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Suvan Geer


I’ve been thinking about art and politics. It was a great summer for political spectacles. On the heels of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics came the two presidential conventions. No matter what your politics are, you have to admit there was something incredibly deft in the construction of each of these events. There was China’s bewitching night of entertainment that heralded its coming of age as a glittering global power. The subtext was a subtle reassertion of it’s already well developed order and control over a vast, diverse population. Less subtle but no less visually insistent were the Democrats, with their White House infused stadium presentation that had Obama speaking atop something that looked like the star encircled carpeting in the Oval Office. Even more masterful was the stripped down simplicity of the Republicans as they co-opted the immediacy of a hurricane watch as a way to visually reinvent the GOP as a group of mavericks making an assault on their own party—you know, the one already in Washington. Each event was a media savvy, emotionally charged, politically loaded and intensely focused visual framing.

Delegates to the Democratic (left) and Republican (right) national conventions, 2008.
Photographs courtesy the DNC and the RNC.

But if you look at the recent conventions and Olympic ceremonies, it’s also clear that politics has no place for multilevel meanings or ambiguity. In order to do what they set out to do, each political arena needed to not only entertain but tightly control the meaning of what was presented. Slogans like “Harmony”, “Country First” and “Change” spoke to what the audiences wanted to hear even as the meaning of those abstractions were carefully parsed out, defined by the numbers of people engaged in the performance and the symbolic power of who was picked to speak. To arouse support and hold onto it, politics wants its language and images controlled and its meanings uncluttered with larger issues and contexts.

Art however speaks to its audience in a vastly different way for reasons other than solidifying agreement or reinforcing a party line. True, art’s images are also constructed realities that are filled with opinion and thought. But they are also arenas where nuance and multilevel meanings are important, and as such they are valuable alternative spaces pushing back against the narrowing framing of politics.

When I think of Leon Golub’s ‘Interrogation’ paintings done in the 1980’s, for example, those works’ refusal to assign nationality to either victim or military power make them powerful and generic indictments of torture and the abuse of power. Not assigning sides in the image’s conflict allows us to see clearly the inhumanity at play and identify it without the emotional distraction of justifying arguments.  Such moral clarity is increasingly necessary, given their eerie echoes in the photographs of grinning US soldiers humiliating and sexually abusing bound, hooded captives at Abu Ghraib. Golub’s layered reminder of how inhumanity can present itself stands in stark contrast to the military’s subsequent classification of the photographed prison events as ‘standard operating procedure,’ necessary for undisclosed reasons of ‘national security.’
Then too, the power of race in shaping perceptions of authority and trust should be an imperative discussion in this election.  Yet only a general silence and careful, neutral sounding references to ‘hope,’ plus benign sounding exonerations about not enough ‘experience’ are being articulated. Against that absence it is good to have memories of Kara Walker’s recent exhibition at the Hammer. Even the show’s title, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” gave a sense of the weight and internalized contradictions that are slavery’s legacy in America. Walker’s black paper silhouettes ran in panoramic expanses across the wall as beautiful, cartoonish fantasies filled with all manner of raw racial and sexual stereotypes drawn from literature, minstrel shows and other sources. To look at the images, and know that they were cut by a black woman, was to be shockingly confronted with the foundations and codes of the racial divide and the mistrust it breeds.

Walker’s images leapt with playfulness even as they churned out horrendous, inflammatory narratives. Their exuberance and lack of condemnation, however, made the blank, flat, detail-less darkness of the silhouettes a chilling representation of history. But they also suggested the shadowy, seldom acknowledged experience we each carry of a racially constructed Other. Shaped by history, cultural myth and metaphor we hardly know each other, yet we--like the artist--are in a continuing love/hate relationship at a precipitous moment in history.

Leon Golub, "Interrogation," 1981,
acrylic on linen, 120 x 168".

Leon Golub, "White Squard V,"
1984, acrylic on linen.

Kara Walker, "Trilogy," 2001, mixed media
and paper on canvas board, 9 x 12".

Kara Walker, "A Work on Progress,"
1998, cut paper on wall, 69 x 80".

The way Golub and Walker use ambiguity in their work around complex, vital issues is important. They offer not the isolating clarity of a single thought or of a simple explanation the way politicians do, but rather the important vacuum of uncertainty. The intentional openness in their images engenders a kind of anxiety for the viewer. Because there is no rationale for Golub’s images of torture, or a condemning voice in Walker’s, our unconscious expectations of what the image should mean are jarringly disrupted. That anxious opening leaves room for the viewer to consider their own reactions as important perspectives contributing to the work’s meaning.

Such openness can also help us interrogate those perspectives. The layered ambiguity in Sandow Birk’s recent ink on paper drawing, “Monument to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, in the “LookySee” exhibit at Otis College’s Ben Maltz Gallery has that effect. His image shows a towering column inscribed with the lofty words of the UN’s General Assembly Proclamation, with its noble call for a common standard of education and achievement for all nations and people. Yet Birk’s drawn monument leans, propped up with wooden scaffolding, behind a chain link fence in a squalid landscape of surveillance and shanties, overseen by chugging industry and shining skyscrapers. It’s not clear if the inscribed column represents a stubborn testament to ideals tenaciously held in a troubled world by the nations of the UN, or a sad, ironic comment on the UN’s failure to fully achieve human rights, beginning with the class divide in America. Intriguingly it could perhaps be both. How we choose to read the work’s meaning may depend on how we already see the UN’s mission and history. But, as we struggle to fix the image’s meaning, the flux of perspectives it stimulates is important. It allows us to consider and reconsider our perceptions on the achievements of the UN and interrogate our own judgment--no small matter in a political climate where certainty is frequently held out as if it is truth. Art that does such judicious wavering can operate as something of a visual antidote to the dangerous narrowing of thought flooding a world modeled on industry, advertising and their methods of rapid idea consumption.

William Kentridge, "A Nicely Built City
Never Resists Destruction," 1995, etching
and aquatint, 11 1/2 x 15".

William Kentridge, "Office, Love," 2001,
tapestry weave with embroidery,
mohair, acrylic, and polyester.
In art schools and museums I continually hear students and viewers ask, “But, what does it mean?” in reference to images that confound them with multiple layers and possible meanings. Perhaps it’s the result of living in a world of so many images, presented not to be thought about but simply identified and absorbed. We live in a culture where ads coat every surface, and increasingly everything we surround ourselves with is a considered a brand. From the way Disney put its stamp on idealized American townships they are currently building in Florida to the way religious leaders and political parties incongruously brand themselves and their movements as epitomizing “family values” or governmental change. In such a cultural environment brand selection replaces deep consideration. Art that stands against such prepackaged thinking by holding out the complexity of life and ideas is vital.

William Kentridge is a South African artist whose compelling but open works explore the unsettling reality of being a white man living in a society shaped by apartheid and colonialism. His videos are haunting pictorial narratives of characters in charcoal-drawn landscapes and rooms that flicker with residual marks left by his drawn, erased and overdrawn images. Of them he writes, “I am interested in political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and certain endings; an art (and politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”  Refusing to let art about social issues settle into certain meaning, exploring the conflicting depths of ideas held, be they pro or con, this, Kentridge suggests, is a truly political act.  With him I too believe in the power of art to revive openness and the importance of asking questions in a world rushing steadily toward simplistic choices and dangerously unexamined answers.

Bobak Ha 'Eri, A view of Downtown Celebration, Florida, 2006, color photograph.
The city was planned by the Walt Disney Company.