Between a rock and a hard place

Artists who interfere in political issues are named and shamed. Those who don’t are criticized for their passivity.

The theater director Gerhard Mortier once said: “All art is political.” This credo deserves closer examination, as does Joseph Beuys’ related and often misunderstood statement: “Everyone is an artist.”

Is the term “political art” tautological? I continue to endeavor to find arguments for both sides, art and politics, and to postpone any final judgement for as long as possible. After all, to analyze the content, it is necessary to first consider the structure of an artwork. This is why my montages are always concerned with the artistic and the political: I try to find a way to express political and social thoughts in art – without subjugating it to aesthetics.

Rehearsal for democratic behavior

In 1987, Manfred Schneckenburger, the director of Documenta-8, defended a work of mine that visitors had criticized as “a writing table with books, brochures, and postcards” by saying: “The artist Klaus Staeck emphasizes in a critical, assertive way what we need to do every day in order to subject politics and economics to reality. Staeck is moved by neither intolerance nor innocence – and certainly by no organization. He is a non-mainstream artist and deserves space in an exhibition like the Documenta.”

People tend to label my work as ideological agitprop and therefore aim to separate it from the traditional art world. It is true that my art – be it a simple postcard, a sticker or a motive on a banner at a demonstration – requires a certain engagement with the message and not just the basics of art theory and history. Sadly, many art curators and museums, in the face of financial troubles, are growing ever less likely to take a stand by exhibiting controversial art that departs from the general consensus.

I have never used art as political vehicle. But I do see art as a way to bring social problems and ideas of freedom and openness out into the open – as a rehearsal for democratic behavior. I reject out of hand the use of art as a political tool.

It is not about the intentions of art; it is about what art can do — which is to say quite a lot in a world saturated with pictures. It must be clear that both art and politics remain autonomous spheres that follow their own rules. Trying to intermingle the two at all costs has never been my idea of art. To find a compromise among many diverging interests is an expression of extraordinary statesmanship. In art, however, compromise rarely leads to satisfying results.

It is not only the visual arts that are disturbed by politics; there is also a lot of reluctance and skepticism in literature when it comes to political influences. While writers are sure to be applauded for speaking out against a dictatorship, they’re asked to kindly refrain from getting involved in the everyday business of democratic politics.

Too often, critics dismiss political books as bad literature. And yet both artists and intellectuals suffer under the same “accusation” of being too silent. Paradoxically, this is claimed above all by those who have a vested interest in ensuring that the contrarians don’t become too critical.

Cobbler, stick to your trade

The same people who insist on artists’ engagement in politics simultaneously express the “cobbler-stick-with-your-trade” mentality when artists actually do engage, conveniently discounting them as “non-artistic” and insipid. According to this catch-22, artists should only be politically motivated or critical when they’re asked to be. There is a fine line between silence and complete failure. As in other professions, many intellectuals and artists are unable to master the balancing act and, consequently, do indeed fail.

Most battles between the right and left seem to be over by now, and postmodern conservatives caution against unfettered capitalism. Those who have nothing but malice and scorn to contribute to the debate are rapidly gaining the upper hand. That is the current background of the relationship between art and politics.

I personally never understood the idea that art can just be art for art’s sake. This was the basis for my interest in the Fluxus movement: it tried to merge art with life. We must remember that art is always set in a social context and is never just art.

Translated from German

Read more in this debate: Dickon Stone , Hans Nieswandt, Kenneth Goldsmith.

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