This Is Not an Essay on Political Art

Kathryn Rosenfeld

In November 2002, I took the Green Line of Chicago’s El for the first time. I went exactly one stop: from the heart of the Loop to its western edge, just above the new headquarters of the Boeing Corporation. A few more blocks west lies the area that has come to be called the West Loop. This neighborhood was once the meatpacking district, and before that the Haymarket district of late 19th-century radical history fame.

Today the former Haymarket is lined with trendy, pricey restaurants, while in the surrounding streets the remnants of industry sit side by side with exorbitantly priced loft homes for yuppies. To this mix, add the cluster of contemporary art galleries that over the past several years has come to constitute the commercial center of Chicago’s art world.

The street below the Boeing building was the step-off point for a march against the Transatlantic Business Dialogue, a trade summit between American and European governmental and corporate powers, taking place in Chicago that week. As I walked toward the wall of riot cops, the frustrated commuters, and the sounds of chanting and drums, I was struck by the weird, rich confluences offered by urban geography. Here was Chicago’s first big anti-globalization protest gathering force in the city’s heart of corporate power. How many of the players in this drama—the protesters, the cops, the executives and office workers—were aware that, more than a century ago, the Haymarket riot had taken place mere blocks away, amidst the factories and warehouses that were the shiny office towers of their day?

I knew of several artists and artist groups that had contributed both their presence and their work to the TABD protest. In fact, Chicago has made significant contributions to the creativity and visual ebullience that characterize such protests worldwide. For example, the large Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld heads first seen in New York at the 2002 World Economic Forum are the work of a group that arose from the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, a Chicago artist-activist collective. From bicycle tires that stamp messages on the pavement to surveillance camera walking tours, the ingenuity and cultural savvy of artists has infused and strengthened the so-called anti-globalization movement in the streets, on the Internet, and in daily practice.

Yet, I wondered, how many of the artists present at the TABD protest shared my sense of irony at the proximity of global capital and its discontents to the city’s art market? Is it any coincidence that art galleries, fancy restaurants, and skyrocketing real estate values arrive hand in hand in gentrification scenarios such as the West Loop?

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The intersection of art and politics is an old story. Throughout the modern period, artists have joined, contributed to, spoken out on behalf of, made art reflecting the positions of, and, in a few cases, started social and political movements. We have political art, activist art, the politics of art, and art as activism.

But when, if ever, have artists actually made use of the analyses offered by the political movements and philosophies that attract them, and applied the ideas directly and specifically to their own social, cultural, and economic positions as artists? And, if ever there was a crucial time for such a move, isn’t that time now?

To begin to answer this last and most pressing question, it’s necessary to address the sticky problem of “the art world.” After all, don’t artists constitute the bulk and raison d’être of this “world,” and aren’t they therefore responsible for its excesses and exclusivities? Aren’t the galleries and dealers, the critics and curators—all the non-artist elements of the art world, both commercial and noncommercial—there because of art and artists? Or is asking such a question comparable to asking whether the minimum-wage Wal-Mart employee is responsible for the disappearance of small business?

It’s safe to assume that art and artists ventured into radical politics well before the last few centuries. But the political movement as we currently understand it is a quintessentially modern phenomenon, and the history of modernism in art has adhered to its development in some illuminating ways. The European avant-gardes of the early 20th century were closely bound to the era’s various radicalisms, so much so that the overthrow of formal and narrative convention in, for example, Cubist painting or Dada poetry, was viewed as tantamount to social insurrection. A bit later, modernists reappropriated content and narrative in opposing the rise of fascism, such as in the photomontages of Hannah Hoch or the political cartooning of George Grosz. It’s no coincidence that almost all the moderns were lumped together and condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate” artists.

In America, the relationship between formal and political radicalism followed a sort of reverse trajectory. The early 20th-century genre painters and regionalists—whose social realist style, influenced by the strongly Marxist Mexican mural movement, became the “look” of most art sponsored by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration—were often vocal proponents of the period’s socialist and anarchist tendencies. But when modernism jumped the Atlantic after World War II, a tenacious conservatism took hold in the American art world.

While still sometimes maintaining progressive views as individuals, the Abstract Expressionists insisted their art was apolitical. This definition of art was proffered by influential critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who are credited with making American modernism what it was in the mid-20th century. These critics garnered not only patronage but broad popular attention for the artists, through which their art was absorbed into the reactionary national mood of the Cold War. As Ann Eden Gibson shows in her Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics, federal anti-Communist propaganda even cited Abstract Expressionism as proof of American freedom.

Meanwhile, the relative seamlessness between the financial drivers of the art world (patrons, collectors, museum trustees) and the core of American capital often went unquestioned. This inextricable combination of conservatism, inextricability with capitalism, and ignorance or complicity on the part of artists continues to infuse and prevent real change in today’s art world, despite the liberalism of many practitioners.

In the late ’60s, artists took up and were taken by the overall spirit of rebellion against postwar conservatism. Influenced by the movement against the Vietnam War and radical groups like the Black Panthers, New York’s Art Workers Coalition (AWC) encouraged the visible participation of artists in these struggles, while also indicting the art establishment for its exploitation of artists and its reactionary tendencies. Minimalist sculptor and AWC leader Carl Andre admonished fellow artists “not to become a weapon in the hands of those we despise.”

In 1970, hundreds of artists sat in on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, successfully closing the institution, as part of the New York Art Strike Against War, Repression and Racism. However, many AWC members treated the group as a more straightforward trade union, seeking health plans and higher income for artists without questioning the imbalance of wealth between artists and art sellers, or the bedfellowship of cultural leaders and the military-industrial complex (as later described by Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War). Eventually the impulse toward individual success and competition won out among artists, as it had in most fields by the 1980s.

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Like the left, the art world was also permeated by feminism in the ’60s and ’70s. In California, artists Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago made a radical break from abstraction and, with a group of students, created Womanhouse, a collection of content-heavy, feminist-inflected installations and performance works that manifested the “personal is political” credo. In New York, a group of artists and art professionals formed the Women’s Art Movement, picketing museums and galleries for equal representation across gender and race, and challenging the art world’s notorious boys-club status. This feminist and activist legacy was carried into the last decades of the century by groups like the Guerrilla Girls (the “conscience of the art world,” according to their slogan) and the heavily artist-supported Women’s Action Coalition, who raised pro-choice, anti-sexist, and anti-censorship hell during the 1992 political conventions.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the art world seemed to embrace the political and critical. After all, ’60s veterans and their protégés were now the curators, critics, and academics that make up what might be called art-world middle management. It was also the heyday of AIDS activism, a visually strategic and art-heavy political movement from which anti-globalization has taken many tactical cues. The much-debated 1995 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial formed itself around identity politics, featuring work that openly explored issues of race, gender, and sexuality. However, critics decried the unsubtlety of much of this work, which in any case was, like its Conceptualist forebearers, often unmarketable. By the late ’90s, radical chic had once again given way to a glut of archly ironic art-world in-humor, and a general paucity of meaning.

What has not changed in the art world is the set of conditions described three decades ago by the Art Workers Coalition and the feminist art movement. Those at the zenith of power—the museum directors and trustees, the wealthiest collectors and patrons—are still the same people who run and reap the profits of global megacorporations. Read the small print under the wall text next time you go to a museum: It’s likely to thank some huge and famously exploitative oil, apparel, or biotech company for its patronage. Museum administrators and curators, if they are critical at all, will tend to say that such corporate “partnering” is regrettably necessary to keep doors open and art on view. This is especially ironic given curatorial penchants in the last decade or so for progressively themed, even politically and socially critical shows. For their part, in the face of a saturated and highly competitive field, most artists would rather have their work seen by as many people as possible than languish in obscurity based on principle.

Museums are, of course, only one channel of distribution. So it’s worth asking: How does the paradigm established by the marriage between art and capital affect the production-distribution-consumption cycle in the rest of the art world? Like every other sector of Western capitalism, the art world is now fully globalized. Jetsetting to commercial art fairs around the world is more or less compulsory for the successful artist or art professional. At these fairs, of which the annual Art Chicago at Navy Pier is a prototypical example, the raw commerce of the global art trade is on public view to an extent rarely seen in other venues.

Today, many commercial galleries make the bulk of their earnings at international art fairs, but this is not to say that bottom-linesmanship rears its head only at these summits. Among art-world denizens, one is viewed as naïve at best if one expresses surprise or indignation at the back-room deal making and ruthless competition that are business as usual among commercial art dealers.

Are all art dealers, then, by nature smarmy, morally bankrupt people? Of course not. Many enter the business with the genuine intention of advocating for artists and art, only to find that they must play the commodity game to stay there. Idealistic, usually post-graduate “alternative spaces” tend to last a year or two. At the same time, bypassing the for-profit sector is a less and less viable way to preserve art for art’s sake. In the culture of late capitalism, with its ubiquitous embrace of the profit-above-all credo, the altruistic model of philanthropy is all but obsolete.

Patronage of cultural organizations and endeavors was once, so the story goes, a way to affirm one’s belief in the necessity of art. (As Newt Gingrich said at the height of the culture wars, “If rich people like things, they should pay for them.”) Today, increasingly, philanthropy is a form of investment. Investors expect to see a return on their money. In the world of nonprofit cultural organizations, this has meant an assimilation of the notion that donors have a right to dictate content and make creative decisions. In combination with the drying-up of government support for the arts over the past decade, this has effectively meant that content-driven models are subsumed by broad appeal and marketability as necessities of financial survival.

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Naturally, the losers in all of this are the artists, which leads us back to the central question: Why have not artists, particularly those familiar with or participating in anti-corporate, anti-capitalist struggles, more widely applied the analyses behind these movements to their own situations?

Because many artists and art professionals are liberals or progressives, many of whom produce and exhibit critical work, and all of whom inherit the legacy of the modernist avant-garde, it is easy and common to view the art world as a permissive and left-leaning place. Enabled by this assumption and the desire for exposure and success, most artists continue to seek distribution through traditional and established channels. Sometimes this occurs regardless of the work’s content. And sometimes, consciously or otherwise, via the conformity of art school and the marketplace, that content shifts to accommodate current art-world fashion.

Artists who do seek an alternative to the market often adopt a DIY spirit, putting their work in the service of non-art causes and projects, crafting their own means of distribution, and actively rejecting the trappings of the art world. The disadvantage here is a limitation to audiences of the converted. However, neither the stay-in model nor the drop-out approach produces any real threat to the hegemony of the art-capital paradigm.

Until the production and distribution of art can be effectively divorced from the machinations of global capital, the unfamous majority of artists will continue to be, in effect, the minimum-wage drones of the global art industry.

To begin to change this, we have to dig so far down into our very understanding of what art is—including the intact, often subconscious assumption that art and capital are somehow synonymous—that the very concept of “art” may outlive its utility.

Kathryn Rosenfeld was an editor at the late New Art Examiner, and is now an editor at Bridge. She lives and writes in Chicago.
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