Thursday 1 February 2001

The Politics of Art

Gustav Metzger and Mark Wallinger at the ICA, London, 8 February 2001

Society cannot function without visual art, said Gustav Metzger, after spending an hour and a half apparently arguing for the extermination of humanity.

In fact, I suspect this man cares as deeply about humanity as he does about art (and not just because one depends on the other). Metzger looks about a hundred, and talks like a crazy East European emigre, which I guess he is. He began his talk by making clear that he had agreed to speak only on the understanding that he would talk about politics and not art.

Actually his proposition that an international tribunal should be established to try humanity for crimes against nature had the feel of an outlandish work of conceptual art. Speaking under a slide showing an iguana on a rock set against a seascape with a large ship, Metzger said that we should at least consider abandoning the planet to the hard-done-by animal kingdom. The only consideration he cited in favour of staying alive was that it may be necessary for humans to protect the earth from a meteor shower.

There are people who really think like this, but Metzger is not one of them. Many years ago, Metzger proposed a three-year international moratorium on art as a way of making both artists and the public think about the meaning and importance of art. His modest proposal concerning humanity itself seems to have been made in the same spirit. A thoughtless belief in humanity is not really a belief in humanity at all, and the same can be said about art.

By the end of the meeting, Metzger was explicitly lamenting the proliferation of non-art, complaining that the growing demand for art has led to a celebration of mediocrity, with art students expecting and getting their own shows straight out of art school. He argued that artists must be prepared to struggle with obscurity and failure. Maybe if they did, the public wouldn’t have to.

Mark Wallinger took a different approach to the politics of art. His art is political in the straightforward sense that it addresses social issues. In Capital (1990), he painted a series of portraits of homeless people (actually Wallinger’s friends in costume) standing in the doorways of banks. The rather obvious juxtapostion of wealth and destitution aside, Wallinger was challenging the hierarchies of traditional art by portraying social outcasts in a form usually reserved for the elite. By using his friends, I suppose, he was also drawing attention to the individual humanity of ‘the homeless’, an entity whose forebears might have been represented only in sprawling landscapes or bustling street scenes.

For Wallinger, painting as a medium in itself is finished. It is impossible to paint without irony, and so artists have to work with the cliches. Perhaps it is not so much that his art carries a political message then, as that the political message is the art. Significantly though, Wallinger has elsewhere been critical of theoretical excesses in contemporary art. Along with Mary Warnock, he edited Art For All?, a recent collection of essays opposing the UK government’s arts policy. His own essay is a polemic against lazy conceptualism that depends on curators and critics to make sense of it for the public. Wallinger’s art at least refers to reality.

In fact, he has been criticised for being too narrowly British in outlook, though not in a patriotic sense. Oxymoron, a union flag in the colours of the Irish tricolour, demonstrates Wallinger’s intrigued but not enamoured approach to the nation. (Actually this piece made me think about colour more than politics.) Metzger asked him to comment on his preoccupation with Britain, especially as he will be representing the country at the Venice Biennale this year. Wallinger expressed some anxiety over whether he was making art for the Venetian bourgeoisie or for someone from Plaistow in East London. Clearly, the nature of the art public and whether it is constituted nationally, politically or aesthetically, is central to any discussion of art and politics.

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