One of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.
I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”
Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”
I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.
It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?