Dyske Suematsu
Since the beginning
Works in United States of America

I think, theorize, and write about highly irrelevant matters.
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Re: Paradox of Political Art

Hi Mark,

<quote mark>
how can political art, "tid bits" as you say, not be relevent. your assuming, which is fine, (though i don't think consciously) that this thing, invented about 200 years ago, called "Fine Art", in which there is supposed be some seperation between what a form is (it's pure aesthetic value) and what it does (it's cultural function).

If you are interested in a historical analysis of political art, this is a good article I found on the Web:

I should not have said that it was "not particularly relevant". Naturally everything is relevant if you make it so. For that paper, I just didn't want to address it. It is possible to write my view from a historical perspective, but it would be a separate paper.

Your main contention appears to be the degree to which their motives are contaminated. I do not object to your arguments. I agree that the impure motives of the Bush Administration would dwarf that of anyone. However, my main concern isn't politics proper. I'm more interested in what that means for art. I gave a specific example in my "addendum."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not interested in stopping artists from making political art. I just wanted to raise this issue that most political artists seem to shy away from. And if asked, they tend to be defensive or angry.

Though they are not technically artists, Tibor Kalman and Benetton can be used as examples of what I mean by "they". I believe they do their own cause a disservice by using it for self-promotion/advertising. If the cause is their primary concern, it would be more effective if they anonymously donated their skills and money to social organizations that deal with it more directly. Then the skeptics do not have to question the hidden motives of Benetton as a corporation.

i hope your not serious. under this twisted logic an abolishionist in the days of slavery should have thanked the slave master for importing slaves so that the abolishionist would have something to complain about. or maybe freed slaves should have thanked the slavemasters for enslaving them in the first place for without slavery they would never have been "freed slaves". this is stupid argument.

My argument is not that the act of opposition itself is problematic. It is problematic only when preserving an identity becomes a priority. Let's use your example. Imagine an abolitionist who is more concerned about being an abolitionist than he is about the actual cause of freeing slaves. Just like Truman Capote did, such a person may even prevent some slaves from being freed just so that he can stay being an abolitionist, or so he can become a more famous one. Now, this is an extreme example, but this is a matter of degree. In order to retain his identity as abolitionist, he might do things that are not 100% ideal for the cause.

I am not criticizing this contamination. I have no desire to promote moral purity. I am simply pointing out the contradition within their own logic, since most of them would not admit to them being concerned about their own identities. It is unlikely that Tibor Kalman, Truman Capote, and Sue Coe would enjoy a discussion about their self-promotional motives. They would probably flat out deny that such a motive exist. But in art, we question everything. Nothing is taken for granted. That is part of what makes art interesting.




Re: Paradox of Political Art - addendum

Hi Ryan,

This might be a good way to frame my argument:

When you and I oppose each other, your opposition is beneficial for me. The fact that you oppose, draws more attention to my writing, and more people would read it as a result. So, I need oppositions for my own existence. I must respect and foster them.

When you construct moral oppositions, it does not work that way. What motivates you to oppose is your desire to eliminate the opposition. And, if your identity as an opposition takes precedence over the moral cause, you risk being complicit in the perpetuation of your opponent.

Truman Capote faced an interesting dilemma when he was writing "In Cold Blood". In order for his book to be complete and effective, he needed the convicts to be executed, but it was taking a long time, and that was driving him crazy. Ironically, he would actually get more interviews in jail with them on the premise that he was helping them avoid the chair. As soon as they were executed, he published his book and it became a huge success. And, he vocally criticized capital punishment as a part of a campaign to sell his book. This is an extreme example of one's desire to be an artist taking precedence over the cause. An artist in him wished them dead, but his conscience said otherwise.





Re: Re: Paradox of Political Art

Hi Ryan,

> seriously??? this statement lacks any kind of historical
> engagement, and even overlooks examples from the 20th century,
> the most obvious North American examples being the social
> realists and muralists that were active from the 20s-40s.
> Adorno's critique of politically engaged art was self-consciously
> political, and in response to the neo-classical program of
> socialist realism used by the Nazis. The autonomy of art was a
> necessary condition for art to truly be political (as opposed to
> Political) and emancipatory.

Well, I confess that I am no art historian, so I would take your words for
it. However, as others have pointed out, I was speaking strictly about the
conceptual art movement of the 60's. I do realize that there were artworks
with political intentions long before that, but these historical tidbits of
political art are not particularly relevant in my discussion.

> and this is a problem? what world are you imagining that motives
> would become unimportant if we just knew that they were pure? are
> people against the war in Iraq only validated if the Bush
> Administration is cynical in its motives? the arguments against
> the war are not merely reactionary and dependent on the "purity"
> of the Administration's motives. likewise, art criticism -
> whether about Politics or not - is not about intent (if it's of
> any consequence at least), but is always about politics (little
> p), context, and ideology (including aesthetics). just read
> Greenberg - his aesthetics were most certainly tied to an
> ideological program based on moral (secular) convictions.

This was my attempt to turn political artists' own arguments on themselves.
They are the ones who purify motives, not me. They speculate, for instance,
that the Iraq war is actually motivated by oil. I would argue that such
reduction is impossible. And, if such a reductive argument can be used to
oppose the war, then one could also speculate that artists are motivated by
self-promotion, and invalidate their work. If self-promotion is inextricably
mixed in their motives, then what is wrong with oil being mixed in the
motives of the Bush Administration?

> can you be more specific? what political art are you refering to
> as this "general tendency"?

> again, what political artists are you refering to?

I can't come up with good examples, because I want to avoid naming specific
artists. Digital artists are not particularly successful, and they don't
need any negative criticism. If I can think of some major artists I could
use as examples, I'll let you know.

> why do you assume that op-ed columns and visual culture are
> somehow distinct from Political culture? where are the lines
> drawn? this seems a dangerous proposition. do you mean to
> insulate Political actors from criticism except through the
> practice of Politics? and how can anyone not see the relationship
> between electoral politics and our culture of representation (it
> is "representative" democracy)? Why do you wish to delineate the
> meaning of cultural activity into artificially distinct spheres?
> the process of classification is one of the most political acts possible.

You are right. There is no need to draw a line, but, in every field there
has always been the schism between armchair academics and the real world
players, such as artists vs. critics. The opposition is not my own creation,
but their own. And, one certainly has opinions about the other.

> as opposed to those identities that exist in a vacuum?

To elaborate further: If their desire to exist as terrorists is their
primary concern, then they are in fact being helped by the fact that their
opponents exist. That is, they should thank their enemies for letting them
be what they want to be.

By the same token, if your desire to be an artist is your primary concern,
and if your art is about corrupt corporations, then you would have to thank
the corrupt corporations for existing, for otherwise your career as an
artist would not exist.




Paradox of Political Art

Paradox of Political Art

Political artworks have always been problematic for me, especially those with a hierarchical structure of morals or ethics. Aside from the fact that they are visual, they demonstrate no difference from the verbal discourses of various social and political organizations. Since the art world is a small, exclusive community, one cannot help but to question the effectiveness of such political evangelism. I also would like to discuss below the validity of artist as a political position.

Political art as a conceptual art movement was born in the late 60's, and continued on strongly into the 90's. It probably reached its height in 1993 when Whitney Museum had its "political biennial." After that, there was a backlash to political correctness. Then, 9-11 came. Politics is once again in vogue. Perhaps this is only my own perception, but the Internet as a medium seems to encourage production of political art. The Internet is both global and democratic in nature, which are qualities pertinent to today's international politics. Whatever the reason, this new boom in political art seems to be happening mostly around the digital art world.

Conceptual artists like Hans Haacke whose practices were called "institutional critique" dealt mostly with politics as it related to art. They made us aware of the political implications of viewing art. Their concerns were with the politics of art, not with politics proper. In this sense, their art can be seen as self-criticism, not political evangelism. At some point in history, this pertinence to art was lost, and political art as a conceptual art movement was reduced to being a mere tool for propaganda.

The most apparent problem I see with today's political art is its deterministic nature. Art often raises salient questions, but when a political artwork is morally motivated, its questions become moral directives disguised as questions. That is, they are rhetorical questions. As such, there is a right way and a wrong way to look at it. A correct answer is always already provided for you by the artist. The questions and the discussions it provokes either support the answer or refute it. And, the value of the work is contingent on its dialectical outcome. From the point of view of the audience, the experience of such political art resembles that of reading an op-ed column in a newspaper.

The less apparent but more problematic aspect of political art is its lack of attention to the political implications of being a political artist. A person whose political arguments are predicated on his ethical superiority is ethically obligated to prove his superiority, avoiding at all cost any gestures or statements that can be misleading. In politics, if a compromise between parties X and Y were to be made on moral grounds of X, and if both parties were to respect the principle of equal rights, then it follows that X is obligated to morally satisfy Y throughout the process.

For instance, if the recent war on Iraq was waged on moral grounds by the Bush administration, they are obligated to demonstrate their moral integrity to his opponents. Awarding lucrative contracts to Halliburton, for instance, is disrespectful in that it is blatantly misleading, and makes the auditing of their moral grounds impossible.

By the same token, if artists were to criticize governments and private institutions on moral grounds, they are obligated to demonstrate that their motives are not promotions of their own careers as artists, but their own beliefs in the cause. Being an artist is a business like any other business. It would be unfair to simply assume that artists are in a privileged position that escapes social and political criticism. Artists cannot be exempted from the suspicion of having impure motives. If artists are not required to prove the integrity of their motives, why should anyone else be? If we were to speculate hidden motives of government institutions and private corporations, it is only fair that we also speculate the hidden motives of the artists who criticize them.

In this sense, Sue Coe, for instance, would have better served her cause by contributing anonymously to organizations like PETA in order to avoid suspicion that she is motivated by promotion of her own career as an artist. This in turn should make her work more effective.

Politics is rarely motivated by a single factor. Professed motives are inextricably contaminated by ulterior motives, and they are further contaminated by the compromises forced upon them by certain predicaments and the powers that be. However, the general tendency of political art is to ignore this irreversible and unavoidable contamination, and to delimit the underlying moral implications in order to hierarchically oppose one another.

This operation of moral purification is rarely applied to their own practices as artists. When asked about the effectiveness of their pursuits in the real world, or their problematic position as artists preaching to the converted in the art world, or commodifying of political activism to make a living, or exploitation of moral appeals for self-promotion, they allow themselves the compromise that they criticize in others, because they realize the impossibility of purity in their own predicaments.

Another question I have with political art is its effectiveness. By taking positions as artists, they necessarily distance themselves from the real nitty-gritty of politics. To politicians, some op-ed columnists are like backseat drivers who have never driven a car before. They speak only from a theoretical and ideological point of view without ever having to get their hands dirty. From the position of politicians who cope with the difficulties of the real world politics, their criticism is unfair and inevitably one-dimensional. It is fair for the politicians to ask: If the columnists' political ideologies are their motives, then wouldn't it make more sense for them to directly participate in the political process, rather than to sit back and criticize those who do?

The same question can be extended to political artists who make art against war, against unethical corporations, against invasion of privacy, and so on. What is interesting is not so much the content, but why they choose to use art as a platform for their fights, even when they face obvious proofs of its ineffectiveness, or even when they are shown a more effective alternative. But, sadly, this question is rarely addressed, and is seldom welcomed as a debate.

The last issue I would like to raise is the tendency of political artists to place a priority on their status as artists over their political cause. A long-term problem with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas is that they tend to preserve their own existence beyond their professed objectives. Especially between Israel and Palestine, terrorism has been incorporated into the normal functioning of their political and economic structures, so much so that sudden extinction of terrorism would probably create power vacuums and chaos in that region. In this type of environment, preservation of their power, status, and identity takes precedence over their ideological cause, which in turn will perpetuate terrorism forever. Ironically enough, their enemy, or the opposing ideology, becomes a necessary constituent of their own identities.

This is a political problem that exists also in political art. Their identities as artists take precedence over their cause. Their motives are made impure by their own insistence to be recognized as artists. The opposing ideologies they criticize as immoral or unethical are always already parts of necessary constituents of their own identities as artists. The more they insist on their status as artists, as opposed to as anonymous members of our society motivated by the cause, the more they contribute to perpetuating the very problem they hope to solve.

Our democracy is founded on a principle that we are born with equal rights. Much of political art violates this principle by leveraging the perceived cultural authority of art and of an artist. A political opinion expressed by an artist appears more authoritative than one expressed by an anonymous citizen. Political artists are, therefore, tempted to express their opinions as artists, rather than as anonymous citizens, but the idea of democracy is to level this type of inequality so that one citizen's opinion is no more authoritative than that of any other. This is the basis of the argument used by those who criticize Hollywood celebrities for publicly expressing their political opinions. To respect the principles of our democracy, celebrities must not be confused with politicians who were elected to represent our political voices.

Naturally, this is also a matter of degree. There is no definitive point in a scale of fame where voicing of political opinions would be considered a violation of our democratic principle. However, if your primary motive is a political cause, being directly involved in our political system, rather than being an artist, would be fairer to the public, unless, of course, you disagree with the fundamental principles of our democracy.

Dyske Suematsu - April 7, 2004


RE: Whitney Biennial

It makes sense that the popularity of digital art is declining in the
traditional art world, but it is not a bad thing. I think the traditional
art world realizes the significance of digital art and the need to embrace
it, but the physical structure and the power structure of their institutions
are not conducive to digital art. What they are doing is equivalent to New
York Times simply scanning their print edition and posting it on their
website. The digital art world requires entirely different kinds of

Since the nature of digital art structurally contradicts the traditional art
world, it is unavoidable that the works they exhibit would suffer from it. A
computer terminal without a chair in a museum where you can only use it for
5 minutes because others are waiting behind you, is not a proper environment
to experience digital art. And, in comparison to a large painting hung next
to it at which you can stand and look as long as you like, a digital artwork
looks like a mere toy. It is jarring to present a digital artwork in an
environment that is designed to experience something physical. From this
perspective, it makes sense that the popularity of digital art in the
traditional art world would declined.

Furthermore, the traditional art world has a long-established power
structure built based on certain natures, limitations, and advantages of the
physical world. When televisions were first introduced to the consumer
market, the broadcasters struggled to come up with a structure that would
make their business financially viable. Eventually the dust settled and the
power structure emerged. A few key players secured a significant amount of
power, and with it, they stabilized the whole industry. The same happened in
the art world.

The dust in the digital world is yet to settle. A definitive power structure
is yet to emerge. Unlike the music industry where the paradigm shift is
forcing the break-up of the established power structure, the digital art
world is not a paradigm shift; it is a new, independent paradigm of art,
which does not threaten the existing art world. It simply needs its own
power structure that is based on its own natures, limitations, and
advantages. It cannot rely on the structure of the traditional art world to
deal with it. It needs its own way to sustain itself.