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The Scarlet & Black

Art chatz discusses the political

At various points in the past semester this column has touched on the social and political role of art. Given the emphasis on social justice amongst this institution’s core values, I’d like to dedicate this last column to a further exploration of this particular intersection. This exploration largely stems from my own process of navigating a politically and socially involved artistic practice. There is of course a broad range of political and activist artistic practices we can look to as models. In defining a few broad categories, I hope to give the reader an idea of what this involvement might look like.
The most obvious example might be works of art that express political content or that the viewer reads political content into. In some senses this criterion doesn’t necessarily reduce the scope of the works we’re looking at: to the degree to which all experience is political, the degree to which the personal is political, all work is political. So perhaps rather than delimiting certain works as political art we are faced with works along a spectrum ranging from those with intentionally and explicit political content to those where politics takes backseat to other priorities (this latter point of course reflects a certain political position). Moving forward, the most important distinction being made when speaking about “political art” as a category is simply that its politics are contained within the frame of the work, whether this be the canvas of a painting or the sounds and images within a film.

This distinction becomes clearer and more meaningful when juxtaposed with an activist artistic practice. Here the very process of producing the work consists of political engagement. Activist and curator Lucy Lippard perhaps puts it best when she characterizes political art as “politically concerned” while activist art is “politically involved.” This involvement, like more traditional activism, often consists of interactive and participatory processes on the level of community. Such work might involve a community in the authorship and production of a work of art; the very process of production becomes a politicized act, highlighting specific issues relevant to the participant authors or imagining and creating an alternative space for that community.The success of such work often rests largely on the success of this process, the emphasis resting on this process rather than the material product that emerges from it.

What conclusions can we draw from this comparison? While many of the nuances contained within politically and socially engaging artwork escape the broad strokes used here, I’ll attempt to reach some general conclusions. Political art objects being exhibited in more traditional venues, whether a museum, gallery or a similar institution, occupy a very different space than the processes of activist art. For some critics this presents a line of attack, they argue such work is limited by the scope viewership of these spaces, that these institutions force artists to present work in line with rigid institutional sensibilities. From this perspective activist art removes itself from such restrictions, engaging its audience on equal footing and in public spaces. There is of course no demand on exclusivity to either of these models. What perhaps becomes most interesting is a synthesis of the two, a form that navigates and disrupts traditional boundaries through imaginative and engaging artistic processes.

Cuban performance artist and activist Tania Bruguera provides a model for precisely this kind of balance. With work ranging from more traditional installation and performance to radical community based actions, she repeatedly reinvents herself. Her current project, Movimiento Inmigrante Internacional, mobilizes individuals and organizations in communities around the world to address political issues facing immigrants. The project embraces a multiplicity of tactics to stimulate awareness and dialogue on a local and international level. A map of actions taking place as a part of this project on International Migrants Day, Dec. 18, is visible at

Work like Bruguera’s and recent events highlight both exciting new ways that communities share spaces and the increasing necessity for this type of engagement.

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