Why are artists afraid of making political work?
Thanks Aindriu - that's an awesome question.
I think this question is going to explode into several directions, but I need to interrogate it (as that is, in a way, what answering a question is): Firstly, in the question, there is the assumption that (some) artists don’t make political work, and then there is the idea that art can be apolitical. From my asking about these you can probably gather that I consider my work political, though it is not, on its face, overtly so - in the "realist" sense of, say, post-beat slam poetry or Brechtian social realism....
May I ask what you mean by "polictical"? It is a slippery term - I follow Guy Debord in believing that "every speech act is a political act", and treat the social and ethical - and art is, at its core, a social practice - as political; but many would dispute this - the common usage of "political" is tied to ideas of governmentality and large-scale social issues.
In a sense, my politicality (or that of my work - to conflate "me" and what I produce would be an error) stems from what I think of as the "avant-garde impulse" (though I know that many have issues with the term, for example Lyn Hejinian, who is wary of the military metaphor -and I can understand that) which is, in my case, directly tied to socio-political radicalism. Radicalism in one field goes hand in hand with that in another, and the boundaries become blurred.
Until quite recently radical artistic work was largely driven by politics, or had a very large political component - one need only look as far as dada, surrealism, fluxus, the Franco-African poets of negritude... language writing was/is based on (post-)Marxist/radical socialist theory (see Bruce Andrews' "Writing as Social Work and Political Practice").
Though there have been debates surrounding the efficacy of such, it isn’t really until the 70s, and the birth of minimalism and conceptual art that the politicality gets overshadowed or swept away (there could well be a political element to such work, but I don’t see it… I’ve got holes in my knowledge of art history). In the 80s through the 90s you have work like that of the pictures generation, hyperminimalists/post-minimalism (I still don’t know exactly what that is!), post-pop-art, the YBAs (with the notable exception of Tracy Emin), where much of it seems to be meant as a reflection or comment on the reality of living under capitalism, but there’s a kind of schizoid joy to it, a reveling in that depthless isolation and commodification – expemplified by the massive amount of money made by people like Jeff Koons and the like.
You’ve also then got the birth of ‘hipster irony’ and the growing marginalisation of sincerity – which is one of my personal pet peeves… this particular brand of irony holds little purpose, compared to dramatic irony or the ironic distancing of someone like Joyce in Portrait – it seems to me like little more than an excuse for people to not invest anything in their work, to shelter themselves emotionally. All you’re left with is a mirror that, rather than reflecting the real, reflects capitalist realism, the world as constructed by the apparatus of capital.
I suppose this is where the answer to your question comes in – capitalism has become the only imaginable ‘reality’. It is, so often, uncontested, because an alternative is unimaginable. There is the quote attributed to both Slavoj Zizek and Frederick Jameson that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. And it’s easier to report ‘reality’ or our experience than it is to contest it, challenge it, or try and do something different.
This leads to the difficulty though – is change possible, and what role does art play in this? I have to say that I honestly don’t know. I just know that capitalism treats people badly, and cannot in good conscience support that. So I make art that I hope opens lines of flight, or spaces in which things opperate (I hope) differently to the current hegemony. This may or may not be successful/effective, but it is, I think, worth while (and not the only thing that I do). I think, for instance, that “/k/” has some interesting things to say about ‘madness’, language, and the experiences and power relations that relate to these.
People can (and do) level critiques at my work saying that it is ineffective, elitist, too fringe etc… but I think that there is (or should be) a space for such. It’s worth remembering the debates between Adorno and Lukacs on similar points, Adorno arguing for the political efficacy of Kafka, and Lukacs disagreeing, and proposing Brecht as a more effective alternative. It seems history has proved Adorno right, in the effectiveness of Kafka’s anti-realism as an effective means of both describing and problematising the dehumanising experience of capitalist oppression.
On the other hand, everything may be futile, but I’d rather not give up. And art is an enjoyable means of subversion as well – and in a way that’s where people like Beckett come in – the horrible absurdity of the situation – you have to laugh, and do something, or else it’s too much to bear.
A caveat though – I want to say that my writing isn’t solely a political project. It is obviously an aesthetic one, and is also deeply personal (one of the reasons for working with Artaud’s work…). Alan Loney has said that he writes “in order to keep the world from falling apart”, and I feel the same – or more to stop myself from falling apart. If I stopped I’d fall into a hole that I don’t know I could get out of.