It’s Independence Day, the Fourth of July, and America is 236 years old. I’ve been pondering the tortuous coupling, “art and politics.” Each partner resists easy definition, especially “art” (“Is it art?” and “What is art?” are jokes); I can’t imagine Ludwig Wittgenstein countenancing their murky conjunction. It’s hard to avoid the couple’s traps.
Art is not usually measured by its utility (the school of “relational aesthetics” attempts to call that hand), while politics is. What usefulness is believed to be is also a matter of contestation. In 1972, in Amsterdam, with artist Jos Schoffelen, I ran a cinema with an eclectic program, the first in the Netherlands to feature double-headers and to screen an Andy Warhol movie, Bike Boy (1967). A rogue film collector approached us with a 16mm print of Tarzan Escapes (1936). He screened it for us: Its white supremacy and brutal racism were shockingly casual. Black African men fell off steep cliffs, while their white British masters exclaimed about the loss of precious equipment.
Jos and I wanted to pair it with a documentary about the Black Panthers. Amsterdam’s Communist Film Club distributed it, but wouldn’t rent it unless we organized a protest march. “Why do we have to organize a march?” “Because it’s a political film,” they said. I said, “If people want to march afterward, they can.” Juxtaposing the two was art and politics; “Art could be a dialogue,” we said, “which is political activity.” “No way,” they said.
The cinema wasn’t considered “serious” because of its emphasis on art; soon their club vetoed the cinema getting funding from Amsterdam City Council. Maybe this is too strident or absurd an example of conflict between, and in, art and politics. Generally, I proffer the idea that all art is political, though I’m not satisfied by it. It seems subtle, yet too broad, and because of this not convincing. But I may be trapped in it, not having a better argument.
Writing novels and stories, I’ve become convinced that narratives concern themselves with justice or adjudication. Writing fiction, I might be able to avoid mental traps, habits of mind. I try to be vigilant about how I write—style, form—to trample complacency of all types; in concert with a writer’s lacks, it generates truisms and stereotypical characters.
I often recall other artists’ choices. Ad Reinhardt drew political cartoons and made non-referential paintings. The American poet George Oppen stopped writing poetry for 30 years, after he became a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, because he wouldn’t write Party poems. When he started again, he produced an exceptional poetics.
In a performance I once saw, the artist Bob Flanagan hammered a nail into his penis. I put my head in my hands, covering my eyes (one man fainted); but I wouldn’t think of stopping him. It was his penis. Was this a political act? Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis and was told he’d die at 20. He’d been a cystic fibrosis poster boy at 13. His art fought his genetic identity, and what the disease didn’t cruelly claim, he tormented. For his exhibition “Visiting Hours” at the New Museum, New York, in 1994, Flanagan built a hospital room and lay on a hospital bed, attached to an oxygen tank.
Viewing Flanagan installed as a piece in a museum, knowing him since the 1980s, I felt disorientated—installed momentarily in his hell. “Voyeuristic” pales as a description of my looking. Was his métier disorientation? Flanagan’s conflation of art, body and disease bewildered me, rebelling against any modifier, such as progressive or regressive, which might characterize the politics of an art practice.
Some say artists should make work for an audience, that anything else is indulgent; art should be “accessible.” To whom is never clear. Recently, in various newspapers and literary magazines, a debate about so-called “difficult books” has been unfolding. Writers should remember their readers, one side insisted, by making books enjoyable. For one thing, “difficulty” and “pleasure” are relative terms; without foundation, the argument lacked cogency and drifted into nowheresville.
Filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha reckoned with the concept of audience differently. Minh-ha was present at the New York premiere of Naked Spaces—Living is Round (1985), at the Museum of Modern Art. The film pictured women working, walking, socializing. No narrator explained the women or the spaces they inhabited. Instead, words shaped and suggested more impressions, ways of seeing.
The first question to Minh-ha came from a man, who asked, vehemently: “Who is this film for? Who’s the audience for this film?” Minh-ha took a moment, then said: “I make films for sensitive people.” Her audience fell silent, maybe stunned by her brilliant tactic, which leaped over patterned responses. Minh-ha allowed for the contemplation of positions, by escaping the usual discursive traps. It’s the hardest thing to do, and in art and politics the most imaginative and stimulating.