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.

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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