Politician or civil servant?
Dear Anna,Things occasionally go wrong at this magazine. With Urgent (No. 6, 2009), the issue that set the tone for our present discussion on engagement, we were delighted that Marlene Dumas was one of the contributors. She had jotted down some observations about the mammoth deterrent wall that has become a symbol for the Israeli government’s heavy-handed suppression of the Palestinian people.After the issue came out, she was immediately on the phone, irritated by the fact that the photograph of the wall that she had submitted with her article had been printed in a very tiny format. Dumas had wanted the wall spread across the entire width of the page, as a blockade, sparing nothing and no-one. The reader was supposed to have felt the presence of the wall, and then have to uncomfortably read around it.In the March issue of Artforum, she showed how she had actually conceived the piece. Spread across the full width of two pages, an advertisement from her gallery presented a painting of the wall with some Jewish people praying in front of it, as a new style of Wailing Wall. In Artforum, the wall functioned as a divisive element. There, in the middle of all those colourful ads, it completely obstructed the reader’s view for a moment, all-encompassing as it was. I thought it a strong gesture. Particularly in the context she had chosen: New York, the Capital of Art and the heart of the Jewish lobby that has held American politics hostage for decades. Dumas is mobilizing the debate in a place that has not been very receptive to it in the last few years: the New York artworld. And not just with the ad, but of course also with the exhibition at David Zwirner’s for which the advertisement was placed. I am curious to know for which cocktail party on the Upper East Side the painting of that bloody awful wall will soon be providing the decor.With this painting Dumas will not stand the test of political bravery that Jonas Staal imposes upon the artworld in his essay Post-Propaganda (2009). The moral crusader from Rotterdam, who argues in his pamphlet that art and politics are ideological companions in their common plea for freedom and diversity, will have little liking for the political ambiguity Dumas incorporates in her work. In interviews about the exhibition, she takes a distance from all-too-quick political conclusions. ‘I am not against the state of Israel or the state of Palestine, but I am against the wall,’ she says, apparently afraid of becoming embroiled in what has so far seemed to be an insolvable political dispute. Activism without a sting, you might think upon reading this. Just as Dumas with her high-income New York target group is a perfect case of radical chic. And yet I like Dumas’s action, particularly because of that political slipperiness which leaves room for other viewpoints that sidestep the confrontation between good and bad. Putting the issue on the agenda in this politically sensitive context is sufficient in this case. Mind you: as spectators, we are standing on the Jewish side of the wall. That in itself raises questions. I don’t want to stand there, I find myself thinking, even as Dumas is making me an accessory. Sometimes, hearing the high expectations raised by ‘engagement’, you could almost forget it, but engaged art is first of all art and only after that, engaged. The world-in-crisis does not get much benefit from art’s involvement, impractical and inefficient as it is. Art is by nature sooner a troublemaker than a troubleshooter. Moreover, it’s not the first thing you think of when a problem presents itself. Like: Hunger in Africa? Come on, let’s make a painting! Even as image-player, art remains a nuisance, for it is an indescribably complex form of communication that is constantly open to different interpretations. Everyone always has their own opinion. Which does not alter the fact that art has a role in social debate. I have always been amazed by the extraordinary working of art as a political machine, particularly the ease with which apparently trifling artistic matters can travel around the globe at breakneck speed. I do not know of any other sector in which an individual voice can so quickly be picked up (Jonas Staal is an example himself). Art’s sensitivity for the individual and the unnoticed is an important political force. It is practiced in the making of the introduction, in every conceivable manner and scale, and also in going around the mass media (which incidentally seems to me a handy talent, now that the financial position of art itself is at issue in the Netherlands because of the forthcoming cutbacks).You wrote that Staal’s Post-Propaganda has met with insufficient response in the Dutch artworld. I have a different impression. Big in the NRC, big in De Groene, big in the HTV, big on television, big in various debates; Staal has made a complete promotion tour. And his most important point, the advancing (ideological) interweaving of art and politics, seems to have become – partly thanks to Amsterdam city council member Gehrels, former state secretary Frans Timmermans, and of course Jacques Rancière – communis opinio in the artworld, which in the meantime has been thoroughly debated on many an evening. The question no longer is whether politics is a factor in the development of art (and vice versa), but how far that influence reaches, how transparently it is wielded, and whether or not sufficient responsibility is taken for it. At the same time, I am struck by how the artworld assists politics in the manner of a civil servant. For instance, look at the way in which the artworld (both artists and curators) is always uncomplainingly prepared to contribute to every form of Holland Promotion, no matter where in the world, if a ministry or other government body asks for that.Right now, yet another whole army of art representatives is working in Shanghai for the Netherlands Inc., on – this is China – a completely depoliticized art programme. There you are, as Holland’s most prominent museum director, known for your political programme at home, suddenly setting up an exhibition in a country where people are not allowed to speak openly about politics.In some countries, namely to the south and east of Europe (and China, now that we are speaking of it) the relation between politics and art is just a bit more crystallized than here, including the appropriate party-politics divisions of power. As a result, in some regions museum directors are replaced when another party wins the local elections. When speaking of the politicalization of art, it seems to me that we must look at the broader perspective. I’m not so sure if political activists in art relish this idea.In any case, I do not. My own social involvement is rather less politically oriented. I have developed a certain interest in spots, as part of a larger investigation on behalf of an exhibition. I have noticed that even the spot is politically charged in the present, agitated political climate. It is the enemy par excellence of our control society, for it is essentially indeterminate and uncontrolled. In short, we hate them. Every day we send out whole armies of (poorly paid) cleaners to rub them out, so unbearable do we consider them. I advise everyone to pay a bit more attention to this. Recently I noticed another fine specimen, in a painting by Rezi van Lankveld exhibited in a New York gallery. Perhaps not an entirely pure spot, coquette that it is, but still a powerful sign of protest. Anarchistic customer, that Van Lankveld, don’t you think? Warm regards,Domeniek Domeniek Ruyters is editor in chief of METROPOLIS M. The letter by Anna Tilroe was published in METROPOLIS M, No 2, 2010. translation: Jane Bemont