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Paul Chan, Now Let Us Praise American Leftists, 2000, single-channel video; black and white, sound, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.

Fernando Bryce, Revolución, 2004. Ink on paper. Courtsey of the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin.

Franklin Watkins. Suicide in Costume, Reprinted from CARNEGIE magazine,
October 1931.

Joseph Beuys, The End of the Twentieth Century, 1983-85. 31 basalt stones, clay, and felt. Courtesy of Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich.

Anselm Kiefer, Midgard, 1982–85. Oil, emulsion, and acrylic on photographic linen mounted on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art.


The Politics of Art

Artists tackle life’s biggest issues with their work.

The art of our times changes before our very eyes with sudden shifts and unexpected turns that confuse and unnerve us. Combine that thrill and challenge with world-wide twists and turns, and we are left with a feeling of vertigo in both our personal and public lives. How can we make sense of the world in which we live? Can art help us to process and understand change?

Laura Hoptman’s fresh, multi-faceted look at the art of our times raises this possibility. In her catalogue essay, she quotes philosopher Theodor Adorno: “‘In order for a work of art to be purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art…’” explaining that “art [is] capable of bearing the burden of exploring territories traversed by philosophy, religion, political ideology, and science” and that “artists in the show have [chosen] art as a meaningful vehicle through which to confront fundamentally human questions: the nature of life and death, the existence of God, the anatomy of belief.”

Hoptman suggests that art can play an important role in our lives. Artists can raise issues and suggest different solutions, roles usually reserved for those in other disciplines such as leaders in politics, religion, science, and philosophy. Artists’ creativity and imagination—often ignored or seen as marginal fluff in an age ruled by rationalism, logic, and empiricism—add another voice to these discussions.

However, it is difficult to measure if including art in our larger discourse has an impact. In fact, there is no proof that any work of art actually changed history or the way we think. Even Picasso’s Guernica—usually considered the most political work of art—did not end the Spanish Civil War. From the very beginning, however, there have been high hopes for art—whether by hunters looking forward to a successful hunt, Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors populating their lands with their own image to assert their power and control, or Christians carving Bible stories onto medieval cathedrals to spread the word of their religion. Much later, the Nazis, who advocated social realism, organized the Exhibition of Degenerate Art to distinguish between proper and immoral art.

Throughout the history of the International, we can see how hopes have been raised periodically for art’s efficacy in a larger context. At the very beginning, Andrew Carnegie—like other philanthropists in the Gilded Age—believed that his palace of culture would improve the quality of life of Pittsburghers, bringing them “sweetness and light” through the civilizing and educational power of art. After experiencing the visualization of manifest destiny in the White City of Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, where 21.5 million paid to see some 65,000 exhibits documenting success and innovation, Carnegie wanted Pittsburgh to play a similar role. At a time when the American character was being defined and the country was entering into world politics as a strong contender, he suggested that American art belonged with European art as an example of the triumph of American ingenuity and culture.

Many artists took a political stance during the world wars and the intervening Depression, from the pointed criticism in Picasso and the German Expressionists to the alternative world in Surrealism and the rebellious actions of the Dadaists. Rarely did such politics cause a stir at the International, though, Franklin Watkins’ Suicide in Costume, which won the top prize in 1931, was troublesome. He equated his robust, dead clown prone on a table with a gun with “our civilization” during the deep Depression. Unlike usual aesthetic debates, this work engendered uproar about the proper subject and role of art. The public outcry was addressed in a local article It’s Ugly But Is It Art? International Curator Homer St. Gaudens later claimed that the exhibition was “the laboratory wherein was touched off the fuse that exploded the charge that within the last two decades blew up the illusions of self-contented ignorance.”

In 1988, the International preceded the end of the millennium debate. Joseph Beuys’ End of the Twentieth Century anchored a somber show where artists addressed AIDS, consumerism, gender, and politics. Julian Schnabel used St. Sebastian as a symbol for AIDS, Anselm Kiefer referenced the Holocaust, and Elizabeth Murray used the kitchen table to address gender issues. These issues were part of the next several Internationals, though politics was never the core of any exhibition.

In each of these cases, the hopes for works of art outpaced the expectations of the viewers and curators and even the artists themselves. Rarely is politics the raison d’etre of a work, and rarely are politics completely absent. Even pure abstraction can have political overtones.

We cannot measure the effect of art upon those that see it, nor can we prove that the claims and hopes attached to art in the last 106 years were realized. However, this year’s International signals a shift. The art here, too, bears the burden of expectations. Many of the artists have chosen the commonplace as their subject while contributing to the larger discussions of the meaning of life, adding different points of view. Perhaps the arts will regain their place in the make-up of the Renaissance man and begin to move away from the over-specialization and isolation of contemporary knowledge and research. At the very least, they are storming the gates, demanding to be relevant, contributing new perspectives, and giving new hopes to their creators. n

About the author
Vicky A. Clark held a number of positions at Carnegie Museum of Art from 1981 to 1996. Her last project was the book International Encounters: The Carnegie International and Contemporary Art, 1896–1996. After six years as curator at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, she is now an independent curator working on exhibitions across the country and a professor at various local universities.


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Copyright (c) 2004 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.