Sunday, April 2, 2023

Politics and Art

Art is often used to try and influence politics but how do politics affect art institutions?

In 2017, before the former President’s inauguration the New York Times published an article by Graham Bowley titled “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval” reported that “artists, critics and others asked American Museums, galleries and other institutions to close their doors in protest”. The question presented was, “Should a museum change with the events around it or should it stand true, like an immovable rock, as political storms come and go?”

Each institution, of course, reacted differently. It seems that most did not close but many took a different tact using their collections to make a statement. A publication called “Museums + Heritage Advisor” reported that at the Museum of Modern Art hung works by artists from seven Arab countries labelled with the following statement: “This work is by an artist from a Nation whose citizens are being denied entrance to the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideas of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States”.Here is a work by Parviz Tanavoli (1937-) an Iranian sculptor and painter, which was in that MoMA exhibition.

Photo by Angela Weiss

Is it necessary to remind you who was President at the time and that the paintings were by artists from majority-Muslim Nations?

I can understand that a museum should try to keep up with the times. For a while now museums have been reacting to the politics of the moment by acknowledging the fact that there are artists representing minorities in this country that should be shown on an equal footing as the white majority. Hence, we have the opportunity to evaluate work that is new to us. From September,2022 through December 2023 the National Gallery in Washington D.C. has an exhibition, “Called to Create: Black Artists from the American South” Here is a work by Lonnie Holley, “From the Beginning to the end of the Beginning” (1985). 


My attention was once again drawn to the impact of international politics on art with the invasion of the Ukraine. A March 19, 2023 article in “The Guardian” titled, “As the Met reclassifies Russian art as Ukrainian, not everyone is convinced”. For instance, The National Gallery, London changing the title of their pastel by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), as a part of a series known as “Russian Dancers”, to “Ukrainian Dancers”, and the Metropolitan Museum renamed their pastel “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress”. The Met went further reidentifying one of the few Russian artists, I am acquainted with, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). His nationality has been changed from Russian to Ukrainian as he was born in what became an independent country only in 1991. How will future generations cope with that? Will the artist’s identity depend on the outcome of the war? Here is a portrait by Illia Repin (1884) of the artist Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin in the Met.


We have also heard that some venues around the country have banned Russian artists from performing. Most prominent was the Metropolitan Opera who pulled Russian Anna Netrebko their reigning diva, and long a Putin supporter, from a scheduled Turandot and replaced her with a Ukrainian soprano. Netrebko’s Met contract was cancelled and other houses including La Scala dropped her.

We saw the lengths organizations are going to in order to avoid the issue of international politics recently played out here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At our Lensic Performing Arts Center we saw a fabulous performance of Swan Lake. The only information that was given was that the company was called “The World Ballet”. My wife, a former, ballet dancer, said only the Russians dance the classic Petipa works to such perfection. From snippets of information gathered online she put together the fact that this was indeed a pick-up troupe from Russia, making one-night stands in smaller towns around the U.S. The troupe recently returned to Santa Fe to dance Cinderella. Again, there was no printed program, but one was available online that disclosed the dancers’ Russian training, while in a newspaper interview the organizers made the point that not all the performers were Russian born. Here is a sample of troupe’s performance in Swan Lake.


Allow me to ask you to think about whether an artistic institution should change its direction because the politics or the moment might dictate it? I believe we would all answer that question slightly differently.