On Art and Populism: The Unpopularity of Art

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)Donald Trump

13/10 2015 One of the discarded ideas I had for the title of this blog, which looks at the topic of political populism as it relates to art, was “Plebiscite.” Populism and plebiscites share the idea that the people are sovereign. Commendable on the face of it, the ideal of direct democracy has limited practical application. The expression of popular opinion that a plebiscite allows risks being too immediate (too emotional, too self-interested) and therefore risks failing to protect the broader public interest. Looked at from this perspective, it’s easy to see why the phenomenon of political populism, whether an impulse arising from the right or left, will always be regarded with mistrust. By seeking out alternatives to established political parties and actors, the populist impulse presumes to appoint the fringe candidate or party as its direct representative. However effective an expression of popular discontent, this bypassing of mainstream political avenues would seem to carry the risk of steering the polity into uncharted territory.

Art is a product of its history and institutions, and by this measure, Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism project is motivated mostly by the need to see its own values preserved. Tendencies on today’s horizon suggest these values are under threat: migration as a crisis, and nationalism as an exclusionary phenomenon, the demagogic tendencies of some political parties, and the unpredictability of democratic power — in the words of Chantal Mouffe, populism has the potential to create “a terrain…for the emergence of collective identities whose nature is inimical to democratic treatment.”1 The openDemocracy website notes that the perception of political populism’s current omnipresence derives in part from the newness of this development in Europe, where “historically populism has been a marginal phenomenon…unlike in the Americas (North and South).”2

Tensions within Europe may be one reason for the rise of political populism on the continent, but wider forces are driving the phenomenon. Arguably, the semi-legitimisation of populist political alternatives is a symptom of a larger transition being undergone in the West. In part, this can be attributed to the way digital technology remaps the landscape of the public commons, to good and bad effect. Digital diffuses power across its network, bringing with it new standards of transparency and accountability in public life. At the same time, digital infrastructure enables asymmetric power advantage. The web is an amplification tool, with a wide reach disproportionate to the resources required to have such an effect.

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In his book The End of Power (2013), Moisés Naím argues we are now in an era where power is both more constrained and more anarchic. Although a useful observation about 21st century’s new dynamic of power redistribution, it’s a thesis that fails to acknowledge a bigger and apparently entrenched problem. Today’s transnational economies and the global class of the 1% subjugates the nation state, such as recently happened in Greece, and erodes the tax base — with ruinous effect to the social fabric. Writing from the UK, George Monbiot states “Our political system protects and enriches a fantastically wealthy elite, much of whose money is, as a result of their interesting tax and transfer arrangements, in effect stolen from poorer countries, and poorer citizens of their own countries.”3

And this is rather the case everywhere. Globally, art organizations find themselves embattled. Operating according to a business model that includes public money, they get characterized as being undeserving of tax revenues. The political pressure to justify this largesse results in the education and outreach programs of today’s contemporary art institutions — not in itself a bad thing. Regardless, at its base the practice of contemporary art is not a popular endeavor. Artists work within a context that will be most intelligible to an audience educated about its traditions and precepts. While representing a shared inheritance art can reasonably be perceived as only speaking to the few. Of course this shouldn’t matter. Public money benefits everyone in one way or another, including an encompassing range of initiatives within the private sector. However, the tradition of the public sphere that includes art carries within it many of the common values — like free speech and critical enquiry — that could be considered a threat to the global elite’s highly successful project of public funding cuts for the poor and middle classes and wealth accumulation for the rich.

George Packer notes that populism is a volatile tendency that “flourishes in periods… like our own, when large numbers of citizens…feel that the game is rigged against them.” It’s a truth that explains the ascendance in the United States of Donald Trump, a billionaire demagogue who connects with his audience because he is an independent with no association with institutions rightfully perceived to be corrupt by the general populace. That Trump continues to have a strong lead amongst Republican candidates for Presidential nominee, despite his noxious (and farcical) political ideas (deporting millions of undocumented immigrants; building a wall between the US and Mexico) suggests the degree to which the traditional options are discredited.

If contemporary art can be said to represent a set of values, it’s important to identify what they are and how artworks are understood to embody them. This is the first of an ongoing series of blog posts that will lead up to and accompany Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition and On Art and Populism symposium. The blog proposes to look at what these values are, why they are worth protecting, and what historical circumstances are currently at work to undermine them, as articulated through reference to art and its institutions.

1) Chantal Mouffe, “Right-Wing Populism: The Mistakes of the Moralistic Response”, The Populism Reader (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2005) 63-68.

2) Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: a primer”, openDemocracy, 12 May 2015 https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cas-mudde/populism-in-europe-primer

3) George Monbiot, “To us, it’s an obscure shift of tax law. To the City, it’s the heist of the century,” The Guardian, 7 February 2011 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/07/tax-city-heist-of-century

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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