BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Good Intentions

Art has a long history of engagement with politics. Does recent so-called socially engaged or political art really effect change?

BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 01 MAR 11

Back in 1976, Merce Cunningham announced that he would not be participating in that year’s Shiraz Festival of the Arts in Iran, an annual event of theatre, music, dance and visual arts hosted by the royal family in a historic desert enclave outside of the ancient south-eastern city. Since 1966, the Festival had hosted groundbreaking works by art world luminaries including Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and many others. Xenakis, for his part, produced one of his most electrifying pieces there: performed in 1968, Nuits (Nights) comprised 12 voices singing in Sumerian and Persian dialects and was dedicated to political prisoners. In 1971, audiences at the festival were treated to Orghast, a 24-hour play directed by Peter Brook, its script fashioned from an invented language by the poet Ted Hughes; the following year Robert Wilson’s epically crooked theatrical production KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace was performed simultaneously on seven hills in Shiraz for seven days. While much of the Iranian population may have found it all a bit much (the late Ayatollah Khomeini declared that ‘indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz’), the city and its famous festival swiftly became a pleasure paradise for the international avant-garde. Still, by the mid-1970s the excesses of the Shah’s regime – from his unforgettably chic and lavish party commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire to his secret police locking up, torturing and executing political opponents at will – had entered the public consciousness. More and more, people called for a boycott of the event. By 1976, Cunningham, Cage and composer Gordon Mumma had all pulled out. The Kayhan newspaper, a state mouthpiece, declared: ‘The giants are not coming this year!’ Two years later, the Shah’s regime would crumble, to be replaced by a nascent Islamic Republic, and the Shiraz Festival would fade into the historical ether. Whether cultural boycotts had any role to play in the fall of the regime is beside the point (they probably didn’t); the precedent, however, is an important one. 

Merce Cunningham, Persepolis, performed at the Shiraz Festival of the Arts, Iran, 1972

The Iranian experience is not a particularly well-known one, but it does raise a number of questions about the role artists may play in the fraught world of politics. What responsibility do they have, if any, vis-à-vis the places their art might be shown and from whom they receive funds? Could cultural boycotts in fact contribute to the moral and political isolation of a rogue state, and, finally, serve as an arm of broader activist strategy? Or should the arts steer clear of activism completely, abiding by the Modernist mantra that mingling art with politics will only sully the former’s sanctity? These questions loomed large vis-à-vis Iran in the 1970s, as they did throughout most of the second half of the 20th century in relation to Apartheid-era South Africa. And while today these questions should be just as relevant to, say, China or Israel – two countries that demonstrate a notable commitment to contemporary art and have contested human rights records – they simply are not raised very often. The reasons for this silence – the disconnect between the production and consumption of art today and the lived world of politics – are diverse and varied, but they may, at least in part, be linked to the ascendance of a new brand of art work that is vaguely, but triumphantly, referred to as ‘political art’. 


An oil tank sits in a gallery. A straitjacket is fashioned from the American flag. A camera is surgically implanted in the back of an artist’s head for a period of no less than one year, his every movement recorded and streamed live on to a gallery website. More than a few artists work on projects involving the front-page of The New York Times. Another artist dons a burka, only to be photographed in front of iconic American sites, such as the White House, the Pentagon and the Guggenheim Museum.

The last ten years have witnessed a remarkable proliferation of platforms for art works that tend to be referred to as ‘socially engaged’ or ‘political’. Still, these works are unlike any work that precedes it. Art, obviously, has a long history of engagement with the political: from Francisco de Goya’s searing ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’ (The Disasters of War, 1810–20) series of prints, which he made in response to the Napoleonic Wars, to the Modernists’ anxieties about the consumer culture they saw creeping up around them and its attendant links to right-wing politics, artists have very often existed as a principled political vanguard. More recently, we need only look to the pamphleteering of the New York-based collective Group Material in the 1980s as the AIDS crisis raged and Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye. In more closed societies like China, artists such as Ai Weiwei have endeavoured to produce work that pushes back on vivid injustices in the surrounds (like his current scattering of ceramic sunflower seeds through Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, a subtle evocation of the mass labour that went into producing them). The examples go on. And yet, something has changed when it comes to contemporary art’s preoccupation with the political – especially when it is produced in the West. The new political art is more topically driven, more blithely anti-hegemonic and more consensus-driven. It is often borne of an idea rather than a lived reality. The stakes have changed, too; there is no draft in most countries, or (again, in the West), no war and destruction at home or no aids crisis for that matter (if you’re able to afford antiretrovirals). What has ensued, in other words, is a comfortable distance between politics as manifest in social relations tethered to power and powerlessness – as a site of real, live action – and politics as a site of performance. Instead of marching to war or even marching in a demonstration, we perform our political credentials in a variety of ways: by how we vote (Democrat), what we wear (green ribbons in solidarity with Iranians), how we shop (Fair Trade), the causes we write cheques for (gay rights in Zimbabwe?) – and by the kind of art we consume (‘engaged’). We attend conferences and symposia on democracy, community action, art and politics. An entire industry has come of age. There are academic programmes devoted to art and politics (Goldsmiths in London). There are centres full of talks and resident artists and researchers (the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, New York). There are abundant arts events that take Bertolt Brecht as their inspiration and leitmotif (the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009). How did we get here, and at what cost does the nascent industry come?


In his raucously prescient 1970 essay ‘Radical Chic’, Tom Wolfe describes members of the New York bourgeoisie munching on Roquefort morsels (rolled in crushed nuts) in the composer Leonard Bernstein’s Upper West Side apartment as they listen intently to members of the Black Panthers rhapsodize about the revolution to come. The term ‘Radical Chic’ has come to encapsulate much of how the privileged in their pyramids – but also we as a society – associate with subaltern causes: Bernstein et al., though dazzled by the Panthers’ performance, probably had as much commitment to the radical black equality they espoused as they did to the fate of endangered guinea fowl. It is difficult not to identify the facile, frivolous and slightly disingenuous activism of the Manhattan Brahmins of Wolfe’s account with today’s dislocation of reality, i.e. raising one’s fist from the safe distance of the computer, the cinema or the art gallery to ardently declare, that war sucks! Witness, for example, a sampling of exhibitions in the last decade with ostensibly political themes, not to mention impeccable political credentials: ‘The Blame Show: Dissent and Freedom’ at White Box Gallery in 2002; ‘The Art of 9/11’ at Apexart in 2005 and ‘Out Now’ at e-flux project space in 2008 the touring shows; ‘It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq’ and ‘Democracy in America: The National Campaign’ by Creative Time in 2008 (all of these took place in New York); Documenta11 in 2002 (the so-called CNN documenta); ‘Optimism in the Age of Global War’ the title of the 10th Istanbul Biennial and ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2007; ‘Antiphotojournalism’ at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona in 2010 – and so on.

Jeremy Deller, 'It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq', 2008, exhibition view at New Museum, New York. Courtesy: New Museum

It is difficult not to recognize in this sea of political shows the art of the token gesture. Of course, many of these exhibitions were thoughtful and some, like the 2007 Istanbul Biennial or ‘Antiphotojournalism’, were even terrific. Still, a look at their conceptual underpinnings reveals a tightly circumscribed universe of ‘the political’ in which artists address the problematics of power, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ (Istanbul 2009), and finally, use a familiar cast of set-pieces of contemporary art (mostly the installation or the documentary as zeitgeist – behold the looted museum, the interrogation room, the halls of power) to put forward one-liners about any number of issues, from the problem of mainstream representations of war to the ubiquity of surveillance culture to the miserable plight of Palestinians/aboriginals/Roma. Take a good look at the institutions that host these exhibitions, and a familiar medley of programming emerges. An annual line-up may include one show devoted to gender, another to Islam, and perhaps another to Israel to balance out the former – and rarely is the work of artists whose politics we don’t like featured. In other words, these exhibitions favour simplicity over complexity: they are ‘politically correct’. They also all-too-often carry with them gratuitous references to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben – watered-down versions of his ideas have become lazy shorthand for any situation of crisis and asymmetrical power. Hail the superfluous name-check, hail the Agamben Effect!

When David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 film A Fire in My Belly was pulled from ‘Hide/Seek’ at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC last November (the offending scene depicts ants crawling about a crucifix, inspiring complaints from the Catholic League and others), art spaces across the US leapt at the chance to host the work. New York’s Museum of Modern Art even bought it. The act of defending the ill-fated film quickly became a coveted gesture, potentially eclipsing the content of the film. It announced: ‘We don’t believe in censorship! Artistic freedom for all! We’re not like those narrow conservatives!’ The very fact that the censorship inspired such an outpouring was important, and yet, it couldn’t help, at times, but feel like a form of institutional self-congratulation – another version of ticking the box alluded to above.

What is the good of engaged art – whether it takes the form of governmental critique or institutional critique or otherwise – when it is subsumed back into the system?

All of which leads to the following question: what is the difference between representing politics and actually enacting it? Representing politics entails describing a work by starting a sentence with ‘it’s about … x’. When Sam Durant makes sculptures of gallows or Taryn Simon photographs individuals on Death Row, it’s about how capital punishment is a bad, barbaric practice. But what happens next? And what is the good of engaged art – whether it takes the form of governmental critique or institutional critique or otherwise – when it is subsumed back into the system? Liam Gillick has argued that contemporary art has created a safe place from which to elaborate critique. It represents, in his words, a place of ‘dynamic contradiction’. He elaborates: ‘Change happens to other things but not within the realm of the contemporary. Boycotting everything is no longer an option; the strikes and protests will be included, too. The system is resistant. Moving against the stream is a problem, for it goes in every direction.’1

Witness participants in the 2008 ‘summit’ of the non-profit arts organization Creative Time in New York. Titled ‘Democracy in America: The National Campaign’, it brought together wide-ranging exhibitions, public programmes and commissions. Some of the artists involved – such as Sharon Hayes, who gathered queer, transgender and miscellaneous other volunteers at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions – use protest not only as medium, but as the stuff of their art. Also included was a roving truck that distributed ice cream and public service messages care of The Center for Tactical Magic, and a website to which individuals could upload protest songs. The press release read: ‘“Democracy in America” travels across the country to take the temperature of artists’ relationships with and reactions to the historic roots and practical manifestations of the American democratic tradition. Creative Time will promote active participation and open discourse during the 2008 election season and beyond by engaging a diverse community of artists, activists, thinkers, and citizens to create spaces for dialogue, exploration, and congregation.’ There are other examples of the deployment of collectivity and demonstration in contemporary art. One is Jeremy Deller’s oft-cited 2004 contribution to Manifesta 5, when he invited all manner of alternative societies to march through host city San Sebastian’s streets. Deller won the Turner Prize that year, too. The stream goes in every direction.

Taryn Simon, Larry Youngblood, 2002, with Alice Laitner, Youngblood's girlfriend and alibi witness at trial, served 8 years of a 10.5-year sentence for kidnapping, sexual assault and child molestation, c-type print, 79 x 102 cm. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Today’s political art also flirts with institutional critique. Carey Young performs knowing re-enactments of corporatism in the art world, while Mark Dion critiques exhibition as form. This is political art in the spirit of Michel Foucault’s conception of politics – as a site of organization, of classification, of power. To paraphrase Andrea Fraser, this form of art may feel a bit closer to the institution of critique than institutional critique per se. We’ve come a long way since Hans Haacke’s exposure of pervasive corporate real estate shadiness in a show that was scheduled to be at the Guggenheim back in 1971; Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 implicated some of the museum’s own trustees, and was cancelled six weeks before it was due to open.

There is, too, another form of political art that bears mentioning, one that involves a culture of the easing of conscience through artist residencies, symposia and workshops. The latter is especially worth thinking about, particularly when it involves sending artists to resource-poor zones, and asking them to, for example, work with disadvantaged children or the oppressed: ‘the local community’. This form of cultural latrine-building is usually beneficial to most parties involved: the children inevitably produce the stuff of delightful coffee-table books and the artists walk away feeling like they’ve done their bit for the cause – as does the funding body. It can also occasionally result in something profound. Take, for example, Bard University’s collaboration with Al Quds University, which involves artists such as Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal of Decolonizing Architecture engaged in classroom contexts. Or the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, where the model of community building is embedded in the very operation of the arts space. But still, if these are the exceptions, it is unclear what the bulk of such initiatives actually achieve. Like Mrs Jellyby in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852), a ‘telescopic philanthropist’ obsessed with an obscure African tribe while ignoring the well-being of her own children, are artists easing their own consciences by doing good, above all?

Art may be better off asking us as many questions as it answers. Art, when it’s got verve, may even deign to make us uncomfortable.

In a 2007 article on the Guardian’s website, Gillick (again) had this to say after seeing an exhibition entitled ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ at London’s ICA: ‘Superficially, contemporary art is not well placed to confront the recent clarifications and extremes of conflict in a direct way. This explains why there has been little collective response independent of the anti-war movement in general. What artists can do is occasionally step outside their normal practice and stand as citizens against the delusions of their leaders.’2

If contemporary art is not well-situated to respond to conflict in the world, does the industry of political or engaged art simply mimic and even shadow more ‘engaged’ action, and in the meantime, create a safe place for expression far from the ugliness of real life? It is useful here to revisit Claire Bishop’s 2004 essay ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. In it, the art historian wonders whether so-called relational aesthetics – a term coined by Nicholas Bourriaud in the mid-1990s for art that took participation as its point of departure as well as its endpoint – only enacted the idea of democracy and social engagement rather than realized it. Bishop wrote this about relational aesthetics’ more canonical manifestations: ‘They rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness.’3 It is worth wondering if one can extend Bishop’s argument from the realm of relational aesthetics more generally to the rubric of political art. Does sitting around a room exchanging experiences and ideas about the war in Iraq nurture a false sense of engagement or community or could it inspire someone to write a letter to their local representative, take part in a protest, or, as a public figure, take a public stand? Does such activity, to return to a worn but handy cliché, simply preach to the converted, or when, say, placed in public spaces, like museums, pull in a few new converts to the flock? Either way, a great deal of recent political art is affirmative; it affirms what we know (the wars of George W. Bush are bad; men are misogynists; gays are people too, etc.), it affirms that participation is a necessary good, and finally, it affirms that you – as the consumer of art – are, in fact, part of a community of like-minded peers. Bishop continues: ‘Today, political, moral and ethical judgments have come to fill the vacuum of aesthetic judgment in a way that was unthinkable 40 years ago.’4 And so, it follows that we see a work or a show with good politics and those politics trump all, including any consideration of whether it is good art in the first place. Art may be better off asking us as many questions as it answers. Art, when it’s got verve, may even deign to make us uncomfortable.

Nate Lowman, The Never Ending Story, 2007, petrol pumps and petrol pump side panels, 2 x 3.5 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Maccarone, New York

Santiago Sierra has done more than any other contemporary artist in mining discomfort over happy consensus. In his world, most relations between humans involve some transactional quality that is rooted in an asymmetry. In 2000, he paid four drug-addicted prostitutes with heroin in exchange for a line tattooed on each of their backs – as a camera rolled. In 2001, at the 49th Venice Biennale, he invited street vendors, most of them brown-skinned, brown-haired immigrants, to have their hair dyed blonde in exchange for a payment of 120,000 lire. A recent piece, Campaña Dientes de Los Dientes De Los Ultimos Gitanos de Ponticelli (Campaign Teeth of Last Gypsies of Ponticelli, 2009), involves a series of billboards of close-ups of rotting teeth. It brings into uncomfortable proximity the state of Europe’s Roma population and looks as garish as it sounds. Is this exploitation? Absolutely. Is it inappropriate? Probably. Still, Sierra’s work serves as powerful counterpoint to much art produced today that refuses to acknowledge the artist’s own implication in economies of use – and misuse.

Phil Collins has equally courted controversy with his work in resource-poor situations. Collins’ itinerary – which has included cities from Baghdad to Istanbul to Ramallah and Belgrade – seems to track conflict, making him the art world’s version of a war correspondent. But, like Sierra, rather than denying his presence in these far-flung places, Collins enters these situations knowingly, turning his gaze to the economy of image-making in a manner that verges on the absurd. For how to make a refugee (1999) Collins filmed a press conference in which two Kosovar refugee families are presented to the international media. A young boy with a gunshot wound is told to stand, take off his shirt and re-position his hat in order to supply the perfect image. In Baghdad Screen Tests (2002), Iraqi youth re-enact Andy Warhol’s ‘Screen Tests’ (1964–66) for a Hollywood film that will never be made. In They Shoot Horses (2004), Collins asks Palestinian youths to dance to pop music – from Joy Division to Beyoncé – to the point of exhaustion. Although Collins occasionally has a cameo in his videos, his presence is embedded in each one. His is not an easy excoriation of the media apparatus, but a story in which he – and more disturbingly we – are all involved. Depressingly, today’s political art rarely has the force or courage of Collins’ or Sierra’s. Behold, the oil tank in the gallery. Behold the sanguine consumption of art.


Last May, a ragtag group of activists boarded the Mavi Marmara peace flotilla and headed for Gaza armed with humanitarian supplies. Their ill-fated journey – nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli naval personnel – inspired outrage around the world. Turkey severed relations with Israel, and the un, the Obama administration and countless others condemned the attack. Musicians pulled out of planned concerts in Israel and the writers Arundhati Roy, John Berger, Adrienne Rich and Naomi Klein joined in the calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. For many advocates of the boycott – the Palestinian Association for the Academic and Cultural Boycott most prominent among them – the South African experience provides the most useful referent. In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid. It read: ‘We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.’ The boycott against South Africa, of course, managed to become a bumper-sticker cause. Combined with economic sanctions, it was almost certainly an important tool in bringing about the end of Apartheid.

And yet, cultural boycotts make for a hard sell. As with academic boycotts, opponents argue that if artists can’t transcend fractious political lines, who can? Read the website of Artists Without Walls, one of many organizations devoted to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians: ‘AWW has succeeded to open up Israeli and Palestinian artists to each other at personal level, and beyond that to a better and more “human” understanding of each other’s societies and issues.’ There are many other examples.

Phil Collins, Baghdad Screen Tests, 2002, video still. Courtesy: Shady Lane Productions

All of this begs the question: when does dialogue become counterproductive? Are artists really able to levitate above the ugly stuff of politics and effect change? Should there be special artists’ visas? And with them would we open the floodgates to reconciliation? When does the so-called special status clause threaten to normalize the status quo, create a safe space from which to critique that, in the end, possibly stands to change nothing at all? When art provides the cover of a safe space from which one can make vague political statements about dialogue and community – when it allows for representations of violence in place of real and present violence – could it be time to withdraw altogether?

And so, here we are, in 2011. The demand that art address the pressing political questions of our time exists. The cheese morselization of art, along with what Adrian Piper once dubbed ‘Easy Listening Art’ exists, too. In 1990, the artist wrote: ‘Easy Listening Art provides enough compositional sophistication to engage or titillate one’s visual sensibilities, but its impact is deliberately muted. It is suggestive rather than explicit, soothing rather than demanding. Easy Listening Art occupies its own modest niche in one’s consciousness and does not divert one’s attention from more pressing pursuits. It does not make trouble, instead it makes nice.’5

Today, Easy Listening Art in the name of the political leads to the sedation of our aesthetic and critical appetites. It offers impassioned arguments on safe subjects. In its place, I like artist Tania Bruguera’s definition of political art: it is, she says, ‘the art of uncomfortable knowledge’.6 In the end, art that stems from knowing that we actually don’t have all the answers, art that refuses to serve as a moral compass, art that doesn’t ‘make nice’, may be our best hope.

1 Liam Gillick, ‘Contemporary Art Does Not Account for that Which is Taking Place’, e-flux journal # 21, p.5
2 Liam Gillick, ‘Is There Anything for Art to Say About Iraq?’,, 22 May 2007,
3 Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October 110, Autumn 2004.
4 Ibid, p.77
5 Adrian Piper, ‘Goodbye to Easy Listening’, from Out of Order, Out of Sight, mit Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, p.176
6 Political Art Statement, Tania Bruguera, 2010,

Negar Azimi is a writer and editor-in-chief of Bidoun.