Crop Top Rites: On the ethics of political art

Crop Top Rites: On the ethics of political art
(Maura Callahan)

I have not painted in three months—the longest I've gone without painting since I was 13. There are several reasons for my hiatus, though most of them are not good reasons. Since I graduated from MICA in May, I am no longer required to produce art. I no longer have the studio space I was provided by the college, and now, though I have all my paintings and materials dumped into my basement, I need to construct my own walls in order to produce multiple paintings regularly. Writing is taking up a lot of my time. Painting is expensive. I needed a break. I'm lazy.

And then there's this: I don't know what to paint.


My race to the BFA finish line coincided with the Baltimore Uprising. The question of my social responsibility as an artist existed in my mind before Freddie Gray, but until the uprising, I managed to stifle that question and simply paint what I felt like painting. What I was painting and writing at the time of the protests—gridded, quasi-abstractions and art-audience theory, respectively—felt pointless and irresponsible, but I had convinced myself it was too late to turn around and create entirely new work.

Now I am free from the pressure of a pending degree and have no excuse to create non-politically-engaged art. As Philip Guston said, "What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"

I could make work in response to the uprising, to racism and police brutality. But there's the pro blem of my inherent separation from those issues as a white person; I can only reflect a white perspective, and really, who needs that when so many black voices are going unheard?

But then again, to ignore those problems entirely would feel equally if not more irresponsible, when nothing seems to matter more right now in Baltimore than the issue of black lives.

I could stick to what I understand as a woman with a transgender partner and create work about gender and sexuality. And I have. But I never felt satisfied after creating those paintings, because—in addition to the fact that most of them weren't any good—they never felt useful in any way.

Regardless of what issue I felt most inclined to address in my artwork, there's the pressing feeling of futility. History has shown that organizing and public protest can bring about positive social and political change—slowly—but can art really do anything?

I've always been turned off by any kind of idealization of art. Most often that romanticism is more geared toward the artist's megalomania than art itself. Several years of attending art classes with young, self-aggrandizing artists will make you sick of that attitude.

Art has the power to heal, to distract, to offend, and, perhaps most importantly, dictate how history is represented. So it seems appropriate to say that artists should respond to contemporary, real-world issues through their art, especially when non-political art can feel like distractions—or worse, entertainment—when shit is going down. But art can't fix the world's problems, certainly not on its own.

Let's just say, for this particular column, that artists do have the ethical responsibility to respond to social and political issues through their art. Can political art be an effective form of protest? And what makes it effective?

The most immediate examples of important protest art that come to mind are Bree Newsome's scaling of the flagpole in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag and Emma Sulkowicz's continuous performance in which she carried a dorm-room mattress around Columbia University's campus to protest the school's failure to expel the student who raped her. Both of these works of art have rapidly become symbols of their associated movements—anti-racism and anti-rape culture—but they are not merely symbolic. Newsome and Sulkowicz both destroyed any element of separation between art and action, dealing directly with objects of oppression in the public, political environments in which those objects exist. Their actions were not limited to the relatively neutral atmosphere of a gallery, isolated from the tension, and they were as much acts of direct protest as they were artistic expressions, if not more so.

The symbolism of their actions is secondary in importance to crucial attention they drew to the issues. A work of art, while it may reflect the positions of many, projects only the perspective of one, a perspective that can be warped by the artist's effort to distinguish their work. That's why the symbolic value of protest art can be a danger to the movement. In the words of art writer Ben Davis, "An overemphasis on the creation of individual, signature forms—a professional requirement—can just as often make it a distraction from the needs of an actual movement, which are after all collective, welding together tastes of all kinds."

Even if an artwork is not intended to represent a movement, but merely the artist's personal political or social philosophy, history inevitably ties the two together. Rarely has a work of art served to catalyze a revolution, but nonetheless, art is used to represent the zeitgeist.

That danger does not detract from the performances by Newsome or Sulkowicz because their art was a direct form of protest, engaged with the objects, spaces, and people involved in the issue of their concern. Similarly, street art such as Nether's murals exist in a public, political environment, where the involved can interact with and become empowered by the imagery.

Of course, not all artists work through performance or outside of the studio/gallery context, making the question of politically engaged art even more difficult. The danger, in addition to the narrow perspective of a single artist's work, lies in the physical separation between the artist and direct action.


If an artist creates political images in support of a movement to be exhibited in a museum or gallery, but fails to participate in the movement's activism directly, there is an obvious gap between the ideas their art communicates and the ideas it intends to represent. If artists are to make effective political art, they must be directly involved in the movement—like Paul Rucker and Shorty Davis, who have both shown artwork on race while actively participating in Baltimore protests—and not be totally isolated in their studio. And even when art is made in direct proximity to revolt, it should not be seen as a symbol of a movement, but as a result of that movement. Those artworks exist and they are effective because they express the anger, despair, or perplexity of injustice. They do not aim to fight injustice, because art alone cannot fight injustice.