When does political art cross the line?

  • Politically conscious, humanitarian art is as necessary as the air we breathe today
- Shirin Neshat, Kathmandu

Dec 7, 2018-

As far back as one can trace, political art has been problematic but ultimately necessary, as it forces art outside of its comfort zones and connects artists with the world.

As an artist living in exile, I have often found myself crossing the art world’s thin red line, not deliberately but because political reality is what has defined my life. But it isn’t only artists in exile who must deal with this borderline—it exists wherever there is an intersection between art and profit, whenever artists are pulled in opposite directions, balancing high aesthetics and politically charged and relevant subjects.

Consider the recent protests of artists being accused of racial insensitivity and profiting from black pain, from Dana Schutz’s controversial “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till, to Luke Willis Thompson’s “Autoportrait,” which features a portrait of the girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was killed by police officers. The furor raises tough questions: Who should be the ultimate judge when art offends? Should artists take greater responsibility in the perception of their art once placed in the public domain?

To share a personal experience, in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, I set up a temporary studio at a local arts organisation near Tahrir Square in Cairo. I shot a series of portraits of grieving elderly Egyptian men and women as they described tragedies, such as the loss of their children, that they experienced during the revolution. I had hoped to capture the human cost behind such euphoric revolutions, which often hit impoverished communities the hardest.

Soon after this photographic series, “Our House Is on Fire,” was exhibited at the Rauschenberg Foundation’s gallery space in New York, a nonprofit organisation who had originally commissioned the project, a critic published a piece accusing me of framing Egyptians’ sorrows for commercial galleries in Chelsea to invoke pity and ultimately profit, clearly oblivious to the fact that proceeds from online sales went to charity organisations of my choosing in Egypt.

After reading the criticism of “Our House is on Fire,” I was taken aback, wondering whether the critic’s interpretation and accusations may have been correct. Was I guilty of manipulating people’s emotions to make art? Or was he wrong by grossly misrepresenting the truth and bending a narrative that fit his own anti-art world and political agenda?

But then again, whenever there has been human loss, conflict or tragedy, there has also been art. There are also vastly different value systems that judge the validity and appropriateness of such art, which often at its purest intent is meant to make sense out of shambles, to distill essence out of chaos.

Take, for example, the world-renowned Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, whose feature-length film, “Human Flow,” documented the devastating global refugee crisis. While on the surface it is highly commendable for a well-to-do, established artist to place himself at the heart of such human and political catastrophes, I could not help but wonder about his intention and the nature and impact of his work. Was Ai exploiting a human tragedy to bring attention to himself and to profit? Or was his work helping raise awareness about the refugee crisis? Who is his audience and how could art make any difference in a world flooded with news and images of this unfolding misery?

By scrutinising another artist’s intent in engaging in a humanitarian project though, I realised I wasn’t that different from the critic who had questioned my own integrity as an artist. I realised that there is a paradox for artists in exile, as their emotional response to ongoing horrors is often reflective of their own personal experiences, while at odds with maintaining an artistic career that has placed them in a position of privilege.

Perhaps the problem resides in our hegemonic system, in which Western free-market consumerism and its cultural production machinery run rampant throughout the practice of art. 

And what is different and in opposition to this system is either marginalised or co-opted so as to appear open and inclusive. It is therefore through the filter of this lens that the work of artists such of Ai (characterised as the brave exiled artist who escaped the tyranny of his homeland) and myself (the oppressed exiled Iranian Muslim woman artist) can be legitimised and viewed.

The art world seems to have closely adopted and followed the ideological footprints of the larger global economy of the past three decades, increasingly participating in the orgy of the creation of wealth and its narrow distribution. But now with the rise of tribalism and nationalism and the bobbing of the ugly head of fascism, can the sleepy, self-indulgent Western art world rise from its slumber, too?

Politically conscious, humanitarian art is as necessary as the air we breathe today if we are to survive these trying times and not be condemned to repeat our endless cycle of terror and human tragedies, even if the hegemonic forces of the art world influence our every move. 

It is ultimately up to the artists to determine the future of this thin red line, and how easily it can be crossed—not the critics nor the market.

—© 2018 The New York Times

Published: 07-12-2018 08:03

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