Why Trump is able to neutralize #Resistance art

October 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

Ahead of her Art Toronto talk, critic and podcaster Anna Khachiyan suggests that artistic dissenters should focus on platforms like Facebook and Instagram

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER OCTOBER 23, 2018

 

Trump, Resistance, Protest, Art

Barbara Kruger’s Prump Tutin magazine cover, part of New York Magazine’s My New York public art project. Photo: Anna Khachiyan

 

If the art world needs a contrarian, Anna Khachiyan can oblige.

Along with Dasha Nekrasova, Khachiyan co-hosts the podcast Red Scare. The New York duo’s weekly,  often provocative, look at cultural news already has healthy base of Patreon supporters since launching in March. Part of the so-called Dirtbag Left, Khachiyan and Nekrasova are caustically skeptical about the niceties of mainstream liberal thought.

In balancing an indulgance in bad taste and being reactionaries, the Red Scare duo sometimes risks sounding like an internet troll act. But as a writer, Khachiyan is a too-rare voice in a world that’s voguish for art best understood through moral positioning. Her recent essay Art Won’t Save Us tackles why so much political “resistance” art aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump is ineffectual, and argues what’s needed is more critical thinking around the power big tech companies have over our lives.

In town on Friday to speak at Art Toronto, Khachiyan chatted with NOW over email last week.

Your essay is a series of propositions that ends with a stunning observation, one I haven’t seen anyone else make. But before we get to that, I want to ask: You dismiss political art like Barbara Kruger’s PRUMP/TUTIN poster as “vapid sloganeering.” But, to state the obvious, isn’t that what artists do: work with visual elements?

It goes without saying that artists primarily work in a visual language. But there’s a difference between understanding something in aesthetic terms and insisting on its moral significance. The sense you get with all this anti-Trump political #resistance art is that it’s aggressively propagandistic yet bizarrely phoned-in.

What’s especially bad-faith about the propagandizing is that it’s not in service of some political agenda, but rather personal consolation and mutual flattery – not so much anti-Trump as pro-themselves. These people are so scandalized by Trump’s persona precisely because they’re so removed from Trump’s policies. On a more basic level, the aesthetics are just so corny as to be embarrassing for everyone involved. The art world has lost sight of the fact that artists are under no moral obligation to be role models, which is what made them such compelling interpreters of reality in the first place.

I disagree on the aesthetics being corny. I’d say Kruger’s work is more classic protest style. Art gets part of its power from finding new relevance for visual formats. But I agree that artists who want to be role models are misunderstanding their role. In your essay you write that art needs mass appeal to have political force. What are you thinking exactly? TV has mass appeal, art typically does not.

I’m thinking more of the Soviet mode of socialist realism. The Soviets came the closest to successfully engineering the total collapse of art and life. But it came at a cost: the tyranny of an enforced style. Interestingly, in America today you also have the presence of an aesthetic and ideological monoculture, though the difference is that it’s not so much enforced from the top down as self-enforced.

The claim that I made in that essay – that the Trump administration is the first properly capitalist realist “regime”– is crucial to the degree that it has been able to successfully absorb and neutralize artistic dissent. Trump parodies himself so well that any form of protest art, whether earnest or satirical, falls flat. That’s why that classic protest style you mention looks so ill-suited to the current context, and is also why mainstream TV political comedy like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show are equally cringeworthy.

Your comparison of the received wisdoms of today’s art milieu with Soviet realism is useful. As I mentioned, your essay offers another powerful insight: a reluctance in art circles to grapple with “the systemic dangers lurking… in the digital networks… governing our everyday existence.” You’re right. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter should be a focus of art’s political talk and action, but they aren’t. Any thoughts on why?

Well, for starters, it’s a daunting proposition – not only from the standpoint of our willing participation in these networks, but also in the sense that the language we use to understand them is unwieldy and not agreed-upon. That is, before anyone can launch a systemic critique, let alone a concerted action, we first have to author the theory around it. “Platform capitalism,” for instance, as a particularly aggressive exponent of neo-liberal orthodoxy, is for the most part uncharted territory.

If you really want to psychoanalyze it, there’s also the question of the art world’s collective guilt. As I’ve said before, these [artists] are the people who are least likely to be meaningfully affected by any of Trump’s policies, so they’ve re-routed all of their energies into performatively grandstanding over his persona. But a politics that privileges affect and sensibility over society’s common interests will always be toothless. The art world’s power players, at least subconsciously, know this about themselves. They know their unwillingness to part with their power, however narrowly defined, is precisely what makes them so powerless, so they’ve overcompensated in the opposite direction.

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/anna-khachiyan-trump-resistance-art/?fbclid=IwAR2jH4_RfpkPCNt1l7MuhpORmMxyom7300t4WF9_DXH_jsXtnn6KtZiFDnw

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Nasty

January 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

This essay was written to accompany the exhibition of the same name. Details below.

Donald Trump deriding his electoral opponent as a “nasty woman” is hardly the biggest problem associated with the new American president. The insult delivered during the third presidential debate does, however, have relevance to the bizarre state of affairs that is the United States in 2017. The country is currently in the grip of a self-inflicted catastrophe. Chaos is not too strong a word for what is unfolding; who knows where its all heading? But just think what the cause is — the threat of a woman holding the country’s highest office. Reality TV host and fraud businessman Donald Trump was thought a better alternative than that.

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Jennifer Murphy, from collage series, 2016

Nasty personifies the idea of an embodied threat. On the occasion of Trump’s inauguration, the word takes on an added significance: as an emblem of resistance. Taking this challenge on, Nasty the exhibition is organized to coincide with the inauguration and the worldwide protests that are accompanying it. The idea of nasty connects with art in the latter’s embodied seductions — art is always in some sectors considered dangerous, in a tangible but hard-to-define way. We know from Plato that art is thought a program for deception; like misogyny, the social prejudice against it runs eons deep.  If artworks and women still engender a suspect reputation, what is the problem exactly?

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Image: Shannon Bool (photogram) 2016

Going back to Hilary, the New York Times ran an illuminating opinion piece last November 5th, three days before the election. Titled, “The Men Feminists Left Behind,” the author Jill Filipovic talks about an America (and by extension all of the West) in which men have enjoyed a default dominance, forever. “It was mostly white men in charge and it was white male experiences against which all others found themselves contrasted and defined.” The clearest indication that this status quo might be undergoing change is — what else? — the resistance to it expressed by Donald Trump’s electoral success. Filipovic outlines the many advances women have made in the past decades — “For women, feminism is both remarkably successful and a work in progress” — and notes that “men haven’t gained nearly as much flexibility.” Accurately derided in Vanity Fair as “shallow and mediocre,” Trump as US President is living proof that men still rule, regardless of how ill-suited they may be for the job.

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Nadia Belerique, from shelf series, 2016

Is the argument of this show then that artworks are like women? Clearly, yes. More specifically it proposes that both derive their power from a position of vulnerability. This position, however, produces in its turn an entire world of invention. Writing about Clinton’s loss to Trump in the election, the philosopher Rebecca Solnit notes: “power… is a male prerogative, which is to say that the set-up was not intended to include women.” If power is not “set up” for women to share in, they have to figure out other ways to get it. Faced with this reality, the appurtenances, so called, of the feminine are a way of owning it — if not power necessarily, then an equivalent force all its own.

An heightened relevance for feminist politics provides the context for this exhibition, but its not a political show. Nasty presents work by eight women artists, each one in some way investigating the visual culture of femininity. The types of practices on view are wide-ranging. Through surface collisions of ornamentation and draping, Shannon Bool evokes the figure of the feminine, as both historically specific and timeless. Stiletto heels, rendered as both support and staging ground, form the basis for Elizabeth Zvonar’s evocative collages. The power dynamics of looking take on new — gendered — meaning in Nadia Belerique’s shelf sculptures. Jennifer Murphy’s delicate sculptural collage works hint at the poisoned barbs that lie beneath the natural world’s seductions. Against an astringent blue background, the title Shady Lady (2010), suggests the gendered nature of Kristine Moran’s gestural abstractions. Aleesa Cohene’s 2009 video installation Like, Like discovers ulterior narratives for mass culture’s female icons. With Valerie Blass’s 2009 work Touche de bois, wood and jeggings are combined to be somehow confrontational. And finally, and hardly least, Kara Hamilton contributes further embodied aggressions with the beast-like, Tonka, a work she made in 2015.

Rosemary Heather

Nasty
Nadia Belerique, Valérie Blass, Shannon Bool, Aleesa Cohene, Kara Hamilton, Kristine Moran, Jennifer Murphy and Elizabeth Zvonar
January 21 – March 4, 2017
Daniel Faria Gallery
188 St Helens Avenue
Toronto ON, M6H 4A1
Canada
www.danielfariagallery.com

See also, Nasty Talk: Feminist Art In The Age Of Trump, a reprint of this text with a nice selection of images from the show, at Good Trouble Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Art and Populism: Is the populist groundswell today an effect of the internet?

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

syriza
Syriza protest Greece

A by country list of popular political movements

27/10 2015 In previous posts I discussed why political populism tends to get dismissed as an unworkable political tendency and why it nonetheless stands as a legitimate response to current political conditions. What results is an apparent stalemate between a desire for change (reactionary and progressive) and the entrenched interests that prevent it from happening. It’s a situation that creates the expanded contemporary moment we find ourselves in, one shot through with equal parts risk and possibility. The populist tendency is regarded with misgiving by the vested interests it is marshalled against. This is of course because it’s hard to find silver bullet solutions to highly complex problems. But it also may be an indicator of “how isolated our elites and their media mouthpieces have become.”

The French political economist Guy Sorman makes a useful distinction between populist tendencies and civil society, which assumes that to be effective the former would have to be absorbed into the latter. He also says all contemporary populist movements share use of social networks on the internet as a means of mobilization and expression. Its an important point perhaps too easily overlooked. Taking into account the way populism’s ability to “galvanize new forms of political engagement”gets intensified by the internet, I put together an expanded list of today’s populist movements. The list includes recent mass movements that are popular but can’t be defined as populist because they lack a definitive leader or political party affiliation. Note that many of the populist tendencies listed below emerged within the last 5 years.

Arab Spring (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan) Uprisings for democracy that spread across the Arab world in 2011 (in the order listed above). The role social media played in these movements is acknowledged to be significant. Four years on, lack of civil society traditions sees the Arab Spring momentum stalled or moving in reverse, in some cases to catastrophic effect.

Alternative for Germany/AfD Germany’s Tea Party. While initially formed to demand Germany abandon the Euro, the AfD has become increasingly xenophobic. It’s been an apparently successful shift helping “German voters overcome a deeply entrenched taboo against voting for a right-leaning party.”

Bernie Sanders (US – Democrat) The so-called “socialist senator” is galvanizing voters in the US simply because he addresses issues like income inequality and advocates for federal stimulus spending. Building a financial base through small donations, it remains to be seen if he poses a real threat to the“dynastic, seemingly unstoppable Democratic nominee frontrunner”, Hillary Clinton.

Dansk Folkeparti/DF (Denmark) One of the Danish People’s Party’s stated goals is to prevent Denmark from becoming a multiethnic society. Winning 21% of the popular vote in June elections, the DF “once seemed quite extreme but now they’re mainstream” — to the extent that they have pushed Denmark’s political landscape to the right.

Donald Trump (US – Republican) Is Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Distorting Reality? asks a clickbaiting recent headline. The idea has some plausibility if it’s a reality measured in wall-to-wall media coverage backed by a personal fortune counted in the billions. As a populist candidate, Trump is the genuine example of the phenomenon, using xenophobia and bribes to manipulate voter emotion.

English Defence League/EDL Cas Mudde, scholar of the radical right, calls emphasis on the most extreme and photogenic radical right groups “misguided.” While admittedly a fringe tendency, the EDL’s anti-Muslim platform backed by thuggish street protests can be filed under the category of populism that is deleterious to the public order.

Freedom Party of Austria/FPÖ (Austria) Founded in 1955, the far right FPÖ can be included in the anti-migrant wall-building strain of populist tendencies. Although they surged in popularity in October elections, it was not enough to unseat the Social Democrats, Vienna’s governing party since the end of WWII.

Five Star Movement/M5S (Italy) Led by comedian and TV personality, Beppe Grillo, the party first gained electoral success in 2013. Following the recent resignation of Rome’s Mayor, disgraced by an expense scandal, an upcoming election in Rome looks to favor M5S, “now the most popular party among Romans sickened by years of graft and poor public services.”

Finns Party (Finland) Forming part of the country’s ruling coalition after elections in April, the Finns Party is typical of populist parties in Europe, being Eurosceptic and anti-migration. Its platform includes the suggestion that “young women should be persuaded not to study and instead give birth to Finnish babies.

Forza Italia/FI Founded in 1993 by Silvio Berlusconi, four time Prime Minister of Italy. The centre-right party is the best recent example of cult-of-personality populist politics, aided no doubt by Berlusconi’s personal television empire. Its current state is disarray, populist allegiances having shifted to either comedian Beppe Grillo’s M5S or the Northern League, which calls for independence for the north and an end to the Euro.

National Front (France) Led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, the party’s long time leader (1972-2011). Signaling Marine’s more mainstream intentions for the party, the elder Le Pen was in August expelled from the party in the wake of his statement that the Holocaust was “a detail of history” (a view he first expressed in 1987).

Party for Freedom/PVV (The Netherlands) “Mass immigration is leading to the dilution of cultural identity in the European Union member states” wrote the PVV’s Geert Wilders in an opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal coauthored with France’s Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League. It’s a show of unity that may belie a more significant weakness, as 2014 European Parliament elections saw a drop in the extremist party’s support at the polls.

Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident/Pegida(Germany) Anti-Islamist protest alliance founded in Dresden in 2014. Leading weekly street protests that have been moderately successful in Germany, “the group’s demonstrations elsewhere in Europe have not witnessed significant participation.” Plans to form a political party look unlikely to go ahead.

Podemos (Spain) With origins in the anti-austerity Indignados series of demonstrations in Spain, Podemos was founded in 2014. Led by the 36 year old academic Pablo Iglesias, Podemos gained in regional elections in May of this year but more recent polls show a softening of support in advance of a general election on December 20th.

Occupy (Global) – Starting in 2011 with the occupation of New York’s Zuccotti Park, the anti-capitalist movement grew to see Occupy-related events staged in 951 cities in 82 countries. In part inspired by the Arab Spring and Indignados movements, in the US Occupy is often described as the left-wing populist counterpart to the right-wing Tea Party. Current activities include activist debt relief.

Syriza (Greece) A snap general election in September gave the left-wing Syriza a decisive victory, bringing some measure of stability to Greece and a mandate for legislation of reforms — at the same they will be doubtless confronting the reality of “what it means for the radical Left to govern in the world of global capital.”

Tea Party (US) – A symptom of ideologic dysfunction within the US Republican Party, the Tea Party movement recently expressed the full force of its nuttiness by forcing John Boehner, the already right-wing Republican Speaker of the House to resign, for not being extremist enough. A movement started in 2009, the Tea Party shares in common with the Arab Spring and Occupy decentralized leadership and lack of a uniform agenda.

UKIP/United Kingdom Independence Party (UK) Founded in 1991, this right-wing, Eurosceptic party started to get traction within the mainstream of British political life in the last two years. Showing the volatile nature of populist politics, the BBC recently reported that party insiders believe UKIP’s future is uncertain; “the party will be over in a few years’ time.”

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: Political Populism – A Fresh Start for the 21st Century

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Slavoj Žižek

There are solid reasons why the populist tendency in politics now seems ubiquitous

20/10 2015 A quick formulation for the phenomenon of political populism could be: a tendency that gains in traction to the extent it departs from reality. To flesh this idea out it will be important to define what “reality” stands for in this equation. More of that to come.

First, some laboring of metaphor. Populism allows for a politics of aspiration, cut loose from the anchor of pragmatism. It’s an idea of a polity adrift that assumes eventually it will have to be hauled back to the dock. This means someone like Donald Trump, currently frontrunner by a wide margin in the Republican race for US Presidential nominee, cannot in the real world be the captain of the ship. Or he could be, if he became a different Donald Trump, one whose insalubrious personality and “policy views bordering on gibberish” became subordinate to the time-honored protocols and procedural methods by which the real business of government happens in the US. You see the problem here?

Like an America that cheered raucously for the Pope on his recent visit there, mostly because he represents his own special category of celebrity, the Trump phenomenon exhibits specifically American characteristics of being overblown and pretty much indifferent to the facts. By contrast, recent events in Greece provide a more European example of traits inherent to the populist tendency. In July this year, upon receiving diktats from another pulpit, that of the so-called Troika, for bailout conditions that include ongoing harsh austerity measures, the ruling Syriza party used a referendum to ask the Greek people whether to accept the terms. When the result of the vote was “no” (over 61%), the party promptly turned around and accepted an even harsher deal to secure the Troika’s bailout. “SYRIZA” may be an acronym that stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, but the political party that acts under its name can’t escape the fact of its membership in a transnational economic order, one that supersedes the interests of any one nation state that might benefit from the lifeblood of its own capital. This conflict between the will of the Greek people, succinctly expressed in the July 5th referendum, and the acceptance by its elected leaders of the bailout’s punitive economic measures points to a wider dilemma. In an article in which Slavoj Žižek calls Syriza’s response heroic (because pragmatic), he also writes: “The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment as it gradually undermines the very foundations of a united Europe.”

10-donald-trump-debate.w750.h560.2xDonald Trump

Shifting down to a micro-level, I draw personal anecdote to suggest a parallel between the situations in Greece and the US. A friend in New York, highly regarded by me, recently told me she would consider voting for Trump but never Hillary Clinton because she “takes money from Monsanto.” Throwing caution out the window, I’ll go ahead and say I believe Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, are both progressive politicians. Yet to state such a belief is to strain my own standards for credulity because of the degree to which both are in the pocket of corporate interests. Even if Clinton takes money from lobbyists who also work for Monsanto or Exxon this is simply a necessity, a reflection of the massive scale of resources required to run for President in the US (unless you are a billionaire). Taking this into account is not meant to excuse Clinton, but it certainly does provide an example of the “reality” I mentioned earlier. In both countries, legacy political institutions are more or less functioning according to the global standard, and yet remain mired in the “three C’s” of politics when conducted as usual today: complexity, compromise and outright corruption. As Žižek, well-known expert on the topic of the Real, says: “The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our ultimate reality.”

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Hilary Clinton

If I used nautical metaphors earlier on in this text to evoke the idea of a political moment losing its connection to reality, I’ll revisit the concept but with on-the-ground imagery this time. In a previous post, I spoke about the risk innate to populist politics of the polity straying into “uncharted territory.” What this means is concessions made to the immediatedemands of the voting public as channeled by a populist politician are arguably incompatible with the larger legislative workings of government. Events in Greece provide a very recent example here in that no short term mechanism exists to implement the people’s desire for change expressed by the July 5th referendum. This includes the option of a so-called Grexit, which Zizek points out in a follow up article was in fact “the enemy’s plan.”

By the same token, concerns such as the everyday effects of our era’s massive income disparity lack an obvious democratic remedy within the current system. The politician or political party ready to acknowledge these facts1 will get voter traction, but at the same time be considered not serious candidates by the political establishment. The reason for this is apparently that mainstream political operatives exist simply to function as the respectable face of the economic system that backs them. Against the prevailing sense of deadlock this situation creates, our moment sees many proposed alternatives emerging. If they are in inchoate form, that’s okay. To state merely that an alternative is needed is the first step. This after all would seem to be the gambit made by the Occupy movement, which proposed itself as a model form of direct government. Working in a self-organized fashion and without mediation of a political representative, its gesture was to occupy the ground of the present. If Occupy has moved on to other initiatives, it’s important to recognize that the movement anticipated many of today’s developments, not least the addition of the term 99% to our vernacular. It’s a conceptual tool that may prove decisive in the emerging political landscape to come.

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.

 


1) For instance, the currently surging in the polls, independent US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Sanders was interested less in academic arguments…than in hard numbers that “exemplify the disparities he sees and feels and hears about from people.”

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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