A recent post by Edward Winkleman (via Conscientious) responding to an article in The Art Newspaper asks whether artists have a “responsibility to participate in the political debate” through their work. I dealt with this issue back in March, but it’s a complex topic that I’ve had a few more thoughts about since then.

Ed Vaizey’s article in The Art Newspaper asks why we don’t see more artists engaging with political topics from a right-wing viewpoint. Where’s the outrage, he wonders, over the hunting ban (this is a UK newspaper) in the arts community? After all, he figures, contemporary artists tend to be individualists who participate in the market, so why aren’t they more critical of leftists, who tend to restrict individual liberties and free markets? Assuming Vaizey’s characterization of artists as individualistic free marketeers is not a silly stereotype derived from a strange combination of Clement Greenberg’s writings and Sotheby’s press releases, I’m not sure why Vaizey feels that these values would lead artists to care about fox hunting. Unless, of course, he thinks that for anyone to engage in the political debate they have to buy into the expedient left-right dichotomies politicians cram down our throats.

And herein lies the problem. When people talk about an artist’s “responsibility to participate” in political issues, they are asking for engagement in a framework that is both rigid and constantly shifting. What I mean by this is that it is expected that if you support tax cuts, you should support the invasion of Iraq, and if you supported the invasion of Iraq, you should support “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture). On the other hand, if you support legalized abortion, then you should support gun control, and if you support gun control, you should support national ID cards. And yet the terms of the debate are constantly shifting; conservatives don’t like big government, unless George Bush wants to expand the Department of Education budget by 50%, or conduct warrantless wiretapping.

So, to come back to Vaizey, if an artist wants to sell artwork on the free market, then why doesn’t that artist oppose hunting bans, and furthermore, show some paintings making that position clear? Participating in the debate means accepting the terms of the debate, rather than critiquing them. Vaizey’s a Conservative politician, but this applies equally to those pushing for artistic activism on the left. Winkleman’s response is a little more reasonable, although I find fault with his implication that the proliferation of more right-leaning art would force those on the left to make political artwork which is more nuanced and universal. If anything, I think it would polarize the art world along the silly, manipulative lines of the political spectrum.

But I think there’s also a much more concrete, practical problem with calls for a more politicized art: timing. To take the local example of Artpace, if there is a fundamental problem with Artpace’s approach to presenting art*, it is that artists have a 3 month residency in which to create their work. It is not unusual for Artpace to bring in top-notch contemporary artists who then produce work that feels rushed, and doesn’t really compare well to their larger body of work. A three month time period is short for most artists; in the world of politics three months is an eternity. Sure, there are certain debates that have been raging for decades (such as abortion in the US), but even these debates often shift in subtle ways — we might be dealing with parental consent at one point and partial birth abortion procedures at another.

I think in many ways it is the structure of the art world that makes this kind of activist art almost impossible to pull off with any kind of effectiveness. But that structure was set up for a reason: it allows artists to deal with contemplative, complex ideas and to present unique, engaging visual experiences. The relatively slow pace of an individual exhibition means that artists working within this structure cannot engage in a rapid-fire rhetorical exchange with political pundits. Because they can’t do this, they have no hope of engaging in effective activism, unless they work outside of the gallery / museum structure. Of course artists can still raise larger political questions about war, surveillance, societal structures, and so on, but this becomes a more abstracted conversation which rises above the political minutia that pundits thrive on, so it becomes disengaged from the “political debate” of the moment.

* I say “if there’s a problem” because I think Artpace’s residency approach has many benefits, which may very well outweigh this defect, which in any case is by no means always apparent.