“Artists do not necessarily have the solutions, but they ask the great questions” says Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in regards to their new convention-questioning show It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, a devastatingly harsh look at our political realities in the times of this financial crisis.
In the wake of the capitalist crisis, very few cultural institutions have dared to address the horrors of greed that plague us in such a direct and haunting way as the Austrian Cultural Forum. The dizzying quandaries and high stakes of the crisis immediately confront the visitor in the vestibule where video documentation of Dread Scott’s 2010 performance “Money to Burn” (2010) plays. Performed on Wall Street, the artist wears a shirt pinned with bills, which he periodically removes from his body and burns with a lighter whilst chanting the title of the piece. Extremely provocative, ushering in street traffic, we’re immediately situated in a heightened atmosphere where our problems are not side-stepped by careful rhetoric, but hurled in our faces with savage force.
The proceeding array of video, painting and performance, curated by Oliver Ressler and Gregory Sholette, was conceived two years ago (pre-Occupy Wall Street) when Stadler considered the artists producing work today to be out of touch with the political climate. Expressing the impetus for such a show, he says,
“Ever since we have plunged into the global crisis in 2007 and 2008, I thought about doing a show with artists critiquing our contemporary socio-cultural and economic system. Since the eighties neoliberalism assigned all authority about our construction of society to economists and economic ideologues … I find it problematic that many artists have voluntarily withdrawn from politics. So my question was: where are artists similar to Diego Rivera and the Photo League today … who are today’s artists/activists?”
The pieces equally make us consider not only economic policies, but the state of contemporary art and the potential that we simply aren’t seeing very much of lately (ahem, Damien Hirst).
Jan Peter Hammer’s “The Anarchist Banker” (2010), deals with the people behind the meltdown in a world of heightened and stylized reality. The performance takes form in a Charlie Rose-style interview show, with the interviewer in dialogue with an “Anarchist” Bank CEO whose ruthless, unscrupulous world views would make even Ayn Rand herself consider pursuing a Socialist Utopia. “Body versus Capitalism” (2011) is another example of interventionist art on display. It follows the FLO6X8 collective as they stage flash flamenco dances in bank lobbies.
Of particular note is one of Stadler’s favorite pieces, Isa Rosenberg’s “Death Dance,” whose choreography he says:
“ … was conceived in the thirties as a metaphor for the destructive force of unregulated capitalism. She reinterpreted it with today’s aesthetics, making it a beautiful peace of art — and a new political statement.”
Collectively, these works consider strong viewpoints but they offer no solutions. They’re not supposed to. According to Stadler, activism is another medium of art that has been overlooked by the mainstream as a valid means of expression:
“I think that the institutional setup of galleries and museums adapts only slowly to changes in society. This is why grass roots initiatives and all sorts of nonprofit spaces will always be quicker in preparing the ground for new aesthetics and politics. The Austrian Cultural Forum has fortunately a high degree of autonomy which allows us to stay more in touch with emerging artists, and less with collectors, funders and political interests.”
As America preps for the upcoming presidential election, it’s shocking how little those vying to be the leaders of our democracy and the people who represent it question the logic of capitalism and ignore the damage it has wrought. It is the duties of the artist and the institution to shed light on these issues, to bring them to the forefront so that we consider and revalue our culture and our lives.
It’s the Political Economy Stupid in on view at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (11 East 52nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until April 22.