Essays

The Aesthetics of Democracy

by Ben Valentine on December 25, 2012

Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” (1851) (image from wikipedia.com)

BERKELEY, California — The hype surrounding election season has once more instantly vanished to be replaced by holiday shopping. Every four years the Republicans and Democrats come together in an epic democratic battle over the future of America, even if we wanted to, it feels impossible to escape the debates, the slimy campaign ads, the hyperbolic Facebook posts, and the insanely dividing rhetoric of election times. It feels like the presidential race is completely separate from the art world, for the aesthetics and conversation it engenders becomes so much like propaganda. The conversations are usually so transparently biased that when any real critical discussion is applied, most of the imagery and statements of either candidate quickly falls apart.

Political art has mostly been relegated to propaganda, so reductive that unless you are already a believer, the content reads as laughable, unworthy of any real critical discussion. When thinking of important historical democratic artworks, an undeniable contestant is EmanuelLeutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851), depicting George Washington, then the future first president of the United States, in a surprise attack which helped lead to an independent United States. Leutze depicts our heroic leader bravely facing the elements and oppression as he turns his back on the dark past to fight for a brighter future. Heroic depictions of our leaders haven’t advanced much in 150+ years.

Mitt Romney giving his concession speech in Boston (Photograph by Charles Dharapak from the Theblaze.com)

As election night unfolded I was taken by the two candidates’ backdrops for their speeches. Both were so chalk full of over zealous American patriotism that it hurt to look at. It was especially surreal to watch Romney’s concession speech (above) in Boston in front of his pro-American background equipped with 12 flags, the constitution, ships, monuments, and of course, “Believe in America,” whatever that even means.

Shepard Fairey’s work for the Obama campaign. (Image from Theblaze.com)

I would never imply that Obama was without his own grotesquely aestheticized election. His faux-grass roots aesthetic utilizing stencil imagery lent itself nicely to work by Shepard Fairey (above). Somehow Fairey un-ironically supported Obama’s campaign, while referencing communist propaganda in a combination I can’t really wrap my head around. Fairey then joins Leutze in a long lineage of artists who have contributed excruciatingly boring work to the democratic conversation. However there was one work that stood out as a brighter future for the political artworld.

Jonathan Horowitz, “Your Land/My Land: Election ’12,” (2012) (Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner from NewMuseum.org)

Maybe because it is incredibly hard to sidestep outright advertising, or over zealous protest work, museums have often avoided political work. However, this election year several museums showed Jonathan Horowitz’s “Your Land/My Land: Election ’12” (2102), which served as a critical platform to discuss the overly aestheticized debates. The installation was built in keeping with the obvious dichotomies of the election that hinder a bipartisan discourse. Viewers could watch the debates and join in discussions about the election process as a whole, choosing to sit on the red or  blue side, on the Fox News or the MSNBC side. Although I didn’t get a chance to experience this installation in any of the seven museums around the country that it was simultaneously being shown in, I am excited by it’s emergence.

Museums and galleries already feel so disconnected from the rest of the world, but to not partake in the election conversation seems like an absurd disservice to it’s visitors. Although it is easy to think of the art world as an isolated place outside of politics, yet we are all deeply affected and controlled by the political realm of our country. Backing out of the conversation is doing ourselves a diservice as artworld-goers as well as citizens.

Voters waiting in line at a polling station. (Photograph by John McDonnell from the Washington Post)

Unfortunately the real aesthetics of democracy, although made to be so glamorous and heroic in the campaign ads, are rather dull. While Horowitz’s installation begins to tear down the hollow juxtapositions that the two parties attempt to build up, Horowitz doesn’t offer us any new way of looking at the parties. When it comes down to election day, the prideful position of a citizen voter is put to the test in a way few election ads hints at: long lines in rather unimpressive locales like local churches and public school gymnasiums. The Washington Post had a great online series of election day photographs (like the one by John McDonnell above) that drove this idea home.

Maybe the problem with art and democracy is that democracy isn’t really all that glamourous. Yes, there are the heroes and the defining moments in our country’s history that we can all point pridefully toward, yet they are few and far in between, and when it comes down to it, are these the most important? Maybe what creates the most change in our democratic society comes out of community board meetings in dingy city buildings where voters sit on old metal folding chairs or stand when there isn’t enough room. Local politics is often messy, slow, and without glamour. These small community meetings (below) seem to more closely resemble AA meetings than any campaign ad I’ve ever seen. The grittiness of local politics and ugly reality of super pacs in large elections has little room for aesthetic consideration.

A community meeting with County Supervisor in California (Image from www.co.yuba.ca.us)

Our governments and our votes are continuing an image of democracy as a heroic battle between good and evil, but on the ground it’s more like the slow work of community conversations and voting booths. Maybe we as voters need the hyperbolic imagery to be convinced to vote, or maybe the ridiculousness of the conversations surrounding our presidential elections have pushed us away from deeper, more important conversations.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.luna.16 Daniel Luna

    leaning a picture on the wall from the ground is a thing.

  • http://twitter.com/KateRhoades Kate Rhoades

    great article, man!

  • http://www.facebook.com/occupywithart Occupy WithArt

    Hi Ben,

    think you’ve scratched the tip of the iceberg on the topic (global
    warming). drilling down into subject (fracking) is an important next
    step. in democracy we have formalities and procedures, but the
    functional version exists for more than process and maintenance of
    order. in a corrupted democracy (see Goldman Sachs > Obama
    administration) the formal becomes a placeholder that is undermined by
    corruption (HSBC). Democracy drifts into its own simulation, while –
    take the present situation – the plutocrats work in varying degrees of
    opacity to achieve outcomes that benefit only themselves (fiscal cliff).
    maybe it’s worth exploring the failure of most artists, especially
    professional ones, with some leverage, have assiduously avoided
    participating in democracy, instead choosing to protect their
    [____________] [fill in the blank interests]. Or maybe it’s a question.
    What would prevent “democratic” artists from expressing themselves in
    the quasi-public sphere, at times of political & economic crisis?
    & what would prevent them from doing so explicitly, as someone like
    Alex Schaefer has in LA, with his burning bank paintings, chalkings,
    lectures, performances, puppeteering, etc? This past election, Citizens
    United’s influence proved profound, game-changing, and yet, the massive
    infusion of corporate/mogul cash failed to produce the donors’ desired
    results, in general. Although this situation is of concern (or should
    be) to all US citizens, including artists, why do artists not expend
    cultural “capital” (LOL) to at least have a voice in the matter? Obviously, “the art world” [trans., the 1% unregulated international art market] and its publicity wing is/are for the most part deeply conflicted, or compromised. Is there any rational trajectory into the market “discourse” for artists who are troubled by or oppose the market itself? Some flavors of “political” are welcomed. Others are ignored, spun, subsumed or attacked. What is the actual topography of the political in the art world, and does democracy have a place in it at all, anyway? What about the art world/market is democratic, after all?

    Thanks for the article,

    Paul

    [Attached: painting by Alex Schaefer ( http://alexanderschaefer.blogspot.com/ )]

  • Daniel Platt

    It’s likely that as people’s faith in democracy, especially at the lower levels, is tanking (http://empiricalmag.blogspot.com/2012/12/january-excerpt-democracy-by-gar.html), the artwork of campaigns will also stagnate. The lack of interesting aesthetics at the bottom rung of civic participation seems to reflect that.

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