Strike A Pose: How Contemporary Artists Play At Politics

The Walker Art Center in Washington wants you to know that it really cares about its civic role and the presidential election. Lowercase P: Artists & Politics, an online series of artist interviews and features organized by Paul Schmelzer, the Walker's web editor, addresses hot topics in an attempt to sensitize the public to the importance of political awareness. Mr. Schmelzer literally urges people to "please vote" on Election Day. Meanwhile, art museums across the nation, including the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, N.C., have simultaneously hosted New York artist Jonathan Horowitz's media installation, Your Land/My Land, inviting museum-goers to watch the televised debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney on a divided red and blue carpet meant to separate Republicans from Democrats.

While these earnest setups have been applauded by New York Times art critic Randy Kennedy and art blogger Tyler Green, it makes one wonder what Mr. Schmelzer, in his eagerness to encourage us to exercise our democratic rights this week, might counsel us to do after the election. As for "Your Land/My Land," it's difficult to see the staging of an already highly artificial event such as a televised presidential debate within a museum setting as anything other than redundant, if not patronizing. Shouldn't we be skeptical when contemporary art museums aim to act as political as well as cultural players? And what does "political" programming within art museums really contribute to civic discourse at a time when we are already inundated with non-stop political messaging by the media?

I can appreciate Mr. Horowitz's efforts to set himself apart from the increasingly hermetic contemporary art world but remain unconvinced that a museum's way to play a more important civic role in American society should lie in what amounts to a mere pose of political interest. It is a sad state of affairs when art museums jump on the political bandwagon: straining for effect, such a move trivializes both art and politics. Art museums have it in their hands to guide us with much more subtlety to an understanding of power struggles and contradictions inherent in the pursuit of happiness, as well as the cost of freedom. One need to go no further than Duccio's Madonna and Child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to witness a perfect expression of what is perhaps the most political act of all: attention. This little, ancient gem of a painting still proves that artists need not resort to preachiness in order to make a powerful and, yes, political statement.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, politically engaged American artists frequently put their careers on the line by staging radical protests inside museums. The Art Workers' Coalition, an activist organization formed in 1969 by a group of prominent New York artists including Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Hans Haacke, called for social reforms within the museum world and addressed the political and social responsibility of the art community. Demonstrations and interventions such as the New York Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Repression and the highly successful "Moratorium of Art to End the War in Vietnam" led to lasting changes in how museums interact with artists. Today's breed of career artists who work with the establishment (and its guidelines) are a far cry from the radical artists of that revolutionary era, for whom political activism was not a curated art project but a way of life.