“‘Political’” Art?

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What exactly is a “‘political’ work of art”? Tom Holert  asks what the scare quotes mean. 

Diarmuid Costello, On the Very Idea of a “Political” Work of Art, The
Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 29, Issue 1, March 2021, 25-45,

“On the Very Idea of a ‘Political’ Work of Art” is an oblique title to head an essay. Sure, who wouldn’t want to learn something new about this old question? But what is this old question exactly? When reading the title for the first time, I stumbled upon the quotation marks around “political,” wondering whether they might signal irony or doubt, or both, or something else altogether. I also thought of the anxiety carried by the very idea of “scare quotes”, alternately called “shudder quotes”, “sneer quotes” or “quibble marks”, these hashtags of yore. 

Why does it seem necessary to distinguish the attribute / adjective “political” from the work of art, the latter—certainly a candidate for distancing gestures—left without quotation marks, with which “political” is nonetheless bound together, firmly? Since it appears quite unlikely that the caution pertains to the word “political” as such, the quotation marks are most likely meant to instill a sense of reservation about whether a work of art can be political. Arguably, the quotation marks operate as an extension of the very in “very idea”, emphasizing the unusual or the strange.  

To an extent, I agree with Costello’s hesitation. For many, “political art” has lost much of the bearing it may have once held. Instead, it has developed a reputation for belonging to a time—roughly coinciding with the period of validity of the very idea of modernism, say, from Jacques-Louis David in 1789, Gustave Courbet in 1848, Vladimir Tatlin in 1917, through Guy Debord in 1968—now long gone. If modernist art thought of itself as having the capacity to cultivate class consciousness in its audience, most today think of artists’  expectations of having an effect on the world today as naive.    

Deploying scare quotes when the notion of a political work of art occurs, seems apposite, considering how overused and outworn it apparently has become.”

Works of art that were meant to be explicitly political have certainly met with resistance before—by advocates of art’s autonomy, by those concerned with the alleged harmful effects of “political” themes, languages and modes of expression on aesthetic value, quality, etc., and others. Today, however, such resistance to political themes in contemporary art is increasingly informed by a strong and often mandatory presence of alternative notions of political engagement that come in many different shapes, styles, strategies. 

This development—from an idea of the political as anti-bourgeois to a bureaucratic/neoliberal notion of politics as a desirable ingredient of any contemporary art—has led to a situation in critical discourse where the once largely descriptive phrase “political art” now carries peculiar normative meanings. This is especially so when cultural and academic institutions expect a work of art to perform social functions and contribute to vague and toothless curatorial themes like “democracy”, “community”, “care” or “memory”. One of the many problems inherent in such institutional concatenations of art and politics is that these are usually grounded in fuzzy notions of the political, less premised on its legibility and self-respectability, than registered in obscure and opaque aesthetic practices.  

This said, I don’t think that the quotation marks are supposed to cast doubt on the concept of the political or even hint at its abolition. Moreover, the use of scare quotes throughout the text differs slightly, if significantly from that in the title. Closest to the quotation marks in the title are the combinations “’wholly political’ work” and “’strongly political’ work of art” (p. 38), which already gives an impression of what the essay is aiming at—a method to determine and qualify the politicality of a work of art. 

For Costello, ‘strongly political art’ should ‘not only have political content’ but also embody that content ‘at the level of the work’s form…’”

The author, Diarmuid Costello, is a philosopher of art (and particularly of photography) at the University of Warwick and former chairman of the British Society of Aesthetics and  the essay in question, published in The Journal of Political Philosophy, mainly addresses an audience of academic philosophers. His stated goal of presenting a “methodological challenge” regarding “standard approaches in the philosophy of art” is a barely veiled jab at  art historians who are hardly mentioned in the essay. 

The artwork that Costello selected to demonstrate the possibility of checking and charting the “very idea of a ’political’ work of art” is Jeremy Deller’s 2001 The Battle of Orgreave, a re-enactment of violent encounters of picketing miners and police in the 1984–1985 National Union of Mineworkers strike. A lot has been written about this particular work (and the accompanying, Mike Figgis-directed, film). Deller himself has called it a “wholly political re-enactment of a battle.” The Battle of Orgreave is regularly discussed as one of the pre-eminent examples of political contemporary art, and thus probably as good a reference as any to present an argument about the differences between “weak” and “strong” political art that concern Costello and the requirements to be met by philosophical discourse to successfully achieve such a definitional enterprise. 

Costello’s essay walks the reader through the build-up and dead ends of a number of concepts pertaining to the political in art from “art is as such political” to “all art is political, but some art is explicitly and other art implicitly so”, from the differences of “political art, apolitical art and non-political art” to the context-dependency of claims to an artwork’s politics. Ultimately, his objective proves to be one of of pitting “strong” versus “weak.”

“Costello combines a quasi-formalist, neo-modernist notion of self-reflexivity with idea(l)s of a liberal-progressive politics of participation, switching from medium specificity to something that may be called political specificity.” 

For Costello, “strongly political art” should “not only have political content” but also embody that content “at the level of the work’s form, by subjecting the principles of construction underwriting its own form to political critique,” resulting in a “unity of form and content” reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Author a Producer” or Jean-Luc Godard’s and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s admonition to “make films politically” (rather than to make “political films”). In the case of The Battle of Orgreave, a work based on the transgenerational participation and involvement of a considerable number of collaborators, a “significant additional organizational and ethical complexity […] makes the work ‘wholly political’ in Deller’s terms, and ‘strongly’ political in mine [i.e. Costello’s]. That is, political through and through—down to its internal ‘principles of construction’.” 

Any assessment of the aesthetic quality of a work is thus displaced by an evaluation of the extent to which it is actually made of actions, processes and materials that can be deemed political, or, more specifically, of the extent to which it is “permeated by a politics of engaging with others […] in such a way as to reflexively embody its own, strikingly egalitarian, political content.” In other words, to arrive at a judgment about the relative weakness or strength of a particular instantiation of political art, the very politics in question is to be categorized and evaluated as well, such as whether it is egalitarian or non-egalitarian. The “strength” of a political work of art not only shows in the degree of its being “permeated” by politics, but also by the very nature of this politics. Here it would make sense to ask whether this analytical approach is meant to be ideologically unbiased, thus measuring the work’s accomplishment according to a certain notion of political coherence that does not distinguish between good and bad politics.    

This proves not to be the case. In conspicuously normative fashion, Costello combines a quasi-formalist, neo-modernist notion of self-reflexivity with an idealized liberal-progressive politics of participation, switching from medium specificity to something that may be called political specificity. His proposal calling for “subjecting the principles of construction underwriting its [the work’s] own form to political critique,” is arguably the essay’s key “methodological challenge.” However, what is the methodological or epistemological point of subjecting the “strongly” political work of art, “permeated” with politics as it supposedly is, to a “political critique”, when the social and historical position of the latter is left largely underdetermined? Unintentionally, the tautological character of this conflagration and the vaguely partisan, though untheorized concept of “political critique” may explain the peculiar deployment of the quotation marks in the essay’s title. They are a reminder that the dialectical tension palpable in the “‘political’” status of the work of art is far from being under control.