Osama bin Laden is dead. Protests continue throughout the Middle East. Here in the United States, we saw one of the largest citizen uprisings in recent memory take place this past February in Minnesota. It seems an appropriate time to talk politics, especially here on the arts beat. I sat down with Matthew Harrison Tedford, an associate editor at Art Practical, to talk about a series of performances and discussions that Art Practical will be hosting Sunday, May 8, 2011, about the nature of performance, art, and politics, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco.
You've been writing about the relationship between politics and art for a little while, not just at Art Practical, but in other publications. How did you come to the topic?
Matthew Harrison Tedford: Originally, I studied political philosophy, so I'm indebted to that discourse. Personally, however, I became disillusioned because I felt the conversation was disconnected from reality. So I began to look at art through this lens. It's not that art is really any more concrete, but there's something about it that's helped me to clarify my questions about politics. There are other avenues for this: becoming an activist, becoming a politician, for example. But, for someone interested in the arts, like myself, looking at political art is a way to engage as an activist or a politician might, without having to martyr yourself to a profession you might not be interested in.
Were you an activist? Or an artist?
MHT: I tried to get involved with campus politics, but I found it frustrating. There was this mentality where if you raised a legitimate question, you were attacked for somehow being counter-revolutionary. It seemed very superficial and reactionary. So in that proto-radical, post-adolescent scene, I became withdrawn, but this wasn't something I was happy about. I was left with a question about how to be involved with politics, given the unappealing experiences I'd had. Which is not to say that all political groups are like this, or that even most political groups are like this! I just didn't want to be part of a group that wasn't open to being questioned.
Do you feel like there's a lack of conversation about the relationship between art and politics?
MHT: No. Certainly not. My personal interest is to clarify this relationship, to make it more concrete. I think sometimes works are seen as political just because they have political content. For instance, just because it's a painting of George Bush, it's seen as political. For me, I need the definition to be more meaningful. My goal has been to really define what makes a work of art political, or when does art function as a political phenomenon versus just an artwork?
What conclusions have you drawn? What makes a work political?
MHT: Answering for myself -- as there are a lot of different approaches -- I had to say forget art, what's politics? I was looking at [philosophers] Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière, and for them, something is political if it involves a plurality of members of a given society. If it engages a large group, people of different perspectives, and not a homogenous mass. Secondly, if it's doing so in a way that creates debate or dialogue among these people with regard to the structure or function of their society. For me, something's not just political if it creates a debate alone -- we can debate about whether a table is hard or soft -- but really, it becomes political when the debate is about the way in which we live and structure our society.
Would you consider Piss Christ (a photograph of a crucifix in the artist's urine, a copy of which was recently smashed in a London Museum) a political work?
MHT: This recent attack was interesting. I don't know if this is too cynical, but you could choose to look at the fact that it was smashed as 'debate.' On the other hand, you could say that it was just smashing an artwork. I don't know, but I have a sweet spot for iconoclasm.
But when it's just one individual, that doesn't constitute a plurality, does it?
MHT: No, but the fact that this work and works like it are so often attacked -- not just physically, but via funding or visibility -- indicates that there is a larger debate happening. So yes, you could say that this is acting as a political work of art. The unfortunate result is whether or not this means a work of art is more political if it has more celebrity? I don't want that to be the case, but then again, if I have this brilliant work of political art, but it never leaves my studio...
How much is artist intention involved?
MHT: Well, even if the work has no political intent, if it raises the kind of debate I've mentioned, I would consider it political. To do this accidentally -- it's complicated. So much is contingent on what happens. Really, any artwork has the potential to be political, depending how it enters into the public arena.
Besides creating debate, does a work need to be effective in a particular way?
MHT: No, I don't think it does. An artist creating a political work probably wants it to be effective, but it doesn't need to be. Take voting, for example. It's a political act, but even if you vote for someone who loses, you're still engaging in politics. So, no, I don't think the efficacy of something is tied up in whether it's political.
As you were organizing Sunday's event, as well as putting together the last issue of Art Practical, were there artistic strategies that did seem more effective than others at creating political works?
MHT: There's certainly a lot outside the artist's control, but the level to which an artist keeps his or her audience in mind is really important. A lot of the works I've looked at take place outside, in the streets, because that's an easy way to get a diverse audience, although its certainly not the only way. How do you present to someone and keep them interested, or make them outraged? I think an attention to these kinds of details is a powerful strategy.
For Sunday's event, we're featuring performances, a medium I think really foregrounds these issues. A performance is, by nature, for someone else. There's also a very raw sense in which you can use your body as a political site or tool, and you can do it just about anywhere. There's a beautiful power in that fact.
Tell me more about Sunday's event.
MHT: To stay true to the nature of performance art in the Bay Area, we have a broad range of performers: Wafaa Yasin, Ana Teresa Fernandez, Julio César Morales, and Philip Huang. For us, however, the event is actually the discussion. We at Art Practical don't see ourselves as curators; our mission statement is to create discourse about art in the Bay Area. The performances are almost meant to be examples to launch the discussion that will take place afterward.
Will your audience be "plural" enough to create the kind of debate you're talking about?
MHT: Well, there were a few reasons why we went with Contemporary Jewish Museum, including the fact that the Yud Gallery is just one of my favorite spaces in the city, aesthetically speaking. But also, we gain something out of holding this event in a major, more mainstream institution. There will be a very different audience in the Contemporary Jewish Museum on a Sunday afternoon than a place like Southern Exposure or The Lab, where we've held events before. And we're not segregated, we're in one of the main galleries, open to everyone passing through.
Well, hopefully we at KQED can help bring you a broader audience, too!
MHT: Yes! It's 2-4:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. There will be a discussion after the performances, moderated by artist Allan deSouza.
I can't wait to see it. Thanks, Matt!
MHT: Thank you!
Performing Politics occurs on Sunday, May 8, 2011, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. in the Yud Gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. For more information, visit artpractical.com or thecjm.org.