Sylvielin's Blog

Art and Politics Revisited. Interview with Robert Kluijver (II)

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on October 4, 2010

‘First we should ask : Why art ? Does art have any political value ? Does the contemporary art world has any influence on, let’s say, the course of global politics ? Or is it just like a kind of side alley, a kind of representation of contemporary geopolitics, without any reverse influence on the actual global situation?’ – RobertK, extract from the interview

 II. Art & Politics

Q Your formation is grounded in the field of political science. You also have lots of experience in the political field, including working for the UN Political Affairs in Afghanistan, etc. You’re also an academic : you publish articles and books about the Middle East and Afghanistan(5), and teach International Relations at Sciences Po in Paris. In this regard, you seem to cross-over the domain of politics and that of art more than most curators with their experiences mainly grounded in the art world. How do you connect the domain of political science and that of contemporary art or culture in general? Or for you they always go in tandem? How do you look at what’s happening and in operation in the contemporary art world in general, especially at a time when issues around globalization and economic-political conditions are so often appropriated in the discourses of artists, curators, directors, critics, etc.?

A For me the art domain and the political domain are similar. The contemporary art world can seem to be very exclusive, like a bubble. If you go to a biennial, you see all these people from the art world : collectors, critics, curators, artists…and they all know each other. It seems completely inaccessible to the general public ; as if it could be of no interest to them. 

A concert by local musicians held in the Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS) in Kabul in 2003. Photo and Courtesy : RobertK

But for me it’s absolutely not like that ; you can actually compare a biennial with World Economic Forum in Davos. Every year, economic, political and intellectual leaders from around the world meet in Switzerland for three days in a luxury hotel to discuss global affairs. Like the biennials, such luxurious conferences are inaccessible to the general public ; it’s also like a closed bubble. And like the biennials, these conferences provide all kinds of statements coming from around the world about the current state of the world.  

The question is how do art and politics relate. First we should ask : Why art ? Does art have any political value ? Does the contemporary art world has any influence on, let’s say, the course of global politics ? Or is it just like a kind of side alley, a kind of representation of contemporary geopolitics, without any reverse influence on the actual global situation? That’s the position many art world professionals take, whereby they negate their own responsibility in current affairs, as if they were some kind of intelligent, privileged bystanders.  

But I think that art actually does carry political responsibility. Look at countries like France, why do their governments invest so much in contemporary art? In this regard, I found the Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s practice to be very illuminating. He has written a political pamphlet called ‘Post Propaganda’ in which he demonstrates, with almost mathematical precision, that art is propaganda. We live in a political system which calls itself democracy. In Japanese you say minshushugi, which means ‘democratism’ instead of ‘democracy’. This makes it an ideology, like other political systems ending in ‘ism’. In fact we don’t live in a world ruled by the majority. There’s a political elite which is deciding how things go and they use all these kinds of restrictive electoral systems, all these discourses of democracy to justify their power. 

A theatre workshop orgqnized by Corinne Jaber held in the Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS) in Kabul in 2005. Photo and Courtesy : RobertK

From this perspective, art is needed to uphold the fiction of democracy, for example that we’re free and enjoy freedom of speech. The artist is seen to have more freedom of speech than anyone else, and is often advanced as proof that we’re free. Artists are expected by the political system to be like that. It’d be really frustrating to the government if the artists just copy what the government says. Rather, the government wants the artists to criticize, knowing that their criticism is harmless. In this way it maintains the system, the fiction that we have such freedom to discuss fundamental issues.     

Q  But when artists are too provocative and transgress too much, a tension will arise between them and the authorities. Like it was the case of the Snow White project you did. For a festival commemorating 400 years of international law you organized a performance of Catherine Baÿ’s Snow Whites(6). Dressed up like Disney’s iconic Snow White they occupied the town hall of The Hague with fake Kalashnikov’s, rounded up the spectators behind tape barriers and seemed to stage a coup. The municipal authorities of The Hague, when they heard what the plan was, tried to cancel the performance as they said it contradicted the image of ‘The Hague, Capital of Peace and Justice’ that has become their main marketing tool. 

A But in the end it happened. The art community told the municipal officials : ‘you don’t understand, it’s about artistic freedom and you have to allow this freedom.’ So artistic freedom and restrictive political goals can live together, they even complement each other. In that sense, a lot of contemporary art is a political statement, as an advertisement or propaganda for our political system (democratism) even it has nothing to do with political art.

It also has much to do with the fable ‘Emperor’s new clothes’. The emperor actually is naked and only a child reveals this. With the art world, as you said, it ‘appropriates’ issues and discourses of global politics. Everyone is kind of creating this smoke screen, advocating the independence of art by being blind to the fact that art is already so politically defined.

Basically these critics and curators, some of whom are known as being very political, are all describing the emperor’s clothes and not seeing that the emperor is actually naked.

Q What is insufficient in their practices that it becomes illusory ?

A We’re living in a world where the political system is basically very unfair. It privileges some people to the expense of others. This injustice is institutionalized through all kinds of trade legislations, international treaties, etc. We input lots of concurrent efforts to maintain such unfairness. There, curators, critics and also their favorite artists all participate in maintaining it by providing criticism within the bounds. For example, they’d say : see, we have so much freedom, we’re allowed to put out a discourse, to find an artist criticizing the war in Iraq, or the global injustice, but only to a certain point, without challenging the fundamental ideological nature of ‘democratism’. All this has to remain within the so-called the rules of the games. Artists outside of the rules of the game usually remain invisible.


5. Recently RobertK published Borders. Contemporary Middle Esatern Art and Discourse (published by the Gemeentemuseum in 2010). More info : More about his education and working experiences, see Part I of the interview 

6. More info about Snow Whites in the Hague in 2009

and their programs in the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2010 :

【To Part III of the interview :

【Interview made by Sylvie Lin in February 2010 in Paris. An edited version of the interview, translated into Chinese, was published on ‘Artco’ monthly in Taiwan, in August 2010. All rights reserved.

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: