‘Political art’ that treats the public like mugs

An art installation in New York featuring fake criminal mugshots of Bush and Cheney is meant to be cutting edge. In fact it is cynically conformist.

Alan Miller

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Six fake mugshots showing members of the Bush administration have got right-wing commentators up in arms. The installation, Line Up, by artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese, is part of a larger exhibition, Multiple Interpretations: Contemporary Prints in Portfolio, at the New York Public Library. The exhibition showcases 23 contemporary printmakers from around the world; but the manipulated photographs of Bush and Co. have received disproportionate attention.

The images show President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with state-of-arrest placards bearing the date they made ‘incriminating’ statements about Iraq. An audio tape plays their speeches as the criminal prints come up in a slideshow.

Critics feel Ligorano’s and Reese’s photographs are offensive, saying a public library, funded through taxpayers’ money, is not an appropriate site for political satire. Two visitors complained to the library and vowed to set up an alternative gallery of Democrats’ phoney mugshots that will include former US president Bill Clinton and his national security adviser Sandy Berger, who was charged with removing classified documents from the National Archives. Others say it is an outrage that kids will be exposed to this scandalous display of the incumbent president and his colleagues.

The supposedly controversial, polemical and outrageous Line Up exhibit has been branded ‘political attack art’. Yet what is striking is just how ordinary and simple the prints are. The New York Public Library describes Multiple Interpretations as showcasing prints by ‘some of the most intriguing and compelling artists active today’. Yet as David Durant points out on his ‘Heretical Librarian’ blog: ‘Wow, if this kind of infantile, dishonest agitprop is what “the most intriguing and compelling artists active today” are doing, then I’d really hate to see what the crappy and unimaginative artists are up to.’ (1)

The artistic merits of the prints are certainly debatable, and it’s questionable whether this most recent example of shallow Bush-bashing is as punchy as it has been made out to be. Mocking the Bush administration and expressing anger over the Iraq war are, after all, mainstream pastimes in the US now, rather than marginal or daring exercises.

Yet the toing and froing between commentators and defensive representatives at the New York Public Library has been rather childish: some conservatives are making threats of tit-for-tat revenge, while the library has avoided addressing the overt political slant of the prints. A library spokesperson simply said ‘printmaking has been a popular medium for artists’ commentary on current events of their day, among them Hogarth, Goya, Gillray and Daumier’ (2).

Of course, it is not up to the library spokesmen to define Ligorano’s and Reese’s work for them; yet the missing element in the library’s defence of the prints is any clear stance on artistic freedom and a rejection of the idea that artists, whether or not their work is displayed in an institution partially funded by the government, should avoid offending those who view their work.

It is becoming increasingly common amongst artists and entertainers to go for the ‘shock factor’; a lot of self-consciously ‘political art’ is just not very interesting or refreshing, but rather is predictable and repetitive. But this is no reason to limit what artists can create and what the public can view.

As for Line Up, are the neo-cons and conservatives really so insecure that they need to cause an uproar around six not-very-controversial manipulated photographs? Some pundits have conceded that this type of work is everywhere now, but they argue that the fact that the installation is in one of the grand institutions of the country means that it is given added legitimacy and weight. They seem to think that the public, knowing that the New York Public Library is a respected institution, will see this particular display of Bush-bashing as more valid than other ones, like the talk shows The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. In truth, the shallow furore over this shallow installation plays into the hands of comedians like Stewart, and into the point-scoring and name-calling that passes for ‘critical debate’ in America today.

Smart, provocative art can indeed inspire interesting debates and inject new and fresh ideas into society. Such art will inevitably be seen as offensive by someone, somewhere, but what’s wrong with that? The problem is that Line Up is neither smart, nor provocative. Instead it reflects today’s New York consensus that ‘Bush is bad’ and the more widespread sentiment that politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy. It might massage visitors’ anti-political prejudices, and get neo-cons hot under the collar, but comparing it with Hogarth or Goya? Get a grip.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at the phenomenon of Bush-bashing and discussed Bin Laden and the Bush-bashers. Mick Hume argued that contempt for Bush was really white-trash bashing. Munira Mirza asked whether modern art was a left-wing conspiracy and Nathalie Rothschild asked whether graffiti artist, Banksy, is now Bigger than Jesus Or read more at spiked issue: Museums and Galleries.

(1) See The Heretical Librarian

(2) Anger as library makes exhibition of Bush, Guardian, 8 December

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