PRINT September 2004


WRITING IN THESE PAGES IN SEPTEMBER 1970, Artforum editor Philip Leider recalled a heated summertime argument with Richard Serra. “What,” they debated, “was the most revolutionary thing to do?” Haunted by the activist theatrics of Abbie Hoffman, Serra wondered “whether the times were not forcing us to a completely new set of ideas about what an artist was and what an artist did.” Leider, a believer in a more circumscribed definition of art, didn’t agree. Yet the recollection triggered a general observation about conversations had during his seasonal travels:

“Revolution” was the most often-used word I ran into this summer. Nobody used it to mean the transfer of political power from one class to another. Most of the time it seemed to refer to those activities which would most expeditiously bring America to her senses and force her to stop the war, end racism and begin to take the lead among nations in rescuing the planet from the certain destruction toward which it is headed.

Although Leider’s concerns are undeniably resonant with our current circumstances, in one crucial respect they seem alien to us now: “Revolution” today sounds anachronistic, something almost never heard in any conversations about art or culture, no matter how “engaged” the participants. Indeed, the word is nearly less provocative for its meaning than for its air of unreality and naïveté. Why should that be? And what does such a contrast in language indicate about our changed approach to both art and its relationship to culture in an otherwise eerily comparable historical moment? Perhaps these questions are best answered by considering the vocabulary more easily found in its place. The signature word of my summer came in a question to me from a New York Times style writer: Surveying a youngish crowd packed into Gavin Brown’s Passerby at an auction to benefit Downtown for Democracy, he quietly asked, “So, looking at all this, do you think it’s safe to say that in the art world politics is in fashion?”

If I grimaced, it was only because his question was the right one. Grassroots fund-raising events aside, politics has indeed seemed “fashionable” in recent art exhibited internationally. The past two Documentas, the 2003 Venice Biennale, and Manifesta 5 all featured a significant quotient of art explicitly organized around political themes, as did, to a lesser extent, this year’s Whitney Biennial. But with few exceptions, these representations operated primarily within the formalized systems of art, never quite penetrating a broader social sphere—or, more precisely, never quite addressing the question, asked by Serra in 1970, of “whether the times were not forcing us to a completely new set of ideas about what an artist was and what an artist did.” The mere appearance of politics in art, in other words, is often taken to be enough, leaving open the skeptic’s question of whether the work is at all meaningfully and effectively “political”—before prompting in turn the more compelling question: What else could art possibly do? Or even, What else could art possibly be?

It’s in the spirit of such an expanded field of inquiry that Artforum presents “The Art of Politics,” a special section exploring new and alternative strategies by which artists are attempting to push beyond “politics as usual.” Many essays clearly address art’s standing in relation to societal flash points on the eve of an American presidential election. Arthur C. Danto, for example, reflects on the relationship of national consciousness to art, considering in particular how the revelatory photographs from Abu Ghraib momentarily shattered the public image of the United States and implicitly challenge artists to make work that can compete with their power. Gregg Bordowitz follows with his discussion of Steven Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), whose ongoing prosecution speaks ominously to the curtailing of American civil liberties. Yet the essays here also place these instances within a grander continuum, such that the interrogative tool of the “political” provides a means for underscoring the ways in which artists’ tactical maneuvers may not only address social mechanisms but also change the contours, conception, and circulation of art. Such a model proves pertinent when considering, say, the response of online artists’ groups to the predicament of CAE; having long theorized art as networked activism, these groups actually impacted mass-media portrayals of Kurtz’s legal battle. Similarly, as Jeffrey Kastner discusses here, the Friends of William Blake invited real political action with their widely distributed People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention—a map of New York City that alerts the public to the location of everything from free restrooms to defense contractors.

This issue proved by far the most challenging to be assembled by the current editorial group at Artforum—due in part to a deep-seated resistance we felt to the very pairing of art and politics, or, to recast the matter slightly, the pairing of art and its social context. After all, the most compelling works of art never boil down to that single dimension; who were we to risk doing so with an issue on the subject? The artists who contribute to the portfolio concluding this section shared our dilemma. All were excited to participate, but most refused to call their work “political”—or if they accepted this nomenclature, they refused to deem their portfolio contribution itself an “artwork.” Others argued that “all art is inherently political,” making “political art” an almost meaningless framework. In other words, art and politics form an uneasy and highly self-conscious pair in these pages, forcing a constant reevaluation of the potential—and limits—of their alliance. No matter how difficult or problematic, this reconsideration remains urgent and necessary today.

Tim Griffin