What if Art is the silent partner of Politics?


This week, we got to thinking about the public institutions that support art and design. In the US, there is the National Endowment for the Arts, to name a most obvious one; various state organizations, federal grants, and national museums (curators, administrators, service staff) to mention a few more. The EPA, Department of Education and Department of Commerce make all building projects possible; building projects enable innovation in design. These groups collectively and directly represent hundreds of millions of dollars of contribution to the world of art. Hundreds of thousands of hours of manpower which support trillions of dollars of development budgets. In other words and lest we forget, much of art and architecture is in fact enabled by the good graces of an administrative system built by politicians, voted in by citizens.

As we interviewed Ai Weiwei this week during Beijing Design Week, the idea of art and the role of government was not far from our minds. Ai Weiwei has been in domestic exile for transgressions against his own government, in a country that barely recognizes him, making a quite basic life off of his notoriety abroad. Meanwhile, he continues to experiment in different media made available to him via the Internet.

“It is not the forbidden which should not be transgressed. Frequently transgression is allowed, even prescribed.” -Bataille

This week the United States faced a government shutdown. Its direct effects are not visible. It is not a bullet wound, not a slap in your face. It's not a bomb going off. It is, however, 800,000 people unable to go to work; furloughed and without income for the foreseeable future. These are people meant to control public infrastructure, bureaucracy and service industries, unservicing because of the inability for two sides of a duocracy to meet on a budget.

When we say “art and politics” we might think of Shepard Fairey's interpretation of the 2008 Obama campaign, and then its many iterations.

When we think of prohibited art we might think of books on black lists, such as The Invisible Man, whose ban in North Carolina was just reversed, or the '50s quest for a Communist bogeyman in Hollywood.

Ralph Ellison at a Senate Committee hearing

And so when we think about prohibited art, we think merely of the person who is censured rather than perhaps the institution that is compromised. It usually stokes an opinion about the artist rather than its affinity group or sponsoring organization. We think artists are disabled for transgressions, and disabled by government at that.

But in light of this shutdown, it's interesting to think about Art as a publicly funded institution. Art seems irrelevant in the grand scheme of institutions. It isn't medical aid, it isn't education… Yet much of art is actually prohibited by the paucity of resources, rather than the ambiguity of its message. Arts and music programs are the first thing to get cut in public education curricula, and in cash-strapped residential building development projects, the first line item erased from the budget is the designer. 

The relationship between government and art is a complicated one, to say the least. On the one hand we need public monies to fund the growth of art education and public installations. On the other, Art has always been understood as the purview of the few, the educated, the private. So what happens when Art is a transgression rather than a privilege? What happens when government, so long the silent partner to Art, insist Art become the silent partner to politics?

What do you think of the relationship between art and government? Tell us in the comments below or follow us on Twitter.