by Mark Lawson
There has long been a debate whether art and politics should mix. Can art still be relevant when it has a political message? Conversely the question is asked, is any art relevant than doesn’t have any political overtones? Is it even possible to make any sort of art without political over tones? These are all questions that are at the core of the many issues surrounding this subject. For Winter Gallery night on January 16, Attorney Peter Goldberg, the folks at the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN), and others organized an ambitious exhibition at Turner Hall entitled “The Dossier Project: Art Surveils the Security State.” The exhibition and related programming explored the impact of the post 9/11 security state on our civil liberties. The work was often insightful and disturbing as the subject would warrant. In most instances it was also far from the tangents and directions in visual art commonly found in galleries and contemporary museums. Where does this difference come from? What are the motivations and traditions behind these differing art forms? In many respects, the tradition of overtly political art comes more out of the field of graphic design and visual communication. It has a strong editorial message centered firmly in the realities of day to day life, often with suggestions on means of affecting change in that life. From posters to political cartoons and propagandistic banners, this art form is part of the fabric of our civilization. Contemporary artists working in this genre often make use of the visual vocabulary of this rich and varied tradition. The bold typographic experiments of early Soviet revolutionary posters, the pictorial directness of James Montogmery Flagg’s, “I Want You for the US Army” poster from WWI, the rough linear caricatures of Nast and other newspaper-oriented political cartoonists, are now visual markers for the character and motivations of the past, full of references and layers of meaning. Can art escape politics? Can a human life not be political? One of the central themes of the conceptual art of the later 20th century was a focus on the politics of visual and verbal language systems. Influenced by philosophical systems such as Semiotics, artists explored how our language systems influence the manner in which we perceive the world. In the Marxist critique of this phenomenon, the factor of intent is introduced. What could be more political than this? It’s all a matter of one’s definition of what is political. And that precisely is why such art continues to be relevant and worth our consideration and attention. Not only because of the obvious message it communicates, but also because of form of the messenger itself.