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When and How Does Culture Become Political?

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When and how does culture become political?

The first thing I shall address is what we mean by ‘culture’ and what is meant by ‘political’. Culture is an umbrella term covering various groups of people, be it religious, ethnic or social. It can also be used as a term to describe the arts. As the definition for culture is so wide I will just examining in this short essay one aspect of it, that being the arts, or rather, the art world. The term political is defined as ‘of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government’. But more broadly, what we usually mean by ’political’ is about power, who has it and why?  So, how and when does culture become political? Well, in terms of the art world it seems it can happen at any point. The question of why is a perhaps more interesting one, and I will be arguing that culture becomes political because it is either intended by the artist, or interpreted as such.   In this essay I will be discussing an artist who I believe to be an unintentional political figure in the art world, Rose Wylie. I will also be discussing other artists such as Ai Weiwei, Thomas Hirschhorn, Reg Butler, Virginie Despentes and Chris Kraus. I will draw on the political intentions of artist, the political perceptions of artist work, gender politics in the art world and how the medium of an art work can itself be political.

Rose Wylie was married to a famous British painter, Roy Oxlade. She chose to take a break of 40 years from the art world to raise Roy’s family. It wasn’t until her 70s that Rose received the recognition which she deserved.  Rose Wylie’s painting (below) ‘On and Off’ was not created with a political intention, however when interviewed in Rose + Roy (2015) she talked about why the gas stove had been featured in several of her paintings.

“Women spend a lot of their lives looking at a thing like this…it’s a kind of feminist picture because it’s about bondage it’s about… being imprisoned in the kitchen…it’s about caring it’s about doing things for other people, and when they’re perhaps not looking at it because they’re cooking with it they’re are cleaning the top of the stove, because it’s a kind of symbol for being dirty if you have a dirty stove, so they clean it a lot. I thought this was a great subject.” (Wylie, 2012)[pic 1]

(Wylie, R. (2012) Gas, acrylic on paper.)

Wylie talks about what the political intention of her art work may have been , though it seems clear that this did not come until after the art work was created. Alongside the political message Wylie attached to the image, the viewer can then associate a further political meaning that was unintended. For example I could also read the image as a feminist object, though unlike Wylie I could suggest it portrays power struggle in marriages.

Another very different artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, has described how he does not make art for its political merit but for its artistic merit with political perhaps coming later. “I am concerned with doing my art politically - I am not and never was concerned with making political art. The statement ‘doing my art politically, not doing political art’ is a statement I took from Jon-Luc Goddard. He said “it is a matter of making films politically; It is not a matter of making political films.” (Hirschhorn, 2008, p.72) This is surely the case for a lot of artists. After creating an art work they would then perhaps start to look at the political meaning behind it. In other words, the politics may come as an afterthought. Thus, political connotations towards art works don't necessarily stem from the artist’s intention.

One way that art unintentionally becomes political is that an existing political power opposes it.

Take for example the ‘Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner Competition’. The winner of this prize was Reg Butler for his proposed sculpture. The competitions intention was to commemorate all those men who in our times have given their lives to the cause of human freedom. Butler’s intention for the piece was just that, he described the sculpture as ‘a tower, with 3 people standing on it, remembering in their own consciousness the sacrifice of political pioneers.’ Although the competition was designed for Berlin, Butler suggested that it could be ‘something that could be seen across the channel for instance’. Word about this suggestion got out to the Conservative party in the UK. Horrified, they signed a petition to save their beloved white cliffs of Dover.It was then suggested that it be built in West Germany, however cold war politics made this impossible. Reg Butler’s final sculpture was never created and his model which was held at the Tate was destroyed by an angered Hungarian artist and former prisoner of war. This is a prime example of how art can be limited - indeed destroyed or banned - by individual people, institutions or states.

The medium in which an art work is created can also hold a political message. Hirschorn’s use of the ‘Bic’ pen became (mis)read as having a political message. “During my ‘Très grand Buffet’ show in Fribourg, someone noticed that the works from the ‘Virus’ ‘Merci, Danke, Thank You’ and ‘Les Larmes’ series were done in ball-point pens. And this person asked if I drew with ’Bic’ ball-pint pens and said that the company ‘Bic’ is a financing supporter of (French politician, Marine) Le Pen(1). ‘An Information’ is an official journal on the financing of political parties announced this fact. It’s shit to support Le Pen. But it’s also shit to have to think about these questions. I use ‘Bic’ ball point pens because they’re cheap and you can find them everywhere, they’re simple and fit well in my hand.” (Hirschhorn, 2008, p.83-85) The medium of an art work can be used in a deliberate way to accentuate a political message. Take for example ‘Straight’ by Ai Weiwei. This piece was created from 150 tons of straightened re-bars that became disfigured after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. This art work was created to draw attention to this disaster which cost the lives of over 5,300 school children. The reasoning behind many of these deaths was the insufficient materials the schools were made from, namely re-bars.  ““Straight” is both a homage to those who died and a mute accusation of corrupt building officials who compromised building standard to line their pockets.” (Spence, 2015)



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