Words by Justin Quirk
These are challenging, unsettled times for artists with a political awareness. The most powerful office on earth is occupied by a man who gives every impression of never having read a book or encountered a piece of art that stirred him. A concerted campaign is being waged on several fronts to fill the public intellectual sphere with falsehoods and moral relativism until any set of shared assumptions or commonality dissolves. Countries like Turkey that appeared to be opening up to creative freedom have aggressively asserted the state’s control over everything from in-store playbacks of Radiohead albums to teaching in academia (more than 130 media outlets have been recently closed and Istanbul’s SALT Beyoğlu gallery’s sudden closure is shrouded in conflicting accounts). It’s clear that something is underway – what is less clear is how, and when, artists should formulate a response to this, or even if they can.
The first thing to underline is that we are in the early stages of a long campaign. Looking back at the past of art and creativity has a telescoping effect on time, and we tend to imagine that great works of political art emerged in almost immediate response to events, history and art locked in a great game of ideological ping-pong. However, the cases where this did happen – Pablo Picasso managed to paint Guernica in the two months following the bombing of the Spanish city in April 1937; Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove premiered 15 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis – are the exception rather than the rule. More common has been work like Luc Tuymans’s Lumumba, a portrait of the assassinated leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo that prods and probes at Belgium’s colonial behaviour and legacy, but does so from a distance of 39 years after the politician’s death. A fully articulated response to our own chaotic times will be a long time coming.