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Political Art?

“…Art is one of the forms of (capitalism’s) manifestation and operation, a mechanism elites use to consolidate and extend class power”.*

How can art become a vital force in shaping the world? In a culture where the population is manipulated by cynical media and corrupted by debased images and ideas, might artists create alternative images, motifs, concepts, which subvert or critique the slick crap that cascades from our screens and media.

Artists value art history, but do they have a sense of the wider political/cultural context? The position of artists in relation to capitalism has always been the site of conflict. Dada, Surrealism, Socialist Realism, Situationism - the ideological battlefields are littered with the remains of iconoclastic artists, artworks and ideas. Yet it is extraordinary and disappointing to see the decline in political consciousness – and anger - in recent years even as the vast and exponential increase in the wealth of the super-rich creates an ever greater chasm between the elitist gallery system and the artists at the grass roots of current art and art practice.

My feeling is that artists have lost their sense of the possibility of change - of ways to organise, take action, agitate - to outflank ‘em, operate outside the system - to subvert and critique it. No it isn’t easy. How do artists avoid being sucked into the gallery system (notwithstanding the fact that a good many are dying to be sucked in). In fact many artists want to avoid the gallery system - not least because they feel limited by cubic white spaces and see the almost infinite possibilities presented by public spaces and places; many others are more ideologically driven to make art that reaches people - that speaks to them - touches them.

The word ‘Public’ is a category definition which curiously closes down space. Instead of seeing the potential of the spaces that we move through and work in, we see fences, gates, double yellow lines, no entry signs. Are artists deterred - or intimidated?

Artists need to move beyond the gallery into public spaces. The environment - whether urban or rural - is a wide open space which artists might enter if they have the chutzpa or the imagination.  There is no reason why artists should not extend their practice into the everyday and the physical spaces through which people move and work and live. That’s not to say that it is unproblematic, but if artists would leave the security of their studios and enter the world they might discover that engaging with people and places leads to a creative dialectic which opens up unexpected possibilities and changes their perception of what art might be.
Artists don’t just make art. Out of necessity or choice they interact with  quotidian reality - what we used to call the ‘straight’ world. They are by nature ingenious, inventive, good at improvising - often also good entrepreneurs; they teach, they initiate projects, they curate exhibitions, stage events and performances, they intervene and infiltrate culture. Perhaps my pessimism is unfounded - perhaps they are discovering that the more art and life are integrated the better.     Art, like politics, is about ideas, which know no boundaries.
Postmodernism permits all truth claims - maybe good, maybe bad. Maybe liberating, maybe enabling the commodification and monetisation of art. But perhaps Modernism’s project is incomplete. It seeks a bigger role for art, where art is part of life, part of the world. But also a means to penetrate the façade, deconstruct the illusion of corporate capitalism and reach a deeper truth.

We all know that art, in all its forms, speaks to the soul of humanity.

* Dean Kenny

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