Political nostalgia

spero-001Catherine Spaeth on Nancy Spero and political art:

Nancy Spero’s death the Sunday before last invites reflection upon what it means for an artist to be politically engaged at this time. Today the New York artworld appears to be more at home with the post-feminism of Lisa Yuskavage, Marylin Minter and Vanessa Beecroft. It may well be that, above all, it is Nancy Spero’s importance in the history of political engagement and feminism for which she will be remembered.

Her dismembered and spewing “female bombs” were a personal and unflinching personal protest of war. Before self-identified feminism in art, these images laid the ground for that feminism. In 1976, upon seeing her relentlessly descriptive series Torture of Women, Donald Kuspit wrote that Spero was “haunted by the death of women.”

I was too young to have seen Spero in an exhibition context at this time, but by the time I was able to she had become a legend. My strongest experience of her work was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Nancy Spero’s piece, Homage to Ana Mendieta, was a simple gesture – the stain of hands smearing blood upon the wall – but huge in largesse. Ana Mendieta “fell out of her window” in 1985 after a fight with her husband the artist Carl Andre. The artworld was divided over the outcome – Andre stood accused, but it could never be proven. Homage to Ana Mendieta was mournful, defiant and accusatory, the Whitney lent its walls to a political statement that would not leave those walls out of the picture. Spero’s homage was a message from and about a political situation, and inside of this situation it was as though other feminist gestures were taken up by these hands as well, appearing small in the force of its message.

Because of its apparent interest in political effects, negative critical response of the 1993 Whitney Biennial was strong and it was the topic of the first October Roundtable. Since that time it seems that political engagement by artists today is increasingly one of creating a nostalgic community grounded in loss. I felt this very strongly when viewing Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Voz Alta Video documenting a commissioned memorial for the 1968 student massacres in Mexico. It feels to me like the way things are, that we can’t think about the political anymore without wrapping it up into the past and feeling the loss of it.

Around the world, people showed up in sad and quiet protest of America’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, in Iran, the death of a single woman was lifted onto a field of green in the hopes that once again in the name of democracy this patriarchal gesture could matter. What can be said of art and politics in our time? Is there room for feminism in it? Does Nancy Spero’s death force us to mark the end of an era, and are we to acknowledge that “the art world has lost its conscience?”

5 thoughts on “Political nostalgia”

  1. This just in from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

    Catherine Spaeth mentioned my piece “Voz Alta” in the context of Nancy Spero’s inspiring practice.

    I would like to invite the author to view both parts of the video documentary of “Voz Alta” as it seems like she is only linking to the first part posted in YouTube. This first part does indeed have a tone of “a nostalgic community grounded in loss”. The second part of the video shows a more active, contemporary side, where participants including poets, rappers, children, students and other locals took over the installation and created new political agencies… namely, spoke their mind in an uncensored, unmoderated medium, something that is uncommon in Mexico. Among their contributions were political statements referring to our contemporary situation, specifically calling for the end of nostalgia and for action now.

    This is the link to see the entire documentary:


    Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

  2. Thank you, Rafael, for the link! This post was written last week with the hope that people could visit your show at Haunch of Venison in the last days before it closed – and it is here that I saw the video. Thank you for correcting my link and bringing the full version into view.

    I knew I would be writing about Nancy Spero as I watched this video the first time, and so my viewing of it was affected by thoughts of her. Even your chandelier, Pulse Spiral, was evoking heat, electricity, shattered glass, and perpetually dying bulbs as much as it was full of heartbeats.

    In the Voz Alta video, one speaker is in awe of having his words turn into light, and another will say that the lights can make him forget his poetry as he holds his words in his hands. I notice this sense of being entranced by technology as an expression of power.

    I chose your work because it IS political, and it raises questions about who speaks and through what medium in our time – Nancy Spero is historically important, I feel, because of her traditional background with regard to medium and picturing (there’s a sense of “firstness” about her in this), and her strong conviction about the power of figurative art.

    But I also DID strongly feel with regard to your work – not nostalgia, that is another’s title – but a politics of mourning and loss, and this is in Spero’s work as well – it always has been.

    I was also thinking of Maria Fernandez’s essay “Postcolonial Media Theory,” her writing helped me to see your work as an intervention in “recombinant history,” but not as an alternative to or subsumption of it, and perhaps I read a sense of loss in this as well.

    The aim of these posts is to raise questions so as to inspire conversation, and I hope that you do not feel that you are being held up as an artist who “has lost his conscience!” Rather, the example of your work is offered as the place to go looking for it. At the same time, however, I do not want to back away from the sense of loss that it conveys.

  3. Catherine speaks about the nostalgia of political art. What about the nostalgia of politics?

    The year 1989 has been on my mind a lot lately–hardly a surprise, as it is the twentieth anniversary of that fateful time, a fact gone almost completely unremarked in America. I believe it is impossible to think back to that extraordinary sequence of events without succumbing to nostalgia. It was the twilight of politics writ large, the moment just preceding the purported “end of history.” The lines were drawn so clearly. The stakes were so high. The opportunities for political heroism were so obvious. Politics was self-evidently important.

    Our troubles today are certainly great, but our politics seem to be mired in endless tinkering and machination. It is devoid of anything like the operatic exuberance of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall. We got a momentary flashback to that sort of grandiosity during last year’s Presidential campaign. But despite the calamities of recent months and the enormity of the problems that need to be resolved in our society, our public life, as reported in the daily press, lacks any sort of compelling drama.

    From Washington to Brussels to the UN General Assembly, the politics of our time is, unfortunately, a rather staid affair, a scorekeeper’s game, a technocrat’s preoccupation. How could it be fertile ground for artistic reflection?

  4. Dear Catherine,

    You are right, the piece does convey a deep sense of loss. This was desirable in the context of the tragedy of the massacre and the decades of silence that ensued. For all the generalizations of how we as Mexicans have normalized death –even laughing at it or making art out of it– I feel that platforms for mourning and community-building are essential for grounding political action.

    Having said that, I have always reacted against nostalgia and I try to exorcize (or, failing that, at least “acknowledge”) my idealistic or romantic aspirations; in Voz Alta the main focus was how to create live broadcasts, short but meaningful interruptions in the hermetic seal of media control. The piece was commissioned by the University as a memorial, and the memorials that I most admire (by Gerz, Whiteread, Haacke, etc.) have always transformed loss/absence/ephemerality into a fertile ground to grow public empowerement and agency (oops, here I go again with the idealization! :-)

    In a similar vein, I read your interesting article on Spero not as nostalgia for the powerful feminist art she pioneered but as a call for new forms and critiques with her gravitas as inspiration.

    All the best,


  5. Dear Rafael,

    Not too long ago, on this same site, I wrote about a talk I heard by the artist Alexis Knowlton. She decried the situation in which the artist has ceded too much to the middleman. It is very heartening to me that you have responded to this post, and in my own idealism I hope that more artists will follow your example.

    Thank you! Catherine

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