How political should artists be today?

Contemporary art in Europe is socially relevant. But how does it shield itself from political appropriation? Joseph Young, sound artist, belit sağ, video artist, and Via Lewandowsky, visual artist, discuss this question.

October 30th, 2018   |   Via Lewandowsky
Via Lewandowsky
Via Lewandowsky | Photo: Rainer Gollmer

There is no doubt that an artist can and should share some of the responsibility for matters of concern to society, yet how much commitment can any artist afford without jeopardizing their freedom and credibility? Last century, the exploitation of art for political purposes at times made artists and artworks appear in a bad light.

And yet the dictates of the state are still the most powerful political statements of a society’s culture. This contradiction can be illustrated by Gerhard Richter’s four “Birkenau” paintings that today are displayed in the Reichstag opposite his monochrome compositions in the colours of the German flag. For his “Birkenau” series, Richter created artistic reproductions of photographs that an inmate had secretly taken of a Sonderkommando – a work unit of prisoners – in Auschwitz. Richter then painted over them in the abstract style that typifies his work.

Visual arts will continue to accompany and observe the polarization of society as a protected space and laboratory.

The political impact of this work, paradoxically enough, depends on the importance of the artist and their market value. A discussion of the reasons or indeed of the obviousness of any such political statement is no longer possible at all, and it is precisely this that poses a problem for many artists. They act on an ambivalent stage between numerous possibilities of different art concepts. And thus find themselves confronted with the dilemma that art polarizes itself, gets caught between political activism and a market-oriented “art for art’s sake” canon or is perceived straightaway as bigoted moral paternalism.

Nonetheless, visual arts will continue to accompany and observe the polarization of society as a protected space and laboratory, as an instrument and model, if left in peace.

October 29th, 2018   |   Joseph Young
Joseph Young Joseph Young | Photo: Joseph Young

Artists have always contributed to society in many and varied ways, not least as active citizens in their local communities. The question for me is not whether artists should involve themselves in politics, but how?

In a recent review of my show at the Estorick Collection, London ‘Make Futurism Great Again’ the reviewer remarked that my response to the “absurdities of capitalism” was “disappointing as most run of the mill protest takes the form of an art project these days.”

We need to take a step further and to offer a hopeful vision for the future.

Negative criticism aside, I would like to turn the proposition around and say that artists have therefore proved themselves adept at co-opting the language and aesthetics of political protest. We now need to take this a step further and to offer a hopeful vision for the future.

For this we will need two things – compassion and ideology. Compassion to counterbalance the hatred of populist rhetoric and ideology to provide answers to the urgent questions of the day. It is not enough when confronted with the spectre of fascism returning to the shores of Europe for artists simply to question the status quo …

I really like the work of UK artists group Keep it Complex ( in this respect – with their rallying cry that mocks the tendency to over-simplify complex issues, a typical tactic of the alt-right. It is an artist’s duty, I believe, to “complexify” the issues of the day, and to assist their audience in exploring the root causes of the very urgent issues that we face.

October 18th, 2018   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Joseph Young Photo: Joseph Young

Our democracies and the concept of the European Union are being tested and tried. But the rise of populism, nationalistic and authoritarian traditionalism is creating a new solidarity amongst those who believe in the concept of the European Union, its role as a defender of human rights and peace.

This new-found solidarity could be seen at the #unteilbar demonstration in Berlin last weekend, where nearly 250.000 people took to the streets to protest for solidarity, the right to asylum, democracy and human rights.

It seems that the expectation that art should be part of a political debate is rising.

Artistic interventions like the grey figures of the G20 protests in Hamburg in summer 2017 have played an important role in such social movements. The correlation between art and politics is not a new debate, but a continuous question to be reflected on. It seems that the expectation that art should be part of a political debate is rising.

“If art doesn’t do politics, who will?”, Documenta14 curator Dieter Roelstraete asked his students in the summer of 2017. In today’s European society, how political can and should art be? How can art help break out of the polarization we are currently experiencing in our societies?