Political art transforms the audience into citizens

Tania Bruguera
December 2010

From: Bruguera, Tania. “Politische Kunst macht das Publikum zu Bürgern,” Texte Zur Kunkst, ed. John Baldessari, Zoe Leonard, Christopher Williams. Cologne, Germany, (illust.) pp. 134 – 136. http://www.textezurkunst.de/

Download PDF

Political art transforms the audience into citizens

by Tania Bruguera

I establish a difference in art between representing what is political and acting politically. I believe there are many professional politicians who are actually representations, because they do not really make politics. They do everything that surrounds and accompanies changing the world without actually doing it; and I think we have become somewhat used to that type of politician bureaucrat or politician-celebrity or politician who does not believe in politics any more, but just in being elected. We have become used to the representation of things.

While politics is the action of changing things in society, in art there are many artists working with images from the media and from politics, but not interested in the consequences of their work. Political art works on the consequences of its existence, of its interactions and does not remain in the level of association or graphic memory. It intervenes in the process that is created after people think the art experience is over. Political art transcends the field of art, entering the daily nature of people, an art that makes them think. Art is something that must be considered disposable, a means for other things, a protection layer. I understand there are artists that are consistent and that I respect who focus on the search of new associative combinations, but this experience in itself, without a purpose outside the world of art, does not excite me. Art, as happens with a scientific discovery, should be seen in its applications. Art can also be used with political purposes, but that is not political art, it is art-propaganda. Political art has doubts, not certainties; it has intentions, not programs; it shares with those who find it, not imposes on them; it is defined while it is done; it is an experience, not an image; it is something entering the field of emotions and that is more complex than a unit of thought. Political art is the art that is made whenit is unfashionable and when it is uncomfortable, legally uncomfortable, civically uncomfortable, humanly uncomfortable. It affects us. Political art is uncomfortable knowledge.

One of the historical problems of political art is being out of phase with artistic vanguards when we are talking about popular political art, as if there were a sort of patronizing attitude with the audience, as if there were only one language to represent what is political, a language that does not intend to make people think, but that unifies them. In the case of political art made in the world of art, there is an enormous chance that a great lack of communication exists, because it implies an educational (not didactical) process for the general audience, to educate it against its fear, against the fear of fearing; educating it against what it does not know, which is a very effective way of immobilizing used by politicians. On the other hand, those who are professionals of politics have appropriated civic spaces, have mixed and used corporative strategies on civilian spaces like freedom of expression, like the existence of social institutions confusing efficiency with the need to exist and function in society. Politics is not a service: it is a way to think about the future. We can’t be confused with the administrative dimension of utopia.

I do believe that a political action from within the system-art may overcome representation, but the problem is for how long and with what level of deterioration. Political art must resist the erosion of incredulity, cynicism, banalizing, indifference, of those who have interests within art and the pressure for its having continuance after its political need to exist has expired. Political art should not want to live on because its essence has transitory implications. At times art with political intentions and with a given ideology even turns into its opposite; it turns into what it is criticizing. This is the most difficult challenge of political art, because when there is no longer the political ”need” for the existence of this art, the search for a sense continuation/existence emerges and importance turns into self-importance. Political art should not consider itself important because it does not know beforehand what its impact will be and because its impact expires. It is a type of art that cannot fear to be destroyed and disappear.

It is necessary to fight bravely to do away with the idea of giving political art a hegemonic “label”. This should be the first gesture by a political artist.

I can guarantee that this art, which is now meek, used to be uncomfortable. Political art (which is not more artistic than it is political) is not comfortable because it speaks from a position of demand and because many times it is accompanied by new forms; this requires some adjustment of the spectators to guarantee that what is before them is art indeed. So this return to political art already comes with the sadness of knowing it will be inadequately collectible and with a tragic trust in its limited effectiveness. Artists today know of some of those historical political art through documentation, missing the urgency that made them necessary, and the anger that made it be rejected and/or effective. Much political art today is more a “quote” than a political gesture.

The appropriation of the “aesthetics of revolt by the advertising system” is a symptom of backwardness in the development of a new people’s political language and the need to renew it (it is there that an artist may contribute much). But somehow it is also a game of invalidating, of banalizing the potentiality of things by the establishment, something already so common and expected we could say. That something is a sort of “generalized agreement” does not mean that it has lost its potential effectiveness. We are individual artists working against teams of specialists in mass submission. That is why we must be radical and not yield so quickly, at least not until we have exhausted the possibilities of that we are admitting.

I believe that those interested in political art are still very much affected by the antagonism between court painters and anti-establishment artists’ models, but there are more possibilities: you can be a civic artist or an independent artist. There are many other options. If you enter into the area of political art you must understand that this is not a transitory position in which you only are against power until it absorbs you or that, on the contrary, if you are not absorbed, you will become a wretched, resentful person. Being a political artist has nothing to do with being accepted or with consensus.

Although it is very clear for political artists that we do not want to be interior decorators, we have to rethink how to establish our relationship with power. Some artists have felt the need to enter directly into politics. I believe that, in a given way, our position should be one of dissatisfaction because of only being able to be between both, the arts and the politics.