There's interesting reading by Randy Kennedy in yesterday's New York Times about Jonathan Horowitz's election installation, Your Land/My Land, in a street-fronting gallery at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. Kennedy uses the installation as a jumping-off point for talking about the tendency for many artists and art institutions to avoid politics—except those who consider themselves "political" artists and institutions. But the idea that art should be part of the social/political fabric is on the rise. We've seen it here in Seattle, most recently in the Arts and Social Change Symposium at Seattle Center, but also in exhibitions and discussions around Elles, the all-women show at Seattle Art Museum. I don't mean art that directly discusses political elections or candidates, I mean art that considers itself accountable to realities outside itself and the art world.
The more important questions, though, hover outside the institutions and go directly to art’s role in America at a time when contemporary art feels increasingly disconnected from the culture at large, even as the art business and museum world have never been bigger: Should public museums be places where political argument happens? Why is this so rarely the case, especially when compared with politically engaged programming in museums in Europe, Mexico, South America and even parts of the Middle East?
I'd like to propose that the fact that art feels disconnected from culture at large, and the fact that the art business and museum world have never been bigger, are in fact related and maybe even causal. Is it really surprising that the bigger the art machine gets, the more abstracted and less activist-ish it is?
I've often felt that people trot out the argument that art isn't political as if they're saying something profound and surprising, when actually that's the dominant belief—that not only is art separate from the rest of the world's functioning, but that it should be separate. That art is an island. I've not only found this to be impossible, I've also found it to benefit and preserve the status quo. This goes back to Kant's notion that if you're hungry, then you're just not a good judge of still-life paintings of food. It strikes me that if you're hungry, you might actually be a great judge of still-life paintings of food—just maybe not the judge that anybody who isn't hungry wants to hear.
I'm not saying it's easy to figure out the politics of any given work of art, or even that they'll ever be entirely clear. I'm just saying that when we cede the territory of even discussing it as relevant, we're giving up a whole lot of the power of art, artists, and art institutions.
The dominant belief is so dominant as to be invisible. Just this weekend, a longtime arts reporter for the Wall Street Journal used it as a defense for his political donation.
"It's very simple: I think Romney is a dangerous religious freak whose election will cripple America," said [Paul] Levy, who has donated $225 to Obama this year. Levy says his political donations don't pose a conflict of interest because he doesn't write about politics.