ART AND ARTISTS INFORM?
To paraphrase William Shakespeare: “To inform or to disinform, that is the question.” Art in general, and a large number of artists with their creative work, often reflect directly or metaphorically the opaque spaces of the social reality that surrounds them. These gestures of authenticity can draw our attention to ways that the media and current political interests induce disinformation or false information on vital socio-economic issues, thereby creating narratives and currents of opinion that are deeply politicised.
Already at the beginning of the 20th century we find a significant act of denunciation in the work Angelus Novus (1920) by the painter Paul Klee (Switzerland, 1879-1940). In this work, n the artist alerts us to the potential for further catastrophic war in the near future. It showed a pessimistic and critical view of history that the philosopher Walter Benjamin, upon acquiring the painting himself, later referred to as the Angel of History, an angel announcing the disaster of supposed progress.
Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, 1920
Israel Museum, Public Domain
In 1937, in the midst of war-torn Europe, the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic was installed in Paris. It constituted an artistic and collective manifesto denouncing the future ravages of fascism on the continent and was the venue chosen by Pablo Picasso, then director of the Prado Museum in Madrid, to present Guernica, (1937). The pavilion also exhibited Joan Miró’s mural, El Segador (1937) and other politically engaged works by sculptors such as Julio González’s La Montserrat (1937), Alexander Calder’s, Fuente de Mercurio, (1937) and Alberto Sánchez’s Hay un camino para el pueblo español que lleva a una estrella (1937).
The Pavilion of the Republic was probably the most outspoken and committed manifestation of the first half of the 20th century. Its testimonial value was confirmed by the immediate response, which came with the exhibition Degenerate Art in Munich in July 1937, which, according to Joseph Goebbels’ guidelines, defended the “dangerousness of art”. All these precedents give rise to the current critical position of art and artists in general, which face today’s conflicts about migratory flows, the forced mobility of populations, the geographies of dispute and critical socio-economic situations. It is thus clear that the artists made a commitment and showed an enlightening gesture towards the possible distortions of the official discourses of later historical moments.
Font de Mercuri d’Alexander Calder
Kippelboy Photograph, 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0
At the end of the twentieth century, when the concept of ‘contemporary art’ was ubiquitous in art criticism and the specialised media it was subject to numerous questions as to its role and value: Can contemporary art be limited to a question of the calendar, referring only to the moment it is produced, or should it also refer to art that presents a connection with the social, cultural and political environment of the moment? So, is it a more human art? Can we therefore define contemporary art as the art “of today and about today”?
Nowadays, a more committed concept of art has to a large extent been supported through recognised and authoritative voices. Thinkers such as Edward Said, who denounced prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their cultures; Uomi Ka Bahbah, a follower of Said, who introduced the fundamental concepts of hybridity and difference as forms of resistance; Arjun Appadurai, who analysed the phenomena of globalisation, migrations and the rejection of minorities; Néstor García-Canclini who denounced how cultural spaces are built on the differentiated identity between the “us” and the “others”; Ramin Jahanbegloo who explored the possibility of “non-violence” between antagonistic societies; the ethnographer and anthropological researcher Sharham Khosravi, who analyses migration and forced displacement, formulating the concept of “borders of the interior”, a mechanism that perpetuates the differences of those forever and ever called “foreigners”.
In addition to these diverse theoretical voices and, always within the same concept of contemporary art, there are art curators, directors of successive Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta such as Catherine David, Okwi Enwezor, Ralph Rugoff and Adam Szymczyk, who have selected and defended works by artists from all over the world: Artists who denounced, shed light on and highlighted phenomena such as exodus, borders, migrations and difference. With all of this critical, theoretical and exhibition arsenal, artists have developed narratives around social reality, opening up spaces for authentic and grounded information.
Among the countless works and artworks that respond to current events with denunciation and commitment, we have selected a diverse and global sample of artists who have created significant works: The Belgian artist and activist Chantal Akerman, author of From the other side, a film presented at Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002, shows how immigrants mysteriously “disappear” when crossing the border between Mexico and the United States.
The work Study for don’t cross the bridge before you get to the river from 2008 by the Belgian Francis Alÿs refers to the collective action of children and young people who simulate crossing the 14 kilometres that separate Europe and Africa, making this distance between continents an insurmountable journey.
The Mexican Santiago Sierra, resident in Madrid, is the author of Acciones Remuneradas. For one of his acciones (actions), he hired 200 Senegalese immigrants, street vendors in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, to dye their hair blond in exchange for a salary.
Adel Abdessemed, from Algeria, presented to the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 his work Exil, a neon that acted as a semantic play between “exit” and “exile”, two key words that refer to two sides of exile.
The South African William Kentridge denounced apartheid in museums and at the Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta. Through his drawings, tapestries and films, he stages everyday lives moving between desire and memory.
The Iranian Ghazel was commissioned by the renowned stage designer Romeo Castelucci in 2008 to participate in the 37th Venice International Theatre Festival to create a performance about “forced mobility”. The artist recruited migrants from various countries, from Afghanistan to Iraq or the Ivory Coast to film HOME (stories), with which he showed their illegal situation and the difficulty of acquiring the customs of the host country.
Catalan artist and activist Nuria Güell, who trained at the University of Havana with the leader of the Immigrant Movement International artist Tania Bruguera, presented Fuera de Juego (2009) in which she uses techniques that alter power relations, establishing the game of an immigrant without a work contract who hides from the visitors to the exhibition, receiving payment in exchange for his action.
The English artist Banksy, whose image and biography are unknown, is the author of Migrant child, 2019, an expressive exhibition of “street art” in Venice, coinciding with the 58th Art Biennale.
The strength of the witness was striking for its singular urban location; the Syrian photojournalist Sameer Al-Doumy is the author of Fatal crossing, VISA Pour La image 2022 Award, an artistic photograph that bears witness in a raw way and opens a window of analysis of how photography has also made a contribution that opposes disinformation and distortion.
Banksy, Venice, 2019 (Photo by Marialaura Gionfriddo on Usplash)
We should not neglect to mention two already iconic images, of which there is no need to make any artistic assessment, which have been around the world in recent years. An image of the Vietnam War, Napalm girl (1972) by the photographer Nik Ut, and the overwhelming image of the child Aylan Kurdi (2012) who lay on a sandy beach having drowned in a sea crossing, by the Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir. These images link the horror of a war to the tragedy of forced immigration.
No doubt the recent war in Ukraine will bring new committed works by contemporary artists. Despite the small number of works mentioned here, these Ukrainian artist give a clear witness to the socio-political reality that surrounds us, underlining our opinion on the inevitable commitment of art to be authentically “contemporary”.
2A/*team, a team formed by Antoni Valero and Amor Marsé, historian and PhD in art history from the UB.