It would be more accurate to say, “get art the F out of politics”, because politics has engulfed art and not the other way around, but then it sounds more like art is meddling in politics, which it is, but that’s a lesser problem for me. I want to free art from the constraints of the more extreme forms of politics, which on either side advocate censorship and otherwise attack art, artists, art history, and artistic freedom.
When it comes to education I’m confident most people would prefer that religion, as in proselytizing and conversion, be left out of the classroom. You can teach religion as a subject, but you can’t try to convert students. And even if you are comfortable with YOUR religion being promoted in non-religion classes, you are then extremely unlikely to be cool with any OTHER religion being taught.
And so it should go with politics in art school, or the art institution, or the art world. When you go to art school you don’t want your graduate seminars to be all about social and political issues. You don’t want critiques to be all about politics. You don’t want to have to be a cadre in someone elses revolution, for someone elses cause. And even if you do approve of students being indoctrinated into YOUR political agenda, than you are definitely not OK with students being indoctrinated into the opposing political agenda (ex., even if you applaud anti-Trump seminars, you wouldn’t appreciate pro-Trump ones).
Politics can and should be taught as a subject, so that students are able to better understand it and make their own informed decisions. Students should be taught critical reasoning so that they can evaluate arguments for themselves. And I would probably add an ethics class so they are familiarized with ongoing moral quandaries. All of this would prepare students to be resistant to any indoctrination, and to be strong, independent thinkers. Instead of getting those courses, students are shuttled directly through courses in which teachers try to persuade them of the validity of a particular implementation of politics, and the students grades are connected to their allegiance to the cause.
When I went to grad school all art was political, all seminars were political, and all critiques were political. Everything was about politics. I knew I was in deep shit when I got the Xeroxed reader for my first graduate seminar, taught by the dean of the art department. It was hundreds of pages of articles about feminism, queer theory, gender, and related identity politics. If there was anything at all in there about the kind of art I was most interested in – visual art (as in there’s some imaginative and well-wrought visual image) – it was marginal, and probably a bad thing.
Y’know, if art wasn’t a part of the solution, it was part of the problem, and thus we had to invent a way that it was part of the problem when there wasn’t really anything to object to (ex., if you weren’t overtly about the feminist revolution than you were automatically upholding the patriarchy, even if you were making abstract paintings).
When I look back at this it kinda’ pisses me off. I didn’t get a graduate education in art, I got one in identity politics, or rather applied-identity-politics. I agreed with a lot of the articles we read (other seminars were about the black or Latin experience…), or parts of them, and a lot of it was interesting, but I was already pretty far left of center and didn’t need to be converted, politically speaking.
The bigger problem is that I had no interest in making art about politics. Worse still, my only viable options were to make work “deconstructing [my] white male privilege” or step aside. While my non-white-male peers made work to empower themselves, I was supposed to shoot myself down as the bad guy, take a back seat, and fight for someone else’s vision and prosperity while dissecting my own before discarding it as inherently vile.
What would these teachers teach in art school if they couldn’t hammer home their political agendas? Well, they’d have to be able to teach art, which is not the same as preaching their political beliefs. We’d have to hire teachers because of their knowledge of art, and ability to impart it, rather than because of their other qualifications, such as their biology and political allegiance.
Over time, incidentally, I’ve drifted away from being a liberal, as liberalism has become more authoritarian, and moved from opposing things like censorship to employing them.
Consider this idea which I haven’t heard anyone else say, but which is kinda’ obvious. Contemporary artists are always trying to be “radical” and “revolutionary”, and this is frequently and increasingly not just in terms of style but tied to far left politics (as in the case of my grad school). But if you go too far to the left or right you need to use force to impose your views over others – authoritarianism. We tend to think of all authoritarians as ultra-conservative, but Chairman Mao and Pol Pot were on the left (Pol Pot’s college education was in Paris). Rather than strive for perpetual radicality and ongoing revolution, it might make more sense to seek balance.
Now I can look back, rather clearly, and see that it was totally inappropriate to have crammed identity politics down our throats in art school. If anything, I’d prefer that art were an escape from the cause, rather than a weapon for it. I’d rather an artist was AWOL than a cadre in political warfare.
I’m fine with people choosing to make political art if that’s their thing. But the demand that art should be political, that it should be evaluated on political grounds, and if it is not a part of the cause it is irrelevant or deplorable, is as bad saying art must be Christian or Muslim, praise Christ or Allah, be appraised by how devout it is and if it represents a correct understanding of the scriptures or not, and anything that’s outside of those parameters is blasphemy.
I think teaching politics in art classes is poisonous, and students can pursue politics, like religion, outside of school. I also think it’s toxic in art criticism and curatorial practices. This isn’t to say students or artists can’t make religious or political work – which are likely to be opposed to each other, incidentally – or that there can’t be shows of such work, but that all art should not have to be filtered through an ideological system.
Seems obvious when you pan back, especially if you want to allow art students the full range of possible political or religious expression, if that was their thing, and not just one. Apparently, however, it’s not only not obvious, we are die-hard believers that art must serve a radical left agenda.
This is why a lot of artists are jettisoning themselves from the art world. Art represents freedom to us, especially freedom of the imagination and from ideological or imposed standards of correctness. We don’t want to make propaganda, nor put down our brushes (in my case a stylus) in order to make conceptual/political, non-visual art for the cause of the greater good according to someone else.
I even think, if I had to choose, I might rather make religious than political art. At least religious art has an element of mysticism or transcendence, and then the possibility of escaping the merely quotidian and vying for power.
In reality, I wouldn’t want to do that either.
I always wanted to develop and express my own idiosyncratic vision.
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