Art as Protestby Alex Potts
Art as protest can take two rather different forms. It can be an intervention which makes an explicitly political statement. As such it needs to be immediately recognized by its audience as registering opposition to some aspect of the dominant social and political order and as offering a provocation to its ideas and attitudes. The other form of art as protest operates on a less immediate, more long-term basis. It can be thought of as critique rather than intervention. It provokes reflection on the politics inherent in the situation or material it presents without subsuming this politics within some single, clearly articulated political statement. Such art may often put a viewer in mind of underlying attitudes, beliefs, and general corruption of values—the ideology—which sustain the current state of society rather than addressing immediate political issues.
A work designed as intervention or provocation can of course have a significant afterlife if it connects with a larger politics, and does not entirely depend for the impact it makes on the particular politics of the moment it addresses. But it will need to be designed in the first instance to be effective as an intervention in this politics of the moment. One problem such work faces is that once it is shown in an exhibition or gallery as art, its political protest can easily be seen as (and easily become) merely a device to draw attention to itself, to add to its value as art with a display of supposed serious political intent—unless the work’s siting in an art context itself operates as intervention, such as Büchel’s refashioning of a disused church into a functioning mosque as his work at this year’s Venice Biennale.
The other form of art as protest makes larger demands on the art work as an entity in its own right. It needs to sustain a reasonably prolonged viewing as its political significance is not made immediately apparent and lies in implications of the politically charged material that the viewer has to puzzle. It operates more as a critical realism than as avant-garde intervention. There has to be something in the work’s make-up that embodies politically charged material in a form that the audience will find convincingly real and prompt them to think about this material in political terms. The problems here are rather different than with art as intervention. Firstly, the politics will only be picked up meaningfully by a viewer who brings to bear a perspective which is in some way sympathetic to the artist’s investment in the work. Secondly, the work itself as entity may fail to convey this investment, so any suggestions of political protest come out as formulaic and lacking in substance and integrity, or in their emptiness as being complicit with the social and political order supposedly being critiqued.
Fashioning an art that functions as politically convincing protest is a tough brief, particularly if it is to have more than temporary interest and sustain some real basis in a politics of protest. Work such as Allan Sekula’s stands because it manages to be politically compelling while also having artistic substance. This artistic substance, while exerting a real fascination, is not self-sufficient and demands to be supplemented by political input on the part of the viewer. It does not betray the politics it brings to mind. Such betrayal constantly stalks even some of the more ardent artistic protest incorporated within the art world and its supposedly beneficent ideologies.
ALEX POTTS is Max Loehr Collegiate Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is author of the books Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (1994 and 2000), The Sculptural Imagination. Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (2000), and most recently Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art (2013). His is currently working on the picturing of the social in 19th-century art.