On Art and Populism: The Political Populism of Art Censorship

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Goshka Macuga’s Notice Board,  2011

Goshka Macuga’s Notice Board and Model for a Sculpture (Family) take on pointed resonance when presented in the context of the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition

11/11 2015 “After 70 years of relative stability, history is on the move and we are all in its grip”writes Michael White in the Guardian. He cites three factors in his diagnosis of epochal change: failures of elites; divisive, panacea politics; and fragmentation of the centre — by which he means, I believe, a crisis of legitimacy within the status quo that makes alternatives look plausible. White is writing about the November 1st elections in Turkey, which saw incumbent Recep Erdoğan get returned to power by a decisive margin. He could very well be talking about similar events in Poland, where the right wing Law and Justice party recently won the vote with a commanding majority. Indeed, the casual observer looking for signs of a populist resurgence around the globe is spoilt for choice. You could almost say the dominoes are falling, to use the Cold War terminology, only this time the Communist threat gets replaced by a more shape-shifting enemy.

Poland provides a good case study here. For the first time in its twenty-five year history of post-communist democracy Poland gets a government of single party rule. The promised legislative agenda that got them there represents a significant departure for a country that has beenthe leading liberal reformer in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a shift that pushes in the direction of the demagogic Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, whose factious (and anti-migrant fence-building) style of governance includes undermining the foundations of liberal constitutional democracy. In both countries, populist tactics provide the winning formula for a tightening grip on power. In Hungary, Orban has been at it since 2010, most recently using a clash of civilisations rhetoric to inveigh against Middle Eastern refugee claimants, stating the influx puts Europe’s Christian identity at risk. Poland has also seen an opportunistic xenophobia in Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s assertion that refugees are “bringing parasites” to Europe, among other inflammatory statements.

In Michael White’s article, he discusses a parallel and apparently contradictory political trend of dynasticism, citing the recent elections in Canada where the son of Pierre Trudeau (Canada’s JFK) became Prime Minister, as well as the strong likelihood that Hillary Clinton will become US President in 2016, as two examples among many. With the dynastic option, the basic factor of brand recognition helps solve the question about who we choose as our leaders — and it’s true, I am Canadian and there is about zero chance Justin Trudeau would be Prime Minister today if it were not for his famous father.

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Goshka Macuga’s Model for a Sculpture (Family),  2011

Populist and dynastic politics share in common the ability to simplify things in the same way a brand helps simplify the consumer choices we make. Succinctly stated, brands formalize visual attributes into a set of values and emotions. The replicability of a logo creates a shortform statement about the consistency of a product, amounting to a kind of argument for why it’s worthy of our affiliation. If the goal of the brand is to be always and instantly intelligible, what by contrast is the goal of the artwork? Simple answer: to be intelligible in the first instance. “Make it new” is a modus operandi for the contemporary artwork that stretches back to Ezra Pound. The artwork fulfils its function best when it allows us to see something again for the first time.

This is especially true of Goshka Macuga’s work. At the heart of the artist’s practice is an invitation to revisit what we think we know about something, or more precisely, to think again about objects and the circumstances they can be said to embody. For Macuga’s contribution to the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism show the circumstance would be episodes of art censorship in Poland, where the artist is from. One point of reference is a 2000 presentation in Warsaw of Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999), a life-like figure of the Pope felled by a meteorite (and so lying on the floor) that resulted in huge controversy including destruction of the work by two members of the public. The Kunsthalle presents two works by Macuga that were originally commissioned by the same gallery where Cattelan’s work was shown. Notice Board presents an extra-long bulletin board covered in the press clippings and ephemera produced in response to a number of art controversies in the country, while Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, is a large concrete sculpture, seven-metres high, of two figures hovering over a child reading a book.

Macuga’s sculpture is made in reference to Cattelan’s work, and to Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (Working-Class Family, 1968) from a May 1968 exhibition in Buenos Aires that was eventually shut down due to police censorship. By substituting one censored piece for another Macuga makes evident the social dimension of an artwork’s meaning. If Bony’s work, a performance on a pedestal by a real life family, served to highlight the plight of the low-paid working class in Argentina, with Macuga’s version the nuclear family is rendered in the traditional materials and style of the sculptural monument so that the piece takes on resonance of the social conservatism of the artist’s home country. These are the conservative values promoted by the Catholic Church so predominant in Poland, and so knowingly scandalized by Cattelan, who comes from a country that like Poland is 95% Catholic. Just as Cattelan vanquishes the Pope, Macuga would appear to vanquish Cattelan with the stolidity of Polish society. That might be the joke of the piece, its slapstick conceit, but Macuga’s point is more about how artworks can bring the public sphere to life, in the process articulating the values it deems to be most important. When viewed in the context of the Kunsthalle Wien exhibition,Model for a Sculpture (Family) takes on another implication, appearing to incarnate the “family values” platform that delivered the Law and Justice party to victory.

English political theorist Margaret Canovan has written that Populism should not be dismissed as a political pathology, but instead needs to be understood as a distinct interpretation of democracy, one that sees within its mechanisms a redemptive possibility. It’s this kind of Populist romanticism that Macuga’s work serves to undercut, if only by showing how the condensation of meaning into cultural symbols is a transient and context-dependent proposition.


This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

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