be denied by art. Yet, why are so many artists now attracted to the dangerous world of politics? Perhaps, at the bottom, artists like anybody else yearn for that unbearable situation that politics leads to: the threat of pain, the horror of annihilation, that would end in calm and peace. Disgust generated by fear creates a personal panic, that seeks relief in sacrifice. Primitive sacrifices controlled by religious rites were supposed to extract life from death. The blind surge of life, I’m afraid, threatens itself. Modern sacrifices become a matter of chance and randomness. Nobody can face the absolute limit of death.

Student and police riots on a deeper level are ceremonial sacrifices based on a primal contingency—not a rite but an accident. Nevertheless, because of media co-option, the riots are being structured into rites. The students are a “life force” as opposed to the police “death force.” Abbie Hoffman makes reference to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies on page 184 of Revolution for the Hell of It; Golding’s pig devil surrounded by flies is compared by Hoffman to an “unbelievable smell of decay and shit.” Golding’s novel abounds in images of piggishness; there is the fat boy called Piggy, and the rotten head of a pig. The overall mood of the novel is one of original disgust. One must remember that this novel was very popular with students some years ago. Life is swollen like Piggy and this is disappointing, the clean world of capitalism begins to stink, “the sexual channels are also the body’s sewers” (George Bataille), nausea and repugnance bring one to the brink of violence. Only the fires of hell can burn away the slimy, maggot-ridden decomposition that exists in life; hence Revolution for the Hell of It.

“Then the rest joined in, making pig-dying noises and shouting.” (Lord of the Flies). As time goes by, pollution and other excreta are liable to turn the planet Earth into a more horrible pigpen. Perhaps, the moon landing was one of the most demoralizing events in history, in that the media revealed the planet Earth to be a limited closed system, not unlike the island in Lord of the Flies. As the Earth thickens with blood and waste, as the population increases, the stress factor could bring “the system” to total frenzy. Imagine a future where eroticism and love are under so much pressure and savagery that they veer towards cannibalism. When politics is controlled by the military, with its billions of dollars, the result is a debased demonology, a social aberration that operates with the help of Beelzebub (the pig-devil) between the regions of Mammon and Moloch.
—Robert Smithson

May the immediate political response be that as a human being all I can comment upon is what action an Artist could take and to even imply what action Artists should take would constitute a fascism as abhorrent if not more repugnant as that which has brought the sorry situation to bear originally.

The major problem still remains the same: the old esthetic workhorse of content and intent. Art as it becomes useful, even to the extent of entering the culture, becomes for me no longer Art but History. History being perhaps the most viable tool of Politics. All Art as it becomes known becomes Political regardless of the intent of the Artist.

All Art then is capable of becoming political by its own or by the volition of the culture, changing via this process from Art to History.

So-called Art whose original intent and most often content is political or social does not concern me as an Artist. They are for me only varied forms of sociological propaganda; albeit sometimes extremely creative advertising.

I accept fully the responsibility for the position of my Art in Culture Politics—but hold firmly that my actions as a man constitute only that. The political and sociological actions of one man with no vocational trimmings as props.

Artists are but one vocational unit in a sociological system and if I believed that their political and social opinions or needs were either above or below any other vocational unit, I should cease my activities.

Be there hopefully a day when men no longer need any other title than man to function politically. Then perhaps there shall be no political function for them.
—Lawrence Weiner