Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass

From “Best of Chicago Art Magazine”, Nov. 2009

Jeriah Hildwine

“Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass”
– Charles Bukowski, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories, 1983

If in real life politics is difficult and unpleasant at best, in art it is if anything more troublesome.  Give a young artist license to attempt a piece of political art, and odds are dollars to donuts you’ll end up getting some atrocious crucifixion of a dove on an oil drum, only the oil drum is the body of a syringe, and the dove is crying, but the tears are oil, and oh wait, there’s freakin’ dollar bills everywhere and probably some goddamned Golden Arches for good measure.  There’s something about the attempt at expressing political sentiment in a work of art that brings out the worst in many artists, or maybe it just brings the worst artists out of the woodwork.  The phenomenon is worst among students, perhaps, but successful and even well-known artists are brought to ruin, or at least shame, by their forays into political art.

Richard Serra "Stop Bush"

Richard Serra "Stop Bush"

The worst example of this that I can think of is Richard Serra’s piece, Stop Bush, featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.  It’s a drawing in litho crayon on mylar, and the image is the familiar silhouette of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner, with the title in large letters above.  Serra’s work in lead and steel is legendary, iconic, and monumental; his protest drawing is childish, didactic, and impotent.  The only possible explanation, the only way I can get my head around Serra’s idea here, is that ultimately he decided that ending the war in Iraq was something more important than art, so he used his name recognition to turn a major art event into a platform from which to spread a message which he felt was bigger than aesthetics.

Here’s the problem, Richard:  not only are you preaching to the choir, but they’re all singing and you’re off key.  There was no shortage of public outrage at the Abu Ghraib atrocities, certainly not among the art world crowd frequenting the Biennial.  If an occasional Bush supporter had wandered in, I don’t imagine he or she would have been persuaded by the sight of Serra’s litho drawing, no matter how big a fan of Serra’s sculpture he or she had been.  Nor were Bush’s detractors–and here I can speak from personal experience–moved to passionate action by the sight.  It was really just embarrassing.

Francisco Botero "Pantie Humiliation"

Francisco Botero "Pantie Humiliation"

I said before that Serra’s was the worst example of a well-known artist trying to make political art and disgracing himself in the process, but ultimately I can forgive Serra, because a), his other work is so good, and b), I can empathize with his desire to lend his name to what he felt to be a vital cause.  Not so with the other big name to take on Abu Ghraib, and of course I’m talking about Botero.  Botero’s approach to the atrocity is a polar opposite from Serra’s:  Serra turned his back entirely on his skill set in order to create a piece of propaganda, while Botero appropriated the imagery of the event as a new setting for his plump, naive figures, who remain as stylized, generic, and homogenous as ever.  (Mark Scroggins aptly compares them to “crucified smurfs.”)


Steve Mumford "Soldiers Searching A Farm, Baghdad"

Political art need not be so ham-handed.  Alexis Rockman, Steve Mumford, and Scott Greene all use politically-loaded themes as MacGuffins to drive forward their paintings, all of which stand on their own.  Much of Do-Ho Suh’s work similarly uses politics as the foundation, yet like Rockman, Mumford, and Green, is far from propaganda.  The difference is one of loyalty:  these successful politically-oriented artists are driven by a creative rather than an activist motivation.  Their may not directly inspire a purposeful rage in the populace, may not drive the viewer to take up a pet cause, but this is not the function of art.  These artists create objects for contemplation, and while politics may indeed be part of what is contemplated, it is not the sole ends towards which they strive.

Do Fo Suh "Floor" (detail)

Do Fo Suh "Floor" (detail)

Political art is at home in Chicago; last year’s group show Consuming War at the Hyde Park Art Center proposed to address “the ways the American media and consumer culture have manipulated and influenced our perceptions of war, often turning it into a spectacle for American consumption.” The works in that exhibition ran the gamut from the nuanced to the overt; my strongest memory is of Frederick Holland’s painfully didactic American Blend.  I suspect that the phenomenon of ham-handed propaganda interspersed with other, more subtle works is something of a trend in group shows of political art.

Frederick Holland "American Blend"

Frederick Holland "American Blend"

More recently, I have had the pleasure of seeing some politically-oriented work at Packer-Schopf Gallery.  I reviewed the show following its opening reception, and last weekend attended a coffee reception and artist’s talk by Jerry Bleem.  Bleem’s work can be superficially read as either blandly patriotic or impotently dissenting, but both such reads equally miss the point of what Bleem is doing.  The nominal desecration of the flag that Bleem performs by shredding and then crocheting American flags into new forms is in fact a meditative act of contemplation.  Each loop Bleem makes is an act of consideration, of pondering the meaning of this symbol and its significance to him, and to us, as individual Americans.

Jerry Bleem "Nationalism As An Intellectual Exercise"

Jerry Bleem "Nationalism As An Intellectual Exercise"

In his artist’s talk Sunday afternoon, Bleem said, “I am not interested in joining the ranks of artists who are making a political statement.  I am interested in joining the ranks of artists who are saying, ‘We need to be thinking about this.'”  Regarding the extremely laborious process and the investment of time, he said that this investment’s evidence in the work says, “I spent a lot of time thinking about this; you should think about this, too.”  Amen.  While I won’t say that Bleem’s work has massively reconfigured my thinking about the flag, it is certainly clear evidence that Bleem himself has done some real contemplation here.  And that, prolonged contemplation rather than jingoistic reactionary protest, is when political art can transcend mere propaganda.

Bleem mentioned in his artist’s talk his use of studio assistants to do some of his crocheting, or at least some of the prep work, and it is tempting here to spin some fancy rhetoric about the outsourcing of meditation, perhaps with a tie-in to the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences.  It would make for entertaining rhetoric, but it would be intellectually dishonest:  have no doubt, even with a bit of help, Bleem has more than done his time.

On Saturday, November 7, Sign of the Times opened at Monique Meloche in her new location on Division Street.  More Economics than Poli Sci, the work in Sign of the Times is all about the money.  The works address economic hardship and decline, unemployment, globalization, and recession.  The show features works by Kim Beck, Máximo González, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Michael Patterson-Carver, and Carrie Schneider.

Máximo González "Las Fantasmas Que Producen La Guerra"  (not from the current exhibition)

Máximo González "Las Fantasmas Que Producen La Guerra" (not from the current exhibition)

Máximo González makes cut paper collages from out-of-circulation currency.  The best of these is his Animal Freezing Machine, 2006.  In this image, made of small pieces of cut currency affixed directly to the wall, a giant machine (looking a bit like an oversized sea scorpion) scoops up hapless fleeing wildlife and, through an apparently elaborate and painful process, transforms them into ice cream, which is excreted out the apparatus’ rear end into cones which end up for sale in a push cart.  It’s environmentalist about on the level of The Lorax, which is to say a bit simplistic but charming.  The sweetness is cut by the machine’s mechanical malice, and the easy-to-imagine grinding of fur and bone.  The use of brightly colored foreign (to me) currency, with its tightengraving lines, gives the collage a steampunk feeling, of monstrous robots depicted in a Victorian engraving.

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung makes videos and, I’ve just learned, interactive on-line video gamesIn G.O.D. We Trust, 2009, shows Barack Obama as a sort of divine superhero who travels the world fixing everything…sort of.  The video is so over-the-top with heavily-laden political imagery that it sort of shoots the moon in terms of ham-handedness.  It’s not one or two hot button issues, it’s EVERYTHING.  This oversaturation and horror vacuii are trademarks of Hung’s videos, and are appropriate for the treatment of politics in the media:  it says, basically, “OH GOD OH GOD EVERYTHING IS BROKEN WE’RE ALL FUCKED,” but the South Park grade animation and upbeat soundtrack make it absolutely hilarious as well, and the irreverent treatment of Obama is a breath of fresh air.  I’ve seen Hung’s work before, at Next, and it’s always good stuff.

Carrie Schneider, whose work I’ve seen at Meloche before, at her old space, has two photographs in Sign of the Times, and although both are color C-prints about consumerism, their approaches to the subject are wildly divergent.  Miss America, 2009, shows a woman face-down in a pile of cheeseburgers, the epitome of gluttony.  Recession shows a woman leaning forward against a vacant storefront, her pose awkward and her body supported only by the thin sheet of glass.  Her shopping bags confirm that she, too, is a consumer.  Of the two images in Sign of the Times, Recession is by far the more sucessful; Miss America‘s signs are too familiar, and unless I’m missing something, too simplistic.

Carrie Schneider "Recession"

Carrie Schneider "Recession"

On the other hand, Recession is a beautiful photograph.  It’s beautiful like Gregory Crewdson, like Stanley Kubrick, like Caravaggio:  classically composed, elegantly lit, and all that.  Not everyone has a knack for that, you do, and I love it.  But it’s not just visual; Recession‘s image and the word “recession” flawlessly support each other.  The shopping bags and vacant storefront are clear signs that it is an economic recession that is meant, but the figure’s posture implies another meaning as well.

Beyond its meaning in economics, the word “recession” can refer to the act of pulling away or withdrawing.  The subject’s posture, slumping forward into the wall, supported by her head or face, turns her into a buttress, supporting the wall.  Although slumped, it is a position of extreme tension; further slumping appears impossible.  If she pulls away, she will fall.  The tension in this image is what gives it its power; the extrapolation to the consumer as the buttress that supports the business before her links this tension to the first meaning, of “recession” in the economic sense.

Making good political art isn’t easy.  Carrie Schneider has done so with Recession.  Máximo González’s work, particularly his Animal Freezing Machine, is another example of political art done well, simultaneously whimsical and creepy, the approach to politics oblique.  More direct is Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung’s video In G.O.D. We Trust, which opts for a saturation bombardment rather than a surgical strike; Hung makes this work to his advantage.  These three works combine to make Sign of the Times a particularly successful show of politically-themed work.  Jerry Bleem’s work over at Packer-Schopf is another example of political art done well, and Curtis Readel’s work in the downstairs gallery is yet another.

All of these artists use different solutions to the problem of making political art, some more direct, others oblique.  What the successes all have in common is that they give us a new perspective on a hot issue, rather than simply reciting an opinion we’ve heard before.  Political art is at its best when it’s art first and foremost, and only incidentally a work of politics.  The alternative is propaganda, and generally not of a very effective kind:  despite Richard Serra’s best efforts, Bush served out his term without impeachment, and we’re still in Iraq.

Editor’s Note: you can find additional discussion on this topic in Gretchen Holmes’ review of Sign of the Times at Monique Meloche.

Comments (4)

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  1. It seems like it would be an interesting conversation to sort out some of the labels — so I think of all art and forms of cultural production as being political by nature (as in, 100 years from now, people might look back and say “what did it mean that this artist was painting mountains in the midst of global war?”) — and then there’s art made explicitly on the topic of politics that may be created with intent toward greater or lesser degrees of persuasion or neutrality.

    I think of some of the work you’re describing (as less successful political art) as protest art rather than propaganda. Propaganda makes me think it has a mass distribution system behind it and less expectation of open dialogue. (Not that Serra isn’t plenty well-known or well-distributed, but the gesture was one of trying to take a persuasive political position against the administration at the time, and in a format where discussion rather than inculcation would be expected, although the museum’s role there is up for discussion too.)

    In the case of Serra’s drawing, I remember that when I saw it at the Whitney, its impact seemed to be along the lines of “he must be really upset about this to step outside the usual context of his work” — the fact that he was using his drawing practice to step outside the more well-known trajectory of his sculptural work was a think that might break through to less politically active members of an art world audience. On a side note, this article reminded me of Serra’s early video piece, Television Delivers People — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbvzbj4Nhtk

    Thoughts? Totally curious.

  2. I hadn’t been aware of that Serra video piece, that’s fantastic. What really works for me is the way Television Delivers People works within the medium it’s critiquing (I’m assuming it wasn’t ever broadcast, but just the act of watching it on a screen), especially with that music, soporific like background or elevator music. Obviously, it’s aged some, but not for the worse. The text isn’t really new information (at least, not in 2009) but the way it works with the presentation is what makes it effective.

    The difference, for me, between Television Delivers People, and Stop Bush, is this use of medium. Neither is terribly subtle, but Television Delivers People puts the viewer in the position of accepting its message as passively as they accept advertising, watching it scroll by on a screen.

    Stop Bush, on the other hand, uses its material very casually. My reaction seeing it at the Whitney three years ago was very, very similar to yours: dude was pissed, no doubt. And this is why I find this (what I consider a very bad piece) forgivable: if you’re famous enough to do anything you want, well, maybe sometimes something’s more important than art. Okay. The problem, unfortunately, is that I don’t think it works.

    The question of protest vs. propaganda is partly one of connotation and loading; when you say the word “protest” a lot of people imagine hippies with signs marching in the street, whereas “propaganda” implies not just mass distribution and one-sidedness (don’t get me wrong, I agree with you, it does imply these things), but also that it is in defense of the status quo, and also there’s a popular association with propaganda as a negative thing.

    Protest doesn’t carry the same connotation for me as it does for you in terms of openness to dialog, or rather for me this connotation is linked to the dynamics of power: if you’re happy with the status quo, you don’t WANT dialog. If you’re protesting, you need dialog, because the potential outcome of dialog is change.

    I guess I’m ultimately not that invested in the particulars of those two labels; whether it’s called propaganda or protest, I see them as analogous structures on opposite sites of the equation. Those in power get propaganda, and those with let’s say more potential than actualized agency, get protest. What I’m invested in, personally, is that these goals are not art goals. They’re another type of goal.

    I think the difference, for me, between propaganda or protest art on one side and “real art” that happens to be derived from political subject matter on the other is like like the difference between pornography and figurative or even erotic art. Figurative art may or may not be sexual or erotic, but even if it is, it’s not meant to give you something to jack off to; it’s meant for aesthetic contemplation (even if eroticism is part of that contemplation). So similarly I’d say protest art or propaganda is meant to move the viewer to action (or inaction) or at least to dictate a very prescribed pattern of thought (“Bush is Doubleplus Ungood” or what have you), while what I think of as real or successful art derived from political subject matter encourages contemplation but isn’t intended to necessarily hand you a conclusion to take home or to the voting booth.

    Yeah, that’s it. I hadn’t really considered this before writing here, but it’s making more sense to me now: propaganda and protest are similar in that they are NOT open-ended. If they’re inviting dialog, they’re certainly doing so with an agenda. They’re not saying, “Hey, let’s think about this,” they’re saying, “Hey you, think like this about this.” Whereas art, or I should say at least the kind of art I prefer, says more the former.

    A’ight, rock on, sister.

  3. [...] Editor’s Note: you can find additional discussion on this topic in Jeriah Hildwine’s Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass. [...]

  4. [...] own peculiar baggage, as underscored by Jeriah Hildwine’s exasperating article last week on the Chicago Art Map site. Complaining that what de-ligitimizes dumb political art is its misguided attempt to inspire [...]

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