Klartext! The Status of the Political in Contemporary Art and Culture

A Series of Discussions with International Artists, Activists, Curators, and Theoreticians

Especially since Documenta 11 in Kassel, one comes across the claim that art is becoming increasingly politicised or, put more simply, that there is a return to the positing of political questions in culture and contemporary art arenas. In a variety of ways current exhibition projects are taking this thesis, which can also be seen as a trend, into consideration. Such approaches, however, tend to neglect the inherent questions that necessarily attend such a proposal. First of all, it is essential that there is an implicit understanding of the terms art and politics, of their social functions and effects. However, these terms concern conceptual disciplines and thematic fields that, instead of being clearly defined, are in a constant state of flux by the nature of their internal and external structural supports.
In the traditional view, a contradiction determines the relationship of art to politics: on the one hand there is the paradigm of modern art and its autonomy, on the other a demand for engagement and social relevance. This raises a series of questions: To what extent should these conventional discrepancies be upheld today? What is the current standing of freedom in art? And with art as the topic, what is actually being discussed with regard to the various positions in the art business: those producing art, institutions, entrepreneurs, and academics…
It is an indisputable fact that artistic works refer in a myriad of ways to human existence and that they bear witness to both cultural circumstances and social conditions; it is similarly irrefutable that the visual arts are deeply connected to capitalist marketing strategies. This was strikingly reflected in Hans Haacke’s poster series Standortkultur (Corporate Culture), which was displayed in public during Documenta X, emblazoned with the slogan "Wer das Geld gibt, kontrolliert" ("Whoever gives the money, controls"), a citation of the statement by Hilmar Kopper of Deutsche Bank. In the case of art institutions, escalating pressures are forcing them to implement that catchword of efficiency: rentability. They are forced to make financially successful exhibition products that attest to their social relevance, which they are trying to prove through the art they present. Even those working in the cultural domain fall prey to the pressure of putting their relevance and originality to the test. To that extent the neo-liberal art system continually produces, to a certain extent, socially relevant art. Or as Frederic Jameson states, "The system is in the position to co-opt and disarm what are potentially the most dangerous forms of political art by turning them into cultural commodities."1
This raises the questions: what levels do the social and political relevance of art operate on? Does the political content perhaps only satisfy the function of an alibi, with whose help the art market can clear its conscience? Does it make any sense at all to use art as a means to articulate social and political concerns? Can art be employed as an effective agent for the change or resistance to the hegemonic forces? Or is art doomed to be the decorative, irrelevant footnote to a power stronger than its own capacity for confrontation? What shapes should this kind of art assume? And in what context can it be most effective?

1Jameson, Frederic: Reflections in Conclusion in Taylor, Ronald, Hg.: Aesthetics and Poltics. London, 1977, p. 208.