Most readers will likely be unfamiliar with the work of artist Martha Rosler, but I’d hazard a guess that you’ve seen something stylistically similar sometime in the past eight years. The New York Times describes her current show of photomontages as consisting of “advertising images of idealized American homes conjoined with combat scenes from overseas,” featuring, for instance, a piece that “shows a tank flanked by an army of men in identical black suits.” (Some of those images can be seen here, here, and here.) Materialism, empire, and malevolent corporations: It's an exercise in bourgeois guilt, scolding the viewer for having a downtown loft full of Marcel Breuer furniture and not equally sharing the world’s miseries.
A decade ago, the Times gushed that Rosler was an "art-world provocateur,” tackling issues that even the most jaded observer of political art would identify as tedious and mainstream. According to the Times, Rosler has addressed social issues "as diverse as" the Pinochet coup, "representations of homelessness," media sexism, the war in Vietnam, and consumer capitalism.
For political artists such as Rosler, the past eight years have been boom years, providing much opportunity for outrage (for those who remember the Reagan-era New York art scene, this is hardly surprising). But what will become of the perpetually outraged artist in the event of an Obama administration?
Speaking to The New York Times about Rosler, one gallerist opined that political art goes in and out of fashion, but is “mostly out of fashion.” These fashion trends, though, are predictable: A Republican administration will almost always produce an uptick in the production and popularity of such work. Most readers will appreciate that claims of bravery and heterodoxy—the idea that radical political art is produced irrespective of current art world trends—are manufactured to project an image of the artist as embattled, truth-to-power-speaking minority of one, bravely combating the smelly little orthodoxies of a reactionary culture.
But there is some hope, however small, that when the Bush administration disappears, the heavy-handed and indignant art that it precipitated will give way to more measured work. The motivation to present yet another visual representation of Abu Ghraib (I have seen dozens, none of which could overpower the effect of the original images) will dissipate. But with an Obama administration, it is also conceivable that the dull and sophomoric political art of the Bush years will be replaced by the dull and hagiographic work of the Obama years. In July, The Wall Street Journal ventured into the “Obama art market,” where well-known and almost-known artists paint, sketch, and silk-screen the great agent of change. There was no mention of any art work critical of the Obama cult, a situation that seems ripe for parody. (Satirizing Obama is a dangerous game, as the hysterical reaction to that now-infamous New Yorker cover demonstrates, but one that a “provocative” artist should relish.) A gallery in Austin, Texas currently features work “inspired by Barack Obama,” according to the blog Obama Art Report.
Take the enormously talented Shepard Fairey, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate previously best-known for his "Andre the Giant has a posse" street art campaign of the early 1990s, and now famous as the designer of an already-iconic Obama campaign poster. In the mid-1990’s, Fairey's work took a mildly political turn, when, borrowing liberally from the constructivist and socialist realist schools of graphic design, he produced a series of Aleksandr Rodchenko-inspired poster art, featuring images of political figures such as Lenin, Angela Davis, Richard Nixon, and Saddam Hussein. There was no obvious yearning for the East Bloc, no Baathist or Nixonian proselytizing, and its direct political meaning was unclear, if it existed at all. The chic was primary, the radical secondary.
But more recently, Fairey’s work has fully embraced the agitprop influences of his early posters, producing material that eschews his previous subtlety (such as this piece, which explicitly asks “What is the cost of oil?”) in favor of the politically frivolous, and indulging in the preachiness of a recent convert.
In 2004 Fairey told an interviewer that he has "an audience that listens to me already and plenty of other people to reach, who for the sake of the future of the planet, I hope I can convince not to elect Bush." But Fairey's audience—of which I have long counted myself a part—was most likely already pulling the lever for someone other than Bush, and if they weren’t, he almost surely overestimates his power to influence. As the art critic Clement Greenberg once commented, "Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art." And as an ex-Marxist who once demanded that the artist be drafted into the cause of class struggle, it is an area with which Greenberg was intimately familiar.
There comes a point, irrespective of the viewer's position on American foreign policy or the candidacy of Obama, where the artist's sense of moral outrage becomes annoyingly unidirectional. During the Cold War, one could attend countless openings that fretted about Ronny Ray-gun, but few, if any, that explored the horrifying brutality of the Soviet Union or its satellites. Likewise, in recent years, we’ve witnessed the lopsided skewering of religion. By all means let us irritate the Catholic Church, submerge crucifixes in urine, cake the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. We should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with and defend the rights of those who alarm the sensibilities of the pious.
Yet it's counterintuitive and not particularly compelling to treat the outrage of one community with a shoulder shrug while assuaging the hurt feelings of another. It's worth remembering that that those “offensive” Mohammad cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were reprinted in very few newspapers, magazines, and galleries in America.
This isn’t about the Bush legacy, the Iraq War, or who we hope wins the 2008 election, nor is it a quibble with specific points of view raised by modern political artists—some are valid, many are not. And there is nothing ideologically objectionable about Martha Rosler’s vehement anti-war stance on its own. It is, though, about the impulse to praise the pedestrian and puerile as brave, to recast the shallow thinker as penetrating, for no other reason than to reaffirm the political ideas of both viewer or critic. But when confronting ideas that are genuinely controversial, most seem to agree with the editorial cartoonist and artist Khalil Bendib, who told The Los Angeles Times, “The concept of freedom of expression in a democratic society must always be balanced by the no less important notion of social responsibility.”
But with President Bush mercifully retiring to Crawford, Texas, our hyperpolitical artists can return to the business of making generically bad art, shorn of references to a looming fascist takeover. Though don't discount the possibility that Bush's art world tormenters, confused by the peaceful transition of power to Obama, will now engage in the kind of hero worship that Shepard Fairey once so skillfully mocked.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.