The Venice Biennale naturally has a remit that encourages inclusivity. How could it not when art is left to deal with the entire gambit of freedom and the individual right to expression as a kind of surrogate? Art kicks in where politics fails, whilst being unable to undo the latter’s failings. Art’s role is not dissimilar, in this respect, from that of the sporting gesture, sport having been hijacked for political gain, from Germany’s 1936 Olympics to the boycotted 1976 and 1980 Games hosted, respectively, in Montreal and Moscow, to Ali’s ‘return’ of his Olympic medal, projected into the Ohio river.
Of course, whilst art has its directly political moments, this, together with art’s removal from society – its autonomy – constitutes art from the offset. Art is contrary; yet it is also ineffectual, which is what allows it to maintain its contrary freedom, as a force if not of change itself, of a ‘hope’ for change. The difference between the major art event and the major sporting event resides in the fact that at the moment that art genuinely becomes political, it would arguably cease to be ‘art’, whereas sport does not have as part of its grounding definition a necessity to remain autonomous from politics. Art’s central programme is its aloofness, whereas sports central programme is ‘competition’. Though here one must be careful not to draw a parallel between that ‘sporting’ competition and competition as borne out in the wider world. Doing so would appear glib in light of the extremes committed against individuals in the name of wider ‘competition’. It is art’s aloofness which makes it unsuitable as a tool for political intervention, resulting in poor art at best, soured politics at worst, rather than sports competitive streak marking sport out as complicit with politics.
To explicate this argument regarding art in full would be to return us to a mid Twentieth Century debate, that which took place between Adorno and his students, who, as students were wont to do in 1969, urged a revolution, only for Adorno to put the dampers on (or try to; it went ahead, but failed anyway). As Adorno would have it, a critique of society could only effectively happen from outside that society, via the truly Modern artwork, which, feigning autonomy, could cast its critique on an unfree social system. That which inhered in art as specifically ‘art’ was its aloofness from politics and the social sphere. And only art, in its detachment, could oppose the wrongs of that social sphere.
This line is sometimes cast as antiquated, for the fact that politics has apparently become so shrewd as to necessitate some kind of ground level concrete resistance, implying that art must either step up and become directly involved politically – and not just through its non-complicity with politics, and the special critical status that this confers – or must defer to activist politics completely.
However, one could rebut this counter-argument in that, firstly, whilst, for example, it would be possible to present a Molotov Cocktail as an artistic Readymade within a gallery context, the moment that the said ‘artwork’ stepped outside of the gallery it would become an offensive weapon: This, in accordance with the ethical status that the artist must maintain if s/he is to maintain autonomy. Indeed, the moment even the innocuous artwork is used to bludgeon or maim, to burn or cause damage, the artwork is shed of its autonomous status, as if being throw into the world ‘proper’. The effects of human suffering are too real for art to withdraw from. It is is this first counter-rebuttal that allows for the second; art must remain apolitical if it is to cast an eye over politics in its various manifestations.
In this case, the Venice Biennale is under no injunction to represent ‘everyone’, being as such an injunction smacks of the political in itself; yet to exclude anyone would be to step beyond the remit of art. Such an exclusion may be read as politically motivated.
It is greatly significant then that whilst Palestine has a presence in Venice for the first time in the Biennale’s 14 year history, Germany simultaneously becomes the first National Pavilion to show the work of an artist – British born Liam Gillick – not from, or even working in, the nation represented by the Pavilion.
These two conflicting trends raise eyebrows in opposing directions; one may wonder aloud how an international Biennale ever became so nationalistically stratified in the first place, with 30 nations occupying permanent pavilions whilst simultaneously bemoaning the fact that Palestine had been so long overlooked. Of course one imagines that the Palestinian people, who will be able to see parallel shows of artists works in Palestine itself for the duration of the Biennale would be immensely more happy if they were to field a team for the FIFA World Cup Finals. However, it does seem that the Biennale confers some form of legitimation upon the Palestinian State and one that is, thankfully, as unlikely to upset the Israeli State as it would the Israeli Pavilion, which houses works of the late painter Raffi Lavie (b.1937 d.2007), an artist who worked hard to have the values of Modern Art recognised in Israel during his lifetime. Palestine confront the present head on – an unsuprising mix of politically charged works, whereas Israel prefers to look back, thus conveying a message as political as it is apparently unconcerned.
If we throw into the mix of this discussion the existence of the ‘East -West Divan’ – otherwise titled ‘It’s Not You it’s Me’, an exhibit dedicated to artists from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, together with the separate displays hosted by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite there also being a ‘British’ Pavilion, we are presented with a complex variety of responses to the notions of art, the political and nationality, as fertile for the reassessment of the value of the Biennale as for Art itself.1
The difficulty with defining art’s value resides in its ‘push me; pull you’ nature. Contradictions inhere in its very being. To pin down Art as any one thing would be to rob it of the lack of purpose – essentially, its freedom – that inheres in it. Consequently it mirrors the already existent confusion of nationhood. Whilst we eradicate nations and centralise power in the hands of bigger international bodies, we devolve power to smaller communities. Palestine, jettisoned off Venice’s main island in Giudecca, may have missed the boat in declaring itself as a going interest at the Biennale. Yet who is to say? Every conceivable nationality must be seen to have a right in declaring itself even after the passing of nationality itself.
This, indeed, goes to show how abstract the notion of the nation state is; the declaration of statehood is comparable to a grandoise art declaration, which perhaps accounts for the pomposity of the Giardini – Venice’s permanent Biennale showground, home to the British, Israeli, Japanese, German and American pavilions , amongst others. Art must out-art itself if it is to even register in such illustrious settings, a point which may account for the almost unanimous bi-annual proclamation by the Biennale audience to the effect that the best art is to be seen outside the Giardini – in the Arsenale, or in the peripheral spaces, where nationhood is less often grand-standed.
Beyond the complexities that beset the artwork, politically speaking, resides a kind of dragon which remains every artists’ duty, knowingly or not, to slay, if they are to truly make art at all; for art is damned if it assumes a political role, and damned if it does not. In the former case, as mentioned, art somehow becomes ‘less art’ for its political involvement. Yet, if, in the latter case, art does not become political, it becomes somehow inhumane, becoming allied with those political tendencies that serve to maintain the status quo through a kind of busied non-action.
Combining these problems we see the idealistic notion of the eradication of borders being met with the question ‘At whose expense?’, whilst the enshrining of borders on the say so of the artist frames the artwork within the real world realm of division and conflict. And in response to this a lonely voice resounds: ‘Is it too much to ask that art be something simple and kind?’
In response to this question one might look towards the work of two very British artists, Mark Wallinger and Paul Sakoilsky who, arguably, somehow levitate themselves out of the problem that faces the political artwork, yet on completely ‘concrete’ terms. Sakoilsky’s wry truism, that his sleeping in the makeshift press office at the 2007 Climate of Change show held in a near derelict office block in Southwark, whilst defacing found newspapers – his ‘Dark Times’ – was categorically ‘not a performance’ (he was between homes at the time), provides an alibi for Wallinger’s ‘State Britain’, a piece that might otherwise seem to be a bourgeois reconstruction of one man’s proletarian struggle. Installed in Tate Britain as a reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-war demonstration, comprising of painted signs facing towards parliament, Wallinger’s piece is art at its best, when it is simply not art. It is a literal reconstruction of Haw’s protest, masquerading as art, and thus draws attention as much to the failings of art as those of politics. Sakoilsky’s perpetual defacing of found newspapers with tragi-comic appropriations of headlines and images is similarly destined to a kind of cheerful-failure; it is surely this alone that compels the persistence of Sakoilsky’s work.
As for the issue of nationality, it is worn as a yoke, with both the headlines and the policies providing the disdain which is the motor for art’s failure as an autonomous discipline. Art can arguably no more oppose the state of things than become embroiled in them. One could in any case argue that Wallinger’s piece, displayed within the safety of the gallery, chalks up the ineffectual nature of the work. For the protest that the work represented earned the protagonist, Brian Haw, both arrests and assaults (the latter coming both from the public and, allegedly, the Police). Any real affront to the British State is dealt with harshly, whereas State Britain was, like most art, calmly overlooked. So where State Britain fails as art, it also fails as politics, which is itself always doomed to a general failure of another kind – i.e. the failure to found equality.
Or, rather, art can’t fail at politics – it is not deemed enough of a threat to meet with genuine political opposition – while at the same time failure is a prerequisite of the former. Ultimately, art often fails to be politics at all, except in those Nation States where creative free speech is harshly punished, and in these places art is a form of politics from the offset, that in actuality merely resembles art in form and physicality (i.e. paint is used to decorate banners, as paint is used to make ‘paintings’).
To revisit the comparison between art and sport at this point throws up an interesting asymmetry between the two disciplines: where sportsmen fail at politics they are seen as brave fools. Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed almost a caricature of what was politically possible at a sporting event when they silently clenched their black-gloved fists into Black Panther salutes on the winning podium after taking Gold and Bronze in the 1968 Olympic 200 metres. It was a drop in the ocean politically and one that surely made their careers difficult. Yet it could not be said to be a failure as sport. Whereas art must foresake everything – both politics and art – in stepping up to deliver a political message.
Yet there is a congruence between art and sport here, as, if the actions of Smith and Carlos were to mean anything, that meaning resided in the action itself, as a concrete moment of assertion. That this was categorically ‘not a performance’ meets with the central defence of the political artwork. The artwork may singularly fail in all of its aims, but it is, for the duration of its display, absolutely what it is – and thus holds no contingent or useful purpose. It is this utterly useless nature, its failing at everything, which enables it, uniquely, to be only what it is. Some kind of freedom.
For Smith and Carlos’ gesture the same cannot be said – for on the left of the podium stood a white Australian bronze medal winner, who, in good humour, remained silent and still during what for him was very much a sports ceremony. The situation was thus framed. It had to be sport, for the inclusion on scene of a sportsman (one that wasn’t foregoing their sportsman role for the role of activist). Whereas, artists can sometimes elevate out of the confines of art practice, suspending the notion of art, whilst preserving the uselessness of art to shield themselves from the dangers of politics, without the uncomfortable presence of someone on the periphery who might point out that what we are witnessing is art. The thing is, with art this just wouldn’t matter, because we have come to expect art to masquerade as all things, not least as something entirely ‘other’ than art. This operates only on account of what art in fact is – a pretty useless charade. So, for example, Rancière’s belief that art is political in a very real sense – i.e. art’s autonomy from the political sphere is its political gesture – sees in the impossibility of art’s making an effective political statement, the possibility of it being remote enough to critique politics. Yet Ranciere’s belief that art and politics are ultimately akin – with art’s autonomy blending into a wider heteronomy, each being a condition of the other – fails to acknowledge art’s radical difference from politics, or, indeed, sport, or religion, or cookery, or crochet. The radical alterity of art, even in light of its connection with wider society, has to be taken as real.
Returning to nationality, the inclusion of Palestine at the 53rd Venice Biennale, simultaneous to Liam Gillick exhibiting in the German pavilion plays on art’s ‘push me-pull you’ designation, demonstrating that whatever is creatively declared will be negated elsewhere: The plurality of opinions and works at play within the art world is not an art performance, it is reflective of political failing in general, even if it, perhaps happily, cannot have the devastating impact of politics proper. Art is, in this sense, ruined from the offset, whether political or ostensibly autonomous; any real art, as completely free from society, would have to simply not exist: Adorno’s preference for an abstract art, lest the discernibly figurative be subsumed within the world that it aims to yoke off, becomes a demand that art should somehow maintain its effect, as pertinent yet useless, whilst shedding its actual being.
In this sense the works of Sakoilsky, Wallinger and innumerable others are objects of contemplation around the notion of what art might be, if it could viably exist. That art might realise the transcendental capacity that it so perpetually seeks after is the ongoing promise, the utter failure of which guarantees its critical capacity.