Art, activism and the aestheticization of politics
2015 saw a Venice Biennale overspilling with political ambition.
Curated by Okwui Enwezor and based on Marx’s Capital 1, the biennial featured Philippine artists Manny Montelibano and Jose Tence Ruiz protesting the encroachment of China on their waters; Simon Denny for New Zealand drawing our attention to secretive surveillance methods and Iceland-based artist Christoph Büchel opening Venice’s first mosque in a 16th century church. Just a few months later, London’s Royal Academy gave Chinese dissident extraordinaire Ai Weiwei a major retrospective for which the artist was allowed to leave his native China for the first time since his arrest by the authorities in 2011. Political art is parading the art world’s largest platforms, it is everywhere, and it always has been.
But how can we separate art that is about politics, and socially engaged art?
Blood spills at the Philippine Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2015, the 56th edition of the renowned international art exposition in Venice, Italy."
If we dismiss the claim that the aestheticization of politics is reductive, then we must acknowledge that the politicization of art can itself be detrimental. Some art is “so desperate to communicate its politics, that it utterly fails as art,” says Duncombe. Some important art world figures claim that this is true of artist activist poster boy, the aforementioned Ai Weiwei. Art Critic Jed Perl calls his work “postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause,” whilst curator Francesco Bonami claims “he exploits his dissidence in favour of promoting his art.”
Manifesta 11 — A Performance with Edith Wolf-Hunkeler
So how can artists truly “mobilize aesthetics” to make a change? If artist activists are so keen to exert influence beyond the sphere of the art world, into the real world, maybe collaboration with the real world is a logical step forward. Hedwig Fijen, founder of Manifesta, the roving European biennial, “historically an incubator for revolutionary political and artistic movements,” recently announced during a press conference in Marseille that for the forthcoming editions of the biennial, Manifesta intends to expand its programming to incorporate collaboration with scientists, filmmakers, town planners and engineers in order to produce a more concrete legacy.