“The work of ‘political artists’ usually harms no one and I would defend their right to make it”, artist, Victor Burgin, once said, “what I cannot support is their self-serving assumption that it ‘somehow’ has a political effect in the real world”.
This quote appears in a chapter on political art in Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class wherein Davis is attempting to posit the idea that political art is not only not useful (with “too little to say about the complexities of the political questions” at hand) but can actually be a self-serving, “static” form of hero worship (42).
Conversely, in T.J. Demos’ “Decolonizing Nature, Contemporary Art and the Politics of the Ecology”, there is a call to arms of the artist to engage in a political discourse about the environment in order to aid in its (our) salvation.
The two opposing positions posits an interesting debate: Is art and the creation of the visual too self-serving to serve as a force against destructive capitalist practices? Or is art and the visual a necessary tool (even despite the validity of the opposing idea) to fight destructive capitalism because it aims at a point of perception: the visual that we, as humans, use prolifically to message ideas and receive ideas?
I am reminded of the controversy surrounding the graphic artist, Shepard Fairey, whose Obama “Hope” poster sparked controversies around copyright infringement and the artist’s exploitation of political causes for notoriety and profit. Despite (?) his success, his work aided in the mass ocular consumption of the hero-image of then Senator Barack Obama and those on the left-side of politics are appreciative of its success and aid in getting the gentleman elected. I think, currently, of the visual of immigrant children in detention centers that have ignited movement and (hopefully at this writing) forced the hand of the current administration to reunite families. Lastly, I recall how television (something included in Demos’ concept of “the image complex” (11)) and its visuals of young American men coming home in caskets was one of the larger factors in ending the war in Vietnam.
My conclusion is that art and the visual and all things that fall under the umbrella of Demos’ image complex do, in fact, have a place and are integral to the fight against lobbyists who act in corporate interest over the interests of both people and the survival of the planet we inhabit.
Yet I do agree with the example given in Demos’ writing, Kimberly Tall Bear, who voices the concern that colonial-originated artists cannot (?) be at the forefront of the artistic front against colonialism of the environment. If we are looking for a new global contract with nature so as to halt colonizing and destroying it, should we not, as Tall Bear advises, look to the practices, philosophies, and art of indigenous people who have already established such contracts with nature?
Further, is it the responsibility of good-natured, well-intentioned, colonial-originated artists to research the practices, philosophies and art of nature-revering indigenous communities before engaging in the work to ensure that they are not, inadvertently, colonizing the practices, philosophies, and art of these communities?
Personally, my views about saving the planet lean more towards the “enforced narratives of disaster capitalism” and the idea that we are, ultimately, doomed as a result of corporate greed (13). As long as rich old, white men remain in power, protests, art, and the whole of the image complex seems to me as throwing a glass of water at a forest fire. Political protests (including art) feels futile against the wall of White Corporation.
Yet, In a recent NPR program, a caller explained that she was not concerned about the political environment, its attacks against women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, gay rights, minority rights because, she stated, by 2060 (at least in the Unites States) the minorities will outnumber the current majority. Though, she lamented, anyone in earshot will not be around, it is heartening to know the tide will turn.
Maybe, in that moment, the true decolonization of nature can make headway. If it is not too late.