In 2012, in Brooklyn Rail Irving Sandler posed fourteen questions to fellow art critics. They have provided a concise framework to consider the state of the visual arts today; to think in big-picture terms in ways that focused reviews do not allow. Question 13: Are gender-based and political issues still viable in art criticism today?
The short answer is Yes, of course; why on earth would they not? The long answer would be that, historically, i.e., during the modern, industrial era, and continuing into the post-industrial, postmodern era, politics has been one of the recurrent themes of serious art, if not a predominant one. Often the artists regard themselves as revolutionary, sometimes reactionary. Some have managed to serve several masters in perilous times: Goya and David, both great artists, but neither steered above criticism from we sharp-eyed moralists two centuries later. If unambiguously heroic political and satirical artists like Daumier, Kollwitz, Grosz, and Heartfield saw their role as changing public opinion through prints and publications, we should also remember that the mainstream trend of modern art was the exploration of new ways of seeing, which, it was hoped, would result in a more enlightened humanity. Didn’t exactly work out as planned. Consider the visionary utopians of the early Communist revolution; within a few years they went from cultural commissars to exiles or worse.
The Abstract Expressionists, who in the 1940s spurned the socially engaged art of the Depression years — in which they themselves had participated — set off decades of capitalization of the art world, and it’s not particularly pretty or enlightened. Gorky’s dismissal of social-realist “poor art for poor people” seems mean-spirited today and, with the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders’ plain talk about “malefactors of great wealth,” to use FDR’s term, in retrospect just plain wrong-headed.
Still, there remains a widespread belief that art’s main purpose is to deliver beauty and pleasure: Matisse’s comfy armchair for the tired businessman has hardly gone away. Why trouble our beautiful minds over injustice and misery? They may have a point; who are we to dogmatically prescribe angry, ugly (and truthful) art for anyone? But the dream of social justice is still alive, even after thirty years of anti-democratic corporatization and mass brainwashing.
The race- and sexuality-centered art that arose during the 1980s, however grating to some sensibilities at the time, is relevant now, as much current art continues to promote tolerance for diversity. If Rauschenberg’s much-touted merger of art and life is generally construed as the rationale for promiscuously all-embracing collage, how could we now, paralyzed by political stasis (notwithstanding the recent surprise gift from the Supreme Court), deny the aesthetic legitimacy of verism in art, i.e., addressing contemporary reality?
In today’s art world, political art is firmly established. Much contemporary conceptual art announces its sociopolitical intent; unfortunately, it is frequently defeated by the very intellectual and abstract nature of contemporary creative processes, a legacy of Duchamp. Most art audiences are liberals, of course, and it’s not as if advanced contemporary art’s primary task is to change political hearts and minds, but there is a danger that deciphering encoded work to uncover the hidden messages can become the end transaction between art and viewer. The art will increasingly function merely as a politically correct mirror for the cultivated bien pendant, fulfilling a too narrowly defined political role preaching to a shrinking choir. Art without real force and urgency reduces itself to a lifestyle choice, a vehicle for indulgence in sentimentality, an accessory. I prefer art that is audacious and naive enough to visualize world peace, to reach out to affect people outside the cultural-tourism jet set, to strive to effect change for all.