Confessions of a bourgeois artist
It seems that the Garage Collective means to refer to writers as well as visual artists when they talk about 'art', so I suppose my name would have to figure somewhere on their lengthy blacklist of hopelessly decadent bourgeois artists.
Over the years I've produced a lot of political writing - leaflets, articles, and so on - for various left-wing causes. At the same time, though, I've published poetry in a number of journals, and in a book.
My poems do not argue for the abolition of capitalism, or indeed for any other worthy cause. Nor do the vast majority of the poems, novels, albums, and paintings produced by my friends in different parts of the arts community. Is this evidence for the Garage Collective's argument that we're a bunch of corporate propagandists? If we are, then we're not being paid very well for our propaganda - most of us are broke. And we'd make poor propagandists, even if we were paid well, because most of us have solidly left of centre political views. Although my political views are probably further to the left than most of my peers, my involvement in political activism is not unusual. I run into poets and painters and musicians on all sorts of demonstrations.
The demand that art take to 'the barricades' by communicating a particular political message is not new on the left. It was the basis of the doctrine of 'socialist realism' which pro-Moscow Communist Parties imposed upon their intellectuals for decades. Party bureaucrats rejected almost all modernist art as 'bourgeois', because painters like Picasso and writers like James Joyce didn't seem to 'take sides' in the class struggle. Party publications featured 'literary pages' which were full of dreary odes to Soviet tractors and Stalin's moustache. I realise that the Garage Collective doesn't advocate Stalinist politics, but they ought to be aware of where the demand for the unification of art and politics can lead.
I believe that art and politics should be kept apart, or at least at arm's length, because good art can achieve things which political discourse cannot. It is not a matter of valuing art over politics, or politics over art, but of recognising that they offer two different ways of thinking and acting.
The hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who enjoy art in its various forms are not all simply hopeless dupes of capitalism, imbibing the propaganda of the Business Roundtable as they admire a Hotere canvas or read Janet Frame or listen to Miles Davis.
For many of us, art offers a space in which we can escape from the day to day exigencies of life in a twenty-first century capitalist society and enter into a contemplative frame of mind. In this frame of mind we are able to look at our lives and our world from new perspectives, and receive insights we would otherwise miss. Art also helps us to imagine alternatives to the way we live our lives, and to the way our society is organised. It is art's refusal to caught up in the urgency of day to day issues and political sloganeering which makes it so valuable, especially in a society like ours.
With their demand that art be useful - that it get onto 'the barricades' and help promote this or that cause - the Garage Collective actually betray the influence of the ideology of capitalism on their thinking. Capitalism relentlessly instrumentalises both people and things, demanding that they prove that they are 'useful' if they want to survive. In our society, even public hospitals and forest parks have their value 'quantified', and are subject to business 'plans'. The artist who refuses to be 'useful' by creating works that can easily be interpreted and co-opted is taking a far more radical stance than the person who churns out political propaganda.
To say all this is not to argue in favour of 'art for art's sake' or against the idea that art can have political consequences. It is to say that art can be at its most radical and powerful when it refuses to push a political barrow. One of my favourite contemporary New Zealand artists is Brett Graham, who is of Ngati Koroki and Ngati Pakeha descent and frequently addresses the history of colonisation and anti-colonial struggle in his work. I've recently written about Graham's exhibition Campaign Rooms, which is a response to the 2007 police raids on Tuhoe Country that refuses easy political slogans. Graham works on a deeper level than sloganeering can reach, meditating on the conceptual foundations of the colonial state and the symbolism used by that state. He knows the difference between art and propaganda.
I've written at greater length about the idea that art should be radical by avoiding political slogans in this essay, which was published last year in the literary journal brief.