Monday 18 February 2013

essay | Taming A Rebel Culture

By Mohamed Ashraf bin Mohamad Yoonus
Module 6: We are witness to a number of exhibitions and art works that involve commentary or reactions to socio-political issues. Art as activism has always been a highly contested arena, with many varied perspectives on the multiple issues involved. Think about an area in which art and politics had often come into contact, and state the various positions and reasoning for such positions. (6 Modules)
Taming A Rebel Culture

Political Art?

It is an easy enough position to take when an artist, critic, curator or an academic claims that all art is political. While the position may seem inquisitive and the semantics involved may seemingly offer an alternative to widely held views that delineate art and politics, it is a position that is easy enough to argue for. A closer look at how this position is arrived upon offers reasons why I consider this position slightly. The social relations that govern all human production be it art or beyond it, is considered political as social relations ultimately have political dimensions. The relationship between an artist and the society that he is a part of, the sort of economic dynamics within which he operates to ply his craft, and the very many artists who see themselves above and beyond petty preoccupations such as politics and thereby take a very political stand-it is all political (if you wish to contextualize it as such). I think no one capable of logical reasoning is going to dispute a statement such as “all artworks are political owing to how they offer perspectives on social relations”. By this reasoning, naturally everything is political. It is the sort of uninspired position that hampers any meaningful analysis of the issues that rise out of overlaps between art and politics. Especially since this essay is about a particular-political art.

I tend to have a very simplistic litmus test to determine if an artist and his artworks are political. While not foolproof, it helps to narrow the ever-extending list of artists. If an artist’s works are compared to the other artworks of its time and those who shape art aficionado opinions, such as critics and historians, trace influences to other art movements, then it is probably not political enough for me to qualify as political art; Whereas political art would probably be considered in terms of signposts that denote socio-political events of the era. Simplistic maybe, perhaps over-simplistic, but this test allowed me to quickly narrow down the list I had to look at when I started studying artworks that are considered to be political art.

And of course, at this juncture, it is important to state clearly what I mean by political art. Political art has to offer a commentary, make a statement, about various socio-political, cultural issues. Intentions of artists who produce political art if plotted cover a wide spectrum. From creating awareness to defeating a policy or even to sway the public to opt for a particular politician over another, it is all political art. It is the sort of art that purports to alter how we perceive the world around us, to make us understand what is going on in the world in the hope of altering it for the better; Better as according to the artist of course. And so an artist who produces political art is also a shaper of (public more than the art critics’) opinions. Political art has a determined activist angle to it, which is why political art and activist art are often conflated. Merely representing the world is not enough to qualify as political art, as such not all art that is about politics can be termed political art. The function of the artwork in some sense defines whether it is political art or otherwise. The idea is to challenge the way things are, and to facilitate a change for the better. Moving beyond artworks that are merely for contemplation and appreciation, political art has a strong action component that is required of its viewer.

For most people, engagement with what they would consider art would be at the museum. The museum as an institution defines what art is and determines what is good and otherwise. I would like to draw attention to the demographic of museum visitors. If I could pander to common stereotype, it is a select group that visits museums, especially art museums. What is art and what is not is defined by a small pool of people for the benefit of a slightly larger pool of people of mostly similar background. This oversimplification helps illustrate a point. The world of art consists of a very small populace. Political art in this sense is determinedly opposed to this as it targets a wide audience-the polis, in its entirety. This is the reason why apart from the potency of the content in inspiring change of some manner, political art’s success is also determined by its reach. At this juncture, I would like to write about street art in hopes of refining my focus.

Political art, by virtue of having the need to have a wide reach, contends itself with a venue for its “show” unlike any museum or gallery. The streets, the mass media, the digital media are all platforms to showcase political art. The basis of street art itself is political since it is often an overt, ostentatious and illegal display of resistance against the privatization of space. Control of the space is in the hands of a select few, the owners or the state and so the space in some sense becomes colonized by them. Street artists thus serve to resist this colonization of space in order to assert that these spaces are democratic venues open for everyone’s usage. Shepard Fairey expands on this by claiming that it is the right of taxpayers to use these spaces, the same way corporations use the spaces for advertising.

Street art while a derivative of graffiti, goes beyond tagging. The works of street artists have conceptual content and are used as platforms for the artists to voice opinions that are seldom heard and/or give voice to the marginal groups. The function of being a social commentary and the freedom that is afforded to artists who do not have to worry about institutional backing allows for a raw, unvarnished viewpoint that may at times seem raw and brutal. The works have to compete with the mess of what surrounds them. This is opposed to works shown in museums that allow for people to succumb to indulgence where they can retreat into silence and solitude. The brash quality, rather the lack of subtlety, is often derided by those who see street art as something of a pariah in the art world. Perhaps the rubrics that critics use to judge art need to be re-evaluated where street art, and political art, is concerned since the medium they work with necessitates the treatment. Street art cannot afford to be indirect in its communication of ideas. The wide reach that it contends with and the competition for visual arrest means that the message has to be conveyed in as few words as possible with a simple discourse that immediately evokes a visceral reaction or at worst a reflective moment. In this sense, it is truly democratic as an art form. While it goes without saying that street art allows for these voices to be heard, it also works with a platform that is not assured an audience. The notion of a captive audience, one that museums benefit from, is alien to street artists. The works of street artists can be ignored if not compelling enough, aesthetically and conceptually. Street art and political art thus have many overlaps and oftentimes one serves as a subset of the other. A needless clarification would be if I state that not all street art is political art, and not all political art is street art.

Banksy and Shepard Fairey have been by far the most iconic street artists and their success is in large part due to their strong social commentary element (and of course their employment of brand culture to position themselves as creative entrepreneurs). While street artists, they have made a name for themselves as political activists, with art being their medium for activism. Their success has brought to the fore many issues about street art and political art that had previously not been addressed widely.


Political street art combines social action, social theory and art to pave the way for a diversity of views that were hitherto not heard. While it may not be the best of didactic tools, Murray Edelman even claims that it is through the arts that our views of politics are engendered, and only indirectly through personal immediate experience. This is why there is an assumption oftentimes that what is reflected on “canvas” is akin to their own reasoning.

Although these art forms are considered to be fringe, and it is the artworks that are within the accepted art contexts that are considered mainstream, the fact is that political street art is more mainstream than most other art forms. The sheer reach of the artworks makes it mainstream. In this way, Banksy and Fairey occupy a coveted spot in the art world, for being able to operate in the mainstream and beyond accepted art contexts. This brings to fore an important issue. Art should not be defined narrowly and artworks should not have to be bracketed within styles. Rather, art is better defined when you consider the functions of the artwork.

Increasingly, artworks of Banksy and Fairey are co-opted into institutions with the likes of the Smithsonian being a patron of Fairey. While this recognition is a positive turn, as it shows a maturing art world that is more inclusive, it is also a troubling trend as has been argued by street artists themselves. While on the streets, the social commentaries were uninhibited. Condemnations and criticisms were exhibited freely such as against the state and the various apparatuses of the state. Operating under the auspices of an institution such as a museum, while giving the artworks a certain level of prestige, comes at a price. The unruly, brash nature of the artworks gets tamed. The appropriation of the artists and the artworks basically removes them from their contexts, their natural elements and they thus become open to the museumising effect of the institution. Curators get overzealous in slapping on meanings and recontextualising the artworks. In some sense, as the artwork becomes more mainstream in the conventional sense, from being fringe to going vogue, the rebel culture that set street art and political art apart from the other art forms is tamed.

While some museums are coming forth to include these art forms, there is also the problem of how most museums still have a revulsion towards them as being fringe or not being art at all. The argument that is often put forth is that while the social commentaries and the political activism is good for the streets, it has no place in this form in the museums. And then there is the criticism that such art is plain silly when compared to the actual needs of the issues that are touched upon by the artists. The works are thus shrugged off as nothing more than “abstract liberal pathos and self-righteousness directed towards an uncertain audience”.

Yet another issue faced by the likes of Banksy and Fairey as their works become more mainstream and popular is that they begin to lose their credibility as street artists and as political artists. As their works get duplicated and represented in institutions, whatever defined their works as political street art get diminished. It is a balancing game of sorts for the artists; Their crossover into the mainstream hinge on their fringe cred. Their reputation as artists of the streets is integral to their value as artists. This is why factors such as anonymity, the illegal nature of their activities (through arrests) are highlighted and hyped by the artists. Their anti-establishment rhetoric is praised for being alternative. As they crossover into the mainstream, they are able to do so only through harping on their difference from the mainstream.

In this thought piece, I have tried to establish how political and street art can be integrated into the art world and also touched upon the problems that arise out of this inclusion.

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