Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” as a way to describe the ability of a nation to influence others with its values and culture. The United States is brilliant at this. In 2011, for example, the Chinese government sought to limit the availability of reality TV shows like Meet the Kardashians because the Communist Party saw them as fueling independent viewpoints — that is, American cultural values. Ironically, when China’s own famous-for-being-famous star Angela Yeung threw herself a $31-million wedding in October 2015, she was hailed as the Kim Kardashian of China. In the middle of the 20th century, the US Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art as a weapon in the Cold War and worked diligently to move the avant-garde from Paris to New York. The legacy of this effort can be found today in a popular discourse of contemporary art that rarely goes beyond how much art sells for, its price being the ultimate marker of American value.
We live in a time of historic, global wealth inequality and increasing political turbulence. The Guardian reported last year that half of the world’s wealth is controlled by 1% of its population. We see the antisocial effects of this in the use of debt to brutally repress democracies in Greece, Spain, and Portugal; in the rise of Donald Trump’s brand of white supremacy in the US; and in the use of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric to convince the British people to vote to exit the European Union. It is no coincidence that what art that is deemed “important” is being designated so by the same 1% of people who control half the world’s wealth. It feels, at times, as if Western Civilization, as we have known it, is unraveling into the dark muddle it found itself in 100 years ago. What are artists to do?
Art is a strange vocation. We make and write about things and attempt to convince others of their value. This has always been the history of art. In the 19th century, John Ruskin reinvented how we see art. He is known for his championship of J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, among others. Embedded in his criticism is an analysis of how the market impacts art history and progress. He writes in Modern Painters (1843), “Now the press should especially endeavor to convince the public, that by this purchase of imperfect pictures they not only prevent all progress and development of high talent, and set tricksters and mechanics on a level with men of mind, but defraud and injure themselves.” Ruskin argues that the media of his day is promoting art that is so bad it hurts people.
While Ruskin’s critique of the market and media may ring true today, his real concern is with the artist. “If ever, working upon a favorite subject or a beloved idea,” Ruskin writes, “he is induced to tax his powers to the utmost, and to spend as much time upon his picture as he feels necessary for its perfection, he will not be able to get so high a price for the result, perhaps, of a twelvemonth’s thought, as he might have obtained for half-a-dozen sketches with a forenoon’s work in each, and he is compelled either to fall back upon mechanism, or to starve.” Like many of us in the vocation of art, Ruskin understood that art was a life-or-death issue; that the starvation of artists, figuratively and literally, was on the line. And he understood the symbiotic relationship between artists and the society they lived in, that the two needed each other. The people needed good art, or at least to be protected from bad art, and artists needed to make a living. At the heart of this symbiotic relationship is the soft power of art.
Much ado is made about art institutions, media, and markets. I love to rant and complain about the systems of power that divorce contemporary art from its popular audience. Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian recently posted on Twitter: “Depoliticized corporate aesthetics is the curse of contemporary art today.” It is a curse, but perhaps not the only curse. Artists’ willingness to accept failure; to be marginalized; to refuse to engage society in a conversation about itself. Artists’ disconnection from and disregard for their audiences is a much greater concern. I am not advocating for political art, for sentimental brow-beating, or loose propaganda. I am suggesting that artists take a page from the CIA playbook and wield the soft power of art.
We need more art like Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) and less art like Jeff Koons’ banal “Bouquet of Tulips” (2016) for Paris. We need more of the poetics of Félix González-Torres and less of the horror drama of Marina Abramovic’s “Spirit Cooking.” We need less of the style-driven revolution of Shepard Fairey and more cut-to-the-point work like For Freedoms’s billboard in Mississippi. We need a visual language that speaks to the hearts and minds of people and less theoretics that dehumanize and patronize. We need more satirical parades like Krewe Du Vieux in New Orleans and fewer corporate, pinkwashed Pride parades. We need to care about art in Iowa and Nebraska and Alabama. We need to toss art grenades into the street like Egyptian graffiti artists. We need to memorialize moments, like Willie Bester did in “Tribute to Steve Biko” (1992), and we need to infiltrate and disturb like Jane Alexander’s sculptural installation “The Butcher Boys” (1985/86).
Good artists understand their innate ability to teach, through their work, empathy for others, emotional intelligence, and different ways of seeing the world. But what is the point of brilliant work if it fails to leave the bubble of the art world? I am suggesting that it is time for artists to liberate us, or at least to try. No market, no institutional power, no media can stop the soft power of art. All graffiti is seen, at least for a little while. Artists are a stronger force than the systems in which they operate. Art finds a way. Artists can lead the change.
A version of this article first appeared in issue 16 of Kolaj Magazine.