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Art and Activism

Art and Activism

This article is based on an online talk on the topic of Protests against Discriminatory Oppression on 7th March, 2021, and has been slightly edited for clarity.

The connection between art and art institutions, and protest and politics is a very wide subject, on which I can only offer relatively superficial observations, but I hope you will bear with me. 

When this invitation reached me about giving this talk, it coincided with the arrival of an interesting package in the mail. It contained a beautiful book called The Avant Garde Museum. It was published by a museum in the town of Łódź, Poland, which happens to be the home to one of the first avant-garde museums, and one of the first modern museums in Europe. A beautiful, richly illustrated book full of scholarly articles about what happened to museums in the early era of the avant-garde, when a generation of artists and thinkers were intent on changing the world. There was a strong intersection of politics and society and art and culture during that time. The book is full of wonderful examples of plans that were created by members of the Russian avant-garde, people like El Lissitzky and others, to reform and rethink the institution of art. 

There were basically two attitudes, as one could read in this book, about what should happen to museums in that era, in that turbulent time in the first half of the twentieth century. One of those attitudes was to destroy the museum, to see the museum as an emblem of the status quo, something that cannot be brought into modern times. Something that needs to end up in the trash bin of history, wiped away, like so many other institutions of a bygone society. 

Others—and I’m glad that the second group won—were bent on reforming the museum. They put forward incredibly interesting ideas about what the modern avant-garde museum should look like. In the process, they helped create a whole new model of the museum, like the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim later on, that both in the way they told stories and in their physical appearance signalled a convergence of new thinking, new attitudes – a modernity in institutions. 

These two attitudes – to destroy or to reform –  I think are always present in times of great political turbulence. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, there have been times when art and politics have collided, simply there have been times that were more peaceful and more prosperous, and other times that were more turbulent and transformative. I’m now old enough to have lived through some of these periods.

One of the things I’ve learned is that sometimes the consequences of those political changes may take a long time to sink in and to really be reflected in art and the institutions of art. Sometimes the effects are more immediate. In the early 1990s, right after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, I was involved in an exhibition in Budapest. I grew up in the city of Budapest in Hungary. The exhibition was trying to get artists to respond to this extraordinary change that came upon Eastern Europe in 1989, the end of the Cold War. We had grants to give to the artists and we tried to get them to do this. But, frankly, it wasn’t very easy. The change was so momentous that it took years and years for a new generation of artists to create the new voices, the new expressions to respond to it. This is a really complicated topic, I must admit, and I have mixed feelings about it probably because I grew up in a communist country. 

On the one hand, I often lament the absence of the political voice, the political conviction, and the political passion in today’s art. I wish that artists spoke more often on political subjects. I wish that everyday concerns were part of art and, sometimes, I have been shocked at how little those realities have seeped into art. I remember very well when I was already living in New York after 2001, after 9/11, the great attack on the city of New York. Walking through the galleries in Chelsea a few months after, seeing almost no sign of this epic event that had happened and thinking how is it possible that we’re not seeing it. Maybe we’re just not seeing it yet, I remember thinking. 

In any case, one set of feelings in me is about wanting artists to respond, wanting art to be political. At the same time, precisely because of where I grew up, behind the Iron Curtain, I’m also wary of interference, of the intersection of art and politics. Now, I recognise that for many people art is first and foremost a source of beauty, of solace, and of escape. And art institutions for many are places of quiet, of repose, of comfort, of reflection, to get away from the hurly- burly of modern life and, frankly, the horrors of life sometimes. So, there is no one single solution. There will always be multiple ways to look at this topic but what cannot be denied is that today politics and the art world are once again intersecting with great intensity – and no wonder. 

We are living through one of those epochal, reality-altering times. The pandemic, which hopefully is slowly ending, was a huge shock to our system, economically, culturally, socially and politically. It was already going to be a huge shock for the art system, and of course it was heavily compounded by the killing in this country of George Floyd. The ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, which really expanded all around the world, has given a particularly intense political aspect to the consequences of the pandemic experience in the art world, both in terms of the kind of artistic expressions we are seeing, the wonderful richness and intensity, and also in the challenges and shifts to institutional behaviour in the art world.

Protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs at a demonstration against police brutality in Boston, May 2020.
Image Courtesy: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images News

Mind you, the aftershocks are different in various parts of the world. In the Global South, it has led to an intensification of an already-intense debate around postcolonial legacies that need to be fully dealt with. It has intensified discussions around repatriations of objects in European and North American museums as a direct consequence. So, there’s one framing of this debate. In the United States, racial equity issues are having a profound consequence on institutions. These were reflected in the conversations that I conducted with museum leaders in 28 institutions in 14 countries in a book that I recently published called The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues. This book demonstrated that probably the greatest issue today’s generation of museum directors are dealing with is precisely how to align and reorient the museum in the face of this reckoning around global inequities and systemic injustice. 

So, to get back to the question, what is the connection between art and activism? First, to offer something obvious, art can crystallise ideas that no other form of expression can. It has an uncanny ability to bring to a single point the full complexity and intensity of our great political crises. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is usually invoked as Exhibit A in this respect. Today’s artists are brilliant at using the methods of the, if you will, hegemonic system and turning the conventional media and propaganda, media communications, and modern technologies around. Trevor Paglen is just one of many artists who is doing that. There’s a long history of this sort of thing. Of course, artists often participate directly in activism. We have seen, for example, in Nan Goldin’s recent activism concerning the pharmaceutical industry and its entanglements with the art world. Books and dissertations have been written about this topic. 

What I would like to bring to this conversation is maybe one important point, which is relevant to a reflection in the country of India, and which is that the whole question of politics and activism and art is defined differently in a closed society, where there’s a degree of constraint on what can be said, versus an open society, where there are no constraints and no consequences for open speech. Years ago, I published a book about an exhibition, which was focused on Hungarian artists working in a one-party state. In that book, there’s an iconic work by an artist named Tamás Szentjóby, who in 1972 did a simple action. He took a small chair and sat down in the middle of the street on it.

Tamás Szentjóby
Sit Out/ be Forbidden , 1972
Image Courtesy: the Artist, Elizabeth Dee New York, and acb Gallery

I suspect that if he did that in a relatively free and democratic place, in New York, or Mumbai for that matter, nobody would have noticed. But in an oppressive closed society like communist Hungary at the time, it was an open invitation for the cops to show up within minutes – it became a radical gesture. Sitting down on a chair would have meant nothing in an open society. Sitting down in a chair in the middle of the street was a radical aggressive gesture in Hungary in 1972. Context means everything. 

Political art and activism, in short, have to be calibrated to the situation that it’s in and it takes on meaning relative to that situation. In the 1970s, Hungarian artists found various strategies in a situation, where you couldn’t speak openly, to escape censors, to escape the state apparatus. In my exhibition, I described four methods. Some artists created incredibly pure abstract works, which seemed to have no political meaning; the very fact that they were abstract works rendered them into political statements. Others were creating extraordinarily hard-to-decipher conceptual gestures, unpickable marks, as it were, which escaped the attention of the state censors because they were so hard to understand. Yet others used humour. Humour is always the escape hatch, the escape mechanism to speak the truth in situations where speaking truth is not very welcome. And finally, there was a form of art, which I described as “snapchat 1972”, which was to stage actions in private homes or parks that were performative, or which were over as soon as they’d begun, so it was too late by the time the cops showed up, it was evanescent. Once again, all these types of expressions would have meant something completely different in an open society, maybe they wouldn’t have been very meaningful gestures. So, in every country today, this whole question of art and politics is going to be rendered differently not just because of the particular political situation, but because of the overall structure of the public sphere in that country. 

In closing, I want to come back to the avant-garde museum, because once again we’re living in times of tumultuous change and once again, some of the political activism in the art world is being directed not just at the world at large, but at the institutions of art. Artists, critics, and commentators are questioning the museum in a way that they haven’t been questioning the art institution in a generation. They’re questioning sources of income. They’re questioning their programming, their interpretation, the way they tell stories or don’t tell stories, their leadership, who decides what happens, even their architecture. This is a fraught time for museums, but at the same time, a generation of museum curators and directors are working to transform the museum into a more open, a more democratic, a more welcoming, and a more progressive place, precisely so that those criticisms can’t be levelled at it. 

Just as those avant-garde museums were not demolished but reformed, so today my great hope is that institutions will not vanish or be pushed to the sidelines, or be rejected, but that they demonstrate a capacity for renewal, for reform and for progress, and for making themselves indispensable for today’s society and tomorrow’s society. 

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