It may be cold in Europe at the moment, but in the fraught relationship between art and the political world, things only seem to be getting hotter, with controversies breaking out all over the place. A characteristic of recent upsets is the way that artists’ freedom of expression comes into conflict with public and private interests, especially when this freedom shifts from ‘artistic’ into ‘political’ expression.
In late December of last year, Austrian political artist Oliver Ressler announced that a billboard project, commissioned by the Tyrol region cultural initiative, had been pulled after intervention by the Tyrol provincial government. The poster in question featured an image of the Tyrolean alps, superimposed with the pithy slogan ‘Elections are a con’. Riffing on an old slogan from the Paris revolt of May 1968, Ressler’s billboard and poster campaign had been selected by a commissioning jury, but fell foul of local political opinion. A few days earlier, meanwhile, in Switzerland, Jerusalem-born, Copenhagen-based artist Larissa Sansour was pulled from a shortlist for the Lacoste Elysée Prize for photography, after submitting work – Nation Estate (2011), a series of fantastical photodigital images in which the Palestinian territories are imagined to have been installed, vertically, in a skyscraper – that was deemed inappropriate to the prize’s theme of ‘joie de vivre’.
Both artists cried censorship. But while no one likes having his or her work marginalised because of its political content, these examples throw up some complicated questions about how art currently aligns itself with political realities, and what one should expect if art becomes synonymous with political activism. Big brands like good publicity: when it comes to brand image, politics has to be left at the door.
In both Sansour’s and Ressler’s cases, however, the assumption that an artistic commission would be protected from political interference because of its status as an artwork highlights a paradox in how we view the political effects of art. Since the 1960s, states and politicians in Western democracies have been wary of too much direct censorship of the arts, which has mostly occurred over issues of morality or obscenity. But with the growing articulation of geopolitical concerns in art, and of the widespread sense of disillusion towards Western governments and the global market economy, artists are making work that is more immediately political than ever. Yet they still claim art’s special status, expecting art’s institutions to support artwork as if the political content were of no consequence, and seem surprised when their actions provoke the ire of those in power.
Back in the 1960s, politicised artists would criticise art’s elite, privileged cultural status, or attack modernist art’s by-then apolitical, contentless autonomy. For decades since, under the sway of that radicalism, art institutions have gradually opened up to art which explored different forms of political and social reality. But today that period of liberal détente may be unravelling. And artists who thought that art institutions might provide an insulated space in which to give voice to oppositional political perspectives may be in for a shock, as public funding gets slashed while corporate sponsors begin to consider the risks in supporting what they might have previously considered a hip, feelgood and mostly harmless part of contemporary culture.
Attempting to occupy culture to further political ends is not a new game. Kings, dictators and revolutionaries have all tried it. But the recent trend for political art occurs in a new historical context: in the past, artists had to consider how they related their work to the big political movements that shook the globe. The current moment may be one of a widespread sense of crisis, but it isn’t, in the West, producing a groundswell of political organisation and mobilisation. Instead, it’s as if art increasingly serves as a position from which to project the political frustrations that people cannot seem to articulate elsewhere. It may make art appear more vividly political than ever, but this is a mirage. While artists rightly defend their right to make art about whatever they choose, it’s going to take more than (yet more) politicised art to reenergise our currently paralysed political culture.