The New Political Art: The Moral Conscience of Change
Political art is usually terrible, or good for bad reasons. The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting of the French revolutionary murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, may be a masterpiece, but its politics led to the guillotine. Reproduced by the Jacobins, Marat became an image used to incite The Terror.
Do the arts offer special access to political truth? History would say no. Following David’s example, political art has mainly meant the seduction of art by the state. In the twentieth century, the arts were used to advance regimes that sought to oppress the very freedoms that had given rise to their artistic champions. Communism and Fascism each used art to destroy art. Meanwhile, in the free world, with a few notable exceptions, art that has been “politically engaged” has most often been directed against those who defend freedom while either ignoring or praising those who oppose it. Or politics has been used as a selling point, offering art with the illusion of controversy while merely reiterating the assumptions of the buying public.
Is the Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei any different? Not on the face of it. When I first saw his work at Robert Miller Gallery in 2004, the exhibition announcement featured a photograph of Ai’s neon-lettered sign spelling out “FUCK.” Meanwhile the gallery window displayed a self-shot photograph of Ai giving the middle finger to the White House.
Ai could have been just another political artist flipping off the usual suspects, but as I wrote in these pages at the time, “Ai Weiwei is a more complex artist than this one piece leads you to believe.” He was an equal opportunity offender. Ai gave the Eiffel Tower and other world monuments the same treatment. As part of this series, which he called a “Study of Perspective,” he also photographed his middle finger directed against the portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square.