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Art and Politics

A Small History of Art for Social Change since 1945


Claudia Mesch


London: I.B.Tauris, 2013

Paperback. xiii+240 p. ISBN 978-1848851108. £16.99


Reviewed by Monica Bohm-Duchen

Independent lecturer, writer and curator


In principle, this recent publication fills a real gap in the market: perfectly readable, without too much recourse to theoretical jargon, it should be of interest both to a lay readership and to first year undergraduates, even to sixth formers (even though some terms – neoism and relational aesthetics, for example – are used without comment or explanation, and thus presuppose prior knowledge of their meanings). In practice, many of its weaknesses – above all, its failure to pursue important issues as fully as they warrant and to discuss enough individual artists and artworks in sufficient detail – are endemic to any relatively short and modestly illustrated text that attempts to tackle a hugely complex theme such as this one. Indeed, the slightly tongue-in-cheek reference in the title to Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay Kleine Geschichte der Photographie (variously translated as A Short, Small, or Little History of Photography), suggests that Mesch is well aware of the challenges and potential pitfalls of such an undertaking.

The range of topics covered in the book is certainly impressive, and useful for being considered under one rubric: there are chapters devoted to “State-Sponsored Art during the Cold War”, “Post-Colonial Identity and the Civil Rights Movement” (although clearly related, each of these might have warranted a chapter to itself); “The Anti-War and Peace Movements”, “Feminisms”; “Gay Identity/Queer Art” (the coverage of art dealing with lesbian issues, however, is cursory, to say the least); “Environmental Art”, “Anti-Globalization” and an epilogue devoted to the Occupy Wall Street movement. If some of these topics appear to stretch the definition of politics almost to breaking point, one should remember that the title of the book makes it clear that for Mesch, at least, the political is broadly synonymous with social change. Also useful (and certainly politically correct!) is its incorporation of a significant amount of material dealing with the visual culture of the non-western and/or “developing” world. Inevitably, there is a certain amount of overlap, but not perhaps quite enough cross-referencing, particularly in the chapters dealing with anti-militarism, anti-racism and anti-sexism. Occasionally, the placing of material is a little puzzling: why, for example, is Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda Project discussed in the “Media/Informatics Activism; New Media Art” section of the chapter on Anti-Globalization, when it surely belongs more naturally in the chapter on Anti-War and Peace Movements? It is odd, too, in a book whose chronological starting-point is 1945, that the Second World War itself, and artists’ responses to it, go virtually unmentioned.

The small size of many of the illustrations, and the fact that they all are monochrome, compounded by the fact that many of them are photographic stills from performances or time-based media, which are notoriously hard to bring to life by means of a brief verbal description, often makes them frustratingly hard to “read”. The captions for the images, moreover, are inconsistent and insufficiently detailed: some, but not all include medium; and with just one or two exceptions, no sizes are provided. As Mesch herself admits in the opening line of the Introduction, when she describes her book as considering “how artists visually or otherwise [my italics] have engaged with political and grassroots movements in the era after 1945”, the visual is not necessarily her (or their) priority – an issue that itself demands, but does not receive further exploration. The author’s tendency to over-use words like “arguably” or “conceivably” or “it has been assumed”, without assessing the validity of the points of view expressed, can also be frustrating.

More importantly still, the book fails to address a number of fundamental issues head-on (the introduction would surely have been the place to do this): notably, the necessarily complex relationship between aesthetics and politics, between the formal/ stylistic properties of a work of art and its political content/ message; the tension between the differing priorities of artistic expression and political activism; the question of the accessibility (or otherwise) of political art; and last but certainly not least, the (im)possibility of art leading directly to social and political change.  One does not, I think, need to agree completely with Robert Hughes’ claim (in American Visions) that “identity politics have made for narrow, preachy, single-issue art in which victim credentials come first, and aesthetic achievement a very late second… Its mood is didactic, sometimes irritably so, but it teaches little” to wish that Mesch had addressed these crucial topics more thoroughly. The author’s own uncertainty about these problematic issues is revealed by her tendency to call certain works (by David Wojnarowicz and Gavin Jantjes, for example) “powerful”, without explaining the source of that power, and to judge some works (even within a single artist’s output – that of André Fougeron, for example) more “interesting” and/ or “successful” than others, without revealing the basis for such judgements.

The concluding words of the book are curiously naïve, and certainly beg a plethora of questions that remain unresolved in the body of the text: “Artists continue to believe and to know that what they do is political. In this way, art continues to be a full participant in realizing social, political and economic change”. What is more, this facile generalisation is flatly contradicted in other parts of the volume: on page 189, for example, when Mesch admits, à propos artist Santiago Sierra, that “artistic labour has always been ‘useless’ and distinct from the means-end utilitarianism of other kinds of production. It is notoriously difficult to identify the specific use value of art”. But perhaps I am being a bit harsh – after all, these are all difficult, intractable and ultimately unresolvable conundrums. That this book raises as many questions as it answers may, in the end, be a point in its favour.


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