Art et/ou Politique : Contaminations. Interview avec Caroline Levine

Par Caroline Levine & Stéphane Baele

Formats disponibles : HTML ; PDF ; EPUB ; Papier


Dans cet entretien, Prof. Caroline Levine (University Wisconsin , Madison) répond à nos questions sur les rapports entre art et politique. Partant des idées les plus intuitives sur la collusion entre ces deux champs, des questions plus précises sont abordées sur la subversion, la propagande, la censure, les limites de l’action politique, ou encore la technique. De multiples collusions et contaminations entre art et politique apparaissent alors, faisant de la thématique centrale de ce numéro d’Émulations un questionnement crucial d’aujourd’hui. Mots-clefs : Art, politique, censure, subversion, avant-garde.

In this interview, Prof. Caroline Levine (University of Michigan at Madison) answers to our questions on the interconnections between art and politics. Developing from common-sense ideas on the topic, the discussion then examines more specific issues of art-politics intermingling, such as censorship, propaganda, the control of the subversive function of the avant-garde, the limits of political action, or the role of technique. The subsequent picture of the interplay between art and politics appears contrasted and wide-ranging, illustrating the importance of the topic hereby addressed by Émulations. Key words: Art, politics, censorship, subversion, avant-garde.


Interview avec Caroline Levine (University of Michigan, Madison), auteure de Provoking democracy: Why we need the arts? (Blackwell, 2007)

1. Stéphane Baele: I always like to ask a (truly?) naïve and first question. Why is it important – or, rather, crucial – to investigate the links between art and politics?

Caroline Levine: I don’t think that’s naïve. Many people would say that art is that which transcends immediate experience, timeless and universal, and has little or nothing to do with the dirty world of politics. I come out of an intellectual tradition that is skeptical of this assumption. Claims to universal human experience have historically been used to cast some groups as non-human, so even what seems to be a neutral, apolitical assertion about art does have political implications. (That is, universalizing claims about art usually imply the following logic: a great work of art appeals to all humans; if it does not appeal to you, then you must not be fully human.) I’m also persuaded by those scholars who have observed that human experience has been deeply and crucially different at different moments in time and across different cultures, and thus there can be no art that speaks to all people at all times. So I’m not convinced that art is ever timeless or universal. But that still doesn’t quite get at why we should think specifically about links between art and politics. For me, this question started to seem urgently important when I began to notice that modern societies have made all kinds of competing and contradictory claims for what art does (or is supposed to do). For instance, when I started to pay attention to what people were saying about art, I heard some say that it was uplifting and ennobling, where for others it was potentially dangerous or subversive; some argued that art knitted people together, while others claimed that it could or should cause disruptions; many complained that the arts reached only an elite few, whereas others said that it was for everyone. For my own part, I wasn’t sure who or what to believe, or on what grounds. I started out undecided—and curious. It just seemed crucial to investigate the links between art and politics to find out if any of these claims were true. Answers to these questions could lead us to some practical political conclusions about public funding, about censorship, and about arts education. And they could also lead us to make strong arguments for or against the value of arts in particular social contexts.

2. When reflecting on the links between arts and politics, we usually think in a straightforward manner of three dimensions: first, propaganda, second, the seemingly traditional leftist obedience of artists, who are somehow expected to produce social critique, and third the assumption that art only flourishes within specific, liberal political contexts. How would you assess these common-ground ideas?

What surprised me most while doing my research was how strangely inextricable these three different positions have turned out to be in practice. Liberal governments don’t like to be associated with authoritarianism and so try to stay away from producing obvious propaganda, but they like to broadcast an image of themselves as free societies to the rest of the world, especially when they’re at war. And what better way to display that you’re a free society than to show how actively you welcome critical, subversive artists? In the past century, both Britain and the United States secretly promoted leftist artistic critiques as propaganda, using them as markers of the kind of freedom that’s possible in democracies. So subversive artists ended up working for the ends of the liberal state, often unknowingly. My book argues more broadly that liberal states actually need artists who test the boundaries of what can be said and thought. Since democracies can always tend toward the tyranny of the majority, critical artists help us to gauge how much room there is for marginal and minority points of view. Thus where we expect to find clear boundaries—artists are outsiders, while the state neither knows about art nor cares for it—we find instead all kinds of odd alliances and collisions.

3. In your book Provoking Democracy, you point out several cases of political intrusion in the arts (e.g. Jackson Pollock), and make a strong case against such attempts to determine what art should resemble. What are the underlining issues at stake here?

I’m not sure the state always gets it wrong, actually. I was fascinated to see how both the courts in obscenity and copyright cases and government strategists in wartime (the CIA, the Ministry of Information in Britain) often had a more nuanced and sophisticated sense of art’s social role than artists did. But it’s true, I think, that those in politics shouldn’t try to shape the arts or dictate their style or contents. Artists do their best work for the rest of us in democratic societies when they ask us to think unfamiliar, uncomfortable thoughts or to face challenging perspectives or combinations. It’s precisely the experience of discomfort that characterizes art in the tradition of the avant-garde and makes it important: this is what marks art as a challenger to mainstream tastes and majority values and compels us to recognize alternatives and therefore a plurality of views. No one could dictate that in advance or know what the limits would be beforehand.

4. As far as I understood your point correctly, you are arguing that democracy should ensure diversity in the arts, should help minor forms of expression to exist. Don’t you think that by doing so the political is a) already giving preferences to and rejecting certain kinds of expressions, hence stating what art is and what it is not? and b) favouring productions that are not as excellent as to be self-sustainable or that are not as “easy”/“popular” as to please the public in general – in other words, favouring second-rate intellectual productions?

There's no way for art to exist outside of institutions, so there are always systems of preference and definition at work. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. How would we know what art was without museums, theatres, publishers, blogs, lawsuits, and universities? There’s no category of art at all without institutionalizing decisions. What's crucial is that the institutions that define art be supple and open and changing. So, for example, Brancusi's abstract Bird in Space was stopped by US customs officials in the 1920s because it did not qualify as art under the legal definition (officials classified it instead with "kitchen utensils and hospital supplies"). Customs law at the time defined art as representational, but during the trial the court was able to recognize the changing character of modern art and so expanded its definition to include abstraction. Anglo-American common law, which is based on a cumulative history of precedents, was and is pretty good at addressing changes like these. Conversely, any system that decides beforehand and a priori what art is will probably get stuck in a particular historical moment and continue to give us, for example, statues of men on horses when we're ready for Richard Serra, or classical quartets when we could use some jazz. As for the quality question, it's absolutely clear to me from my research that tastes change, and that there is no such thing as "second-rate" outside of a historical context where some groups are making these designations and others are not. Does that mean that we should never make judgments or that we should leave decision-making about art to the market? I don’t think so. The marketplace is very good at giving us what we already know we like, and so tends to shy away from challenging us and making us uncomfortable. But we need challenges in order to grow and think new thoughts, both individually and collectively. It is dissenting and unpopular perspectives that make us aware of the limits of conventional wisdom and mainstream taste. If history is anything to go by, we probably won’t seek these out en masse if left to ourselves. So we need mechanisms that provoke us to explore the limits of what’s comfortable, and art since the beginning of the avant-garde has taken on this role. What we should do, then, is to support critical, exploratory, difficult new artists. The art that emerges may not always be good from the perspective of all observers, but we can be pretty confident that it won’t keep recycling familiar ideas and values, and that that will benefit all of us, including those who don’t like it, by continuing to keep pressure on the dominance of majority tastes and values.

5. To many, art production is now in a state of decline, after having comprehensively explored, and in radical ways during the 19th and 20th centuries, the field of possible thinking and representation. According to this widely shared view on the “end of art”, most of today’s art constitute mere imitation of previous heights, or empty conceptual provocations that cannot be understood by other people than an ever-shrinking cultural elite. This distrustful, sometimes even disdainful attitude vis-à-vis (post-)modern art seems to have recently gained a new momentum in Europe with the release of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, La carte et le Territoire, which poses a cynical stance on the art market. To your opinion, is such a panorama – or perhaps its formulation, that is, the very presence of the critique – connected with the state of today’s Western society?

Stories of decline are themselves so old and familiar that they’re the worst “mere imitations” out there! I do think that the moment of radical experimentation associated with the avant-garde in its strictest sense may be over, and I share a nostalgia for that excitement. The avant-gardes explored the very grounds of representation, and that was exciting, but it was a gesture that had a necessary end point: there was only so much work that could be done in that vein. But I would contend that the avant-garde has left a valuable mark on the art world: artists continue to see it as their role to question and experiment and innovate, and continue to see value in work that is neither widely recognized nor well remunerated. This is what I call the “logic of the avant-garde,” an enduring social force even long after the death of the historical avant-garde. It’s my understanding that this logic is both alive and well and crucial to democratic collectives, which are always in danger of capitulating to the tyranny of the majority. As for Houellebecq, I’m skeptical that the cynical relation to the art market is anything new—or interesting. It used to be that art was in the hands of a few wealthy patrons; then a rising mass culture democratized its production, leading to floods of mediocre and lowbrow works, from cheap fiction to photography to television. So at what historical moment can we find art really integrated into the life of people? Maybe when it was part of religion and other larger cultural formations and not “art” at all. There’s no golden age for art, in my view, and I’m skeptical of stories of both decline and progress. I’d also say that there are tremendous artistic riches out there today, but that they don’t necessarily take the most canonical kinds of forms: television has produced some extraordinary works in recent years (I believe that HBO’s The Wire, for example, is one of the great art works of the past century), and digital and media artists are using new media in exceptionally interesting ways. Bill Viola and Andreas Gursky are using new technologies in brilliant, gorgeous, and thought-provoking ways. So for my own part, I wouldn’t turn the clock back if I could.

6. In his post-war writings, Martin Heidegger has granted art and poetry a privileged, ontological access to the Being; conversely, he argued that science and technique cannot, by definition, speak of the being of things, since they are always already stuck at the ontical level – that of appearance, instead of that of being. In a technocratic democracy, should we hence think that the forms of art that are actively promoted are those that lack poetical impetus, and should we subsequently fear an ever-diminishing access to ontological questions of being? In other words, can we pretend and apprehend the fact that democracy – in its technocratic form – supports expressions that are no more artistic? Can we make the claim, as I would perhaps do, that technocracy, when “supporting” the arts, kills truly artistic productions and favours instead techniques of appearance that threaten our access to ontological investigations?

I find Heidegger’s critique of the enframing of the world very powerful and significant. I think we live at a moment when every part of our lives is instrumentalized—when our bodies, our labor, our creativity, our connection to others—are put to use, and when we conceive of ourselves as dominating and exploiting the materials of the world. This means that poesis has an urgent place in our world. I think artists do conduct these acts of creation, and when they do it’s exhilarating. I once wrote about a haunting video work by Karin Campbell called Looped Tear, which shows a tear falling down from a person’s eye, along her cheek, and down to her chin. It loops endlessly, tracing the same route over and over again. To me this work captures a certain unthinkability in human emotion. While we imagine tears to be individual and expressive, coming from within, we also affirm the universality of sadness and grief. But Campbell gets beyond both of these positions, showing tears as paths that can be traced and retraced, abstracted but also literalized. To me this is ontological and not simply ontic. Yet more generally, when it comes to instrumentalizing and optimizing, I think I would argue for a more Kantian than a Heideggerian position. I see a paradox: that in an age of instrumentalization, we need that which meets no need, and that the arts are useful to us precisely because they resist instrumentalization. By insisting on a certain freedom from ends, the arts allow us to think about what freedom could be, and so serve us by refusing to serve us.

7. To conclude, let us briefly and more pragmatically consider the issue of censorship, which is also tackled in your book Provoking Democracy. To what extent is censorship in the arts a crucial political issue? Isn’t censorship in the advertisement industry or in the political world itself a problem which impacts on far more people?

The limits on what can be said—and even thought—are a crucial problem across different parts of our lives, from the most intimate (sexuality, creativity) to the most global (international trade agreements, nuclear arms pacts), and I think these limits do have an impact on absolutely every one of us. The thing about art that I value is that artists are among the only group in our society who take it as a central task to expose, consider, and resist all of those limits.

Art, participation et démocratie
Émulations n° 9 - 2011

Art, participation et démocratie

Coordonné par Delphine Masset (132 p.)

ISBN : 2-87558-060-4

Article publié en version papier aux Presses universitaires de Louvain dans le n° 9 de la revue Émulations Été 2011 : 
"Art, participation et démocratie"

Volume édité avec le soutien du Fonds Wernaers (FNRS)

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Cette création par Émulations - RJCSS est mise à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 2.0 Belgique.
Grégoire Lits,
20 sept. 2011 à 20:36
Grégoire Lits,
11 janv. 2012 à 06:47