In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. Following up last week’s reflections by Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, and Keli Garrett, we hear this week from Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, and Rahila Gupta. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.
The New New Deal in Art and Politics
By Larne Abse Gogarty
Private and public galleries and institutions are often opposed within contemporary art criticism and discourse with public equated with good, ethical practice, and private equated with corporate baddies. This is problematic insofar as very few, if any, “public” institutions are entirely one or the other. Instead, due to declining public funds for the arts, most work on a mixed income of private and public money. However, in relation to the question of the New Deal and nonparticipation, I want to suggest that this dichotomy also fails to think critically about the relationship between art and the state.
In 1940, the Walker Art Center reopened as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project within their Community Art Centers division. Along with hosting special exhibitions and the private collection of T. B. Walker, it began to run art classes and mount ventures relating to the local community. The WPA Federal Art Project was a huge relief program for unemployed artists and ran alongside others within “Federal One” such as the Federal Theatre, Music, and Writers Projects.
These WPA programs positioned cultural workers as useful members of society, not romantics locked away in garrets. Art, theater, literature, and music sponsored by the New Deal therefore had to straddle the divide between being “socially useful” and aesthetically interesting; quantifiers that were arbitrated by the New Deal administration as well as art critics, institutions, and audiences. Artists engaged in participatory, politicized, and social practice today are often said to face similar challenges in having to face up to “ethical” as well aesthetic criteria.
Many of the cultural workers employed by the WPA had leftist sympathies, particularly those employed by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Famously, director Hallie Flanagan was asked to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 and defend the “communistic” tendencies within the plays supported by the FTP. It closed shortly after, largely due to these accusations.
However, those who created works with “communistic” sympathies felt they were indeed being “socially useful”—and that in order to be at all aesthetically interesting, the arts needed to engender forms of resistance to capitalism. This raises the question: socially useful and aesthetically interesting for whom? And how?
When contemporary art discourse derides social practice as instrumentalized, this is because artists are assumed to be doing the job of the state that contributes funding to their creation. What is missing from this debate is a discussion of politics, and intention on behalf of the artist(s). In placing The Museum of Non Participation in conversation with the idea of the New Deal, we get an image of a political order that creates a terrain for conflict, renewal, and a questioning of the relations between state and citizen within the arts. It raises the possibility of the social within artworks as something to be politicized quite explicitly, in a mode that is not didactic but instead capable of prompting a dialectical process for the viewer. All good art is involved with the social. What needs to be asked is what is the “good” in this equation—and thus, where do your politics lie?
Larne Abse Gogarty is a writer and researcher currently doing doctoral research on community art and collective practice in the United States in the History of Art Department at University College, London.
By Olga Gonzalez
There is an apparent absence of presence that suggests indifference or maybe worse, collusion and complicity. In Peru, (non) participation in the form of ignorance and prejudice has contributed to a “culture of impunity” despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendations toward the pursuit of justice. In 2003 when Salomón Lerner, the chairman of the TRC, handed in the final report to President Alejandro Toledo, he said it “contains a double outrage: that of massive murder, disappearance and torture; and that of indolence, incompetence and indifference of those who could have stopped this humanitarian catastrophe but didn’t.”
In the aftermath of violence, “I didn’t know” emerged as a common phrase, particularly among upper- and middle-class citizens in Lima. It seems ludicrous to think that the estimated 70,000 victims during the 20-year-long internal armed conflict would have come as a shocking surprise to Peruvian society. The truth is that everybody knew but not everybody cared about the fate of indigenous Andean people who had become main targets in the war. With their identities conveniently conflated with terrorism, indigenous people were perceived as the enemy. Framed as such, they became what Judith Butler calls “ungrievable lives.” This is the inconvenient truth that everybody knows but pretends not to know. Silence and denial then. Denial and silence today. The absence of justice, always. And we all know it!
In “post-conflict” Peru, symbolic reparations in the form of public apologies, memorials, and museums create the illusion of a nation coming to terms, as does the paradigmatic “Never Again.” To remember is not for all. In Peru, differences between political and ethnic factions are pushed to clear delineation. For economic and political elites who justify the military violence as unfortunate but necessary “excesses of war,” to forget is the only path to reconciliation. For the Quechua-speaking peasants, to erase the traces of any sympathy they could have had with the Shining Path guerrillas, particularly at the beginning of the war, is the only path to become “the innocent victim” entitled to adequate economic reparation. These tensions with memory are reflected in the country’s “sites of memory.” The critical visitor to these places might notice the silences, so tangible in their own invisibility, and attempt to denounce and create the missing stories. In other cases, the visitor’s absence condemns the site to oblivion, making (non) participation a powerful means to question a memorial or museum’s failure to challenge the status quo. We forget that to build does not always mean to construct!
Olga Gonzalez is assistant professor of anthropology at Macalester College. Her research examines the relationships between the politics of memory/secrecy, visuality/representation, truth/reconciliation, and violence/subjectivity in Latin America.
By Rahila Gupta
Perhaps nonparticipation should not be written off.
When it is unconscious, it is not worth remarking upon because we do not even know what it is in which we have not participated.
Postmodernism presents nonparticipation as an acceptable, alternate reality and deems the political impulse to change it invalid because that would reintroduce the binary idea of right and wrong.
Nonparticipation, however, might be an act of resistance.
If it is actively chosen because the activity that seeks your participation needs to be critiqued, then nonparticipation or noncooperation becomes a critique (compare with the teachings of Gandhi).
But to make the resistance visible and concrete, steps will have to be taken, and in that process nonparticipation will mutate into something other, its alter ego.
It has been my life’s work as a writer and activist, using every political and artistic strategy, to shift resistance and noncommitment from inaction to action.
Whether it is working with women escaping violence, fighting for the right of disabled children to be embraced by the mainstream, standing up against racism or religious fundamentalism, or treading a careful line between the competing claims of race, gender, and class.
So that it becomes an addiction.
So that it becomes as inevitable as drawing breath.
So that you feel the vibrating energy of a group of people embarking on a joint project.
My artistic endeavor is about setting up a honey trap, snagging your emotions, drawing you in, inviting identification, empathy, analysis—all this embedding a call to action.
But to be true to itself, the artistic impulse cannot live in black and white. It must heighten color, muddy the waters; it must tear at the soul with an irreconcilable sense of contradiction; it must take you to the edge of the cliff. You must experience the breathlessness of falling before it draws you back and allows you the sensation of relief.
You walk unsuspecting into the easy rhythm of a ballad, the embrace of a soap opera, the snare of a thriller.
That part of the journey must not be difficult.
I surrender experiment with form, language, and genre.
It is when you have been lured in that the difficult questions will be posed. It is then that I stand to lose my newly won audience. Will you stick with me through the rest of the journey? Will you heed the call to action? Will you resist this relationship that appears to be based on a denial of agency? Or will the attempt to live up to its standards serve the artistic impulse but strangle the political will?
And when all of that has been bridged and you, as one in a hundred, have made the leap of faith, you must face the imperatives of the political—the contradictions between the quest for numbers and the quality of the participation, the insistence on the right political analysis and the right language.
We argue about language because it embeds attitudes, and yet when language changes to signify a break with the past, the landscape of prejudice often doesn’t change but rather ambushes new words with old ideas.
You walk into this purer-than-pure ideological space of the museum, newly enthused by your brush with art, and feel confused.
The activist needs to understand your journey and needs to learn to embrace you.
Rahila Gupta is a writer and activist. Her recent e.book, The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong, a verse novella, is a love story between a mother and her disabled son.