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Not your mama’s Dada

Question: is all art inherently political?

Here’s one way to think about contemporary art: it’s an expression of how artists interact with reality. Focused on this or not, we’re each working within our very specific social political reality—that is, in our own dialogue with the world around us. And art has the power to influence; we can shape our work conscious of that influence. But does that make it intrinsically political?

For myself, making art, like writing, is a way of thinking, processing.

In my previous essay I asked the question: what are we—what am I—doing to stand up against a rebounding nuclear arms race? That might seem a bit of an outlier worry, what with imminent global climate meltdown and the inevitable chaos to follow, social injustice everywhere, and so many other life/death issues to contend with. So much to fear. Like water finding its level, we each manage angst in our own way.

Case in point: beholding Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at SFMoMA a few weeks ago, I had a little art school Dada flashback: on irreverent humor and a thinly disguised stab at a chaotic culture; with shock value, he forces you to reckon with his world.

And as in his world, today’s mushrooming nationalism around the globe recalls the birth of the original Dadaists, protesting the chauvinistic fervor they believed led to WWI. One hundred years on, Dada’s anti-war and anti-establishment disillusionment would be an equally appropriate reaction today.

My own anti-war roots reach down to childhood fear dreams during the first cold war. Those fears were given new life in recent years: amid the onset of a resurgent cold war I learned of my father’s engineering work on testing atomic bombs in the 1950’s. I’m no Duchamp and my work doesn’t spill into the absurd as Dada did, but I’ve drawn on those fears when working on concrete human mementos: preserved, worn clothing speaking for lives lived and lost, like Vesuvius plaster casts.

I’m energized by artists, past and present, who put a stake in the ground. Who message the clear and present issues they care passionately about. Like Holly Ballard Martz here in Seattle, making gutsy, meticulously realized statements about money in politics and hangars in utero. Or my long-time hero, Anselm Kiefer, who grew up in post-WWII Germany, and whose dedication to a “never forget” theme is more of a mindset than an explicit message.

Art with a specific activist or protest message emerged in modern times: Hannah Höch among other Dadaists. Jacob Lawrence and Judy Chicago. Ai Weiwei, Guerilla Girls and Banksy of course. But going back, isn’t art that glorifies a Christian god inherently political? Isn’t art that serves the Medicis inherently political? Doesn’t classical Greek and Egyptian art glorify gods and monarchs and battles? Every -ism I can think of has an ideal it’s acting on or a context it’s reacting against. (I’m thinking visual art here but the principle applies to art broadly too.)

In the course of writing this I find my point of view shifting. Making art is a commentary on our existence, a fundamentally political act, because we don’t work in a vacuum. Artists are recording a subjective fragment of history. We’re seers and interpreters of our times and places, citizens of a body politic. One way or another we're speaking to the status quo in our social context. The most ethereal Botticelli Venus has a context: Savonarola’s religious crackdown that scared the painter into giving up painting. The most pastoral Thomas Cole landscape has a subtext: the course of empire.

I’ve tuned my attention recently to artists who have specifically protested war. Goya and Guernica, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix. Chroniclers of holocaust and Hiroshima. Donald Judd’s work on the Peace Tower. Wally Hedrick’s black paintings and his War Room.

Both for artists and those who reckon with it, art crystalizes deep feelings and needs. Subtle or not, horrifying, sly, cathartic. Engaging with art can help us imagine a different world. What could be more political than that?

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© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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