“All art is propaganda.” — George Orwell
Political art is now “in.” In art schools. In galleries. In museum shows. In the homes of sophisticated collectors. And now, in seventeen venues throughout Portland as our city’s revived biennale, Converge 45, continues an ambitious run through December.
Don’t let “in” or the label “political art” hold you back from exploring these exhibits. Unlike some current political art, the foundation for Converge 45—subtitled Social Forms/Art as Global Citizenship—is less outrage and finger-pointing than it is an invitation from artists to join them in repairing a wounded world.
Why should we let artists be our conscience? The founder of Converge 45, gallery owner Elizabeth Leach, shared with me her perspective: “Most of us navigate the world blind to what we’d rather not see. But artists must have their eyes open. And one cannot be an acute observer without being conscious of the dark as well as the light. Art reflects that consciousness back to us and can speak at a symbolic level that pierces our defensive filters. That is all we mean by ‘political art.’”
Like any artistic movement, the current focus on “political art” is likely to yield works that are memorable, perhaps a masterpiece or two, along with much that is as forgettable as a stiff portrait of a bank president. The curator of Converge 45, art critic and historian Christian Viveros-Fauné, and its artistic director, Derek Franklin, have set out to glean the gems from the sand, but the job of sifting is, ultimately, the role of time and critical viewing. Converge 45 is an extraordinary opportunity for Portland to serve on that jury, to be among the curators of what will last and what time will leave behind.
Does political art have the potential to be great art? One example answers that question: Picasso’s massive mural Guernica. I have stood before it twice, once as a young man in New York’s MOMA and, more recently, at its rightful home in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. It is magnetic. In a huge room full of viewers, there is a shared silent empathy for suffering. The images scorch the mind and imbed in memory.
Guernica memorializes a Basque town devastated by German bombers during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso, as a Spaniard exiled in France, painted it to protest the horrors perpetuated on his home country by Franco and his Fascist allies—and as a warning to a world teetering on the edge of totalitarian hegemony.
But nothing in the painting refers to the town, the country, or even the time. Instead of being a transitory polemic against an almost forgotten despot, its graphic power is directed at timeless and universal traumas. Painted in shades of gray on a charcoal background, it is a muted collage of suffering and tragedy.
Guernica does not point fingers to the right or to the left. And it is no more Twentieth Century Spain than it is your pick of any one of history’s multiple horrors. The painting’s greatness is that its message transcends time and place and is as loud today as when it was painted.
Guernica may stand above, but it does not stand apart. There is nothing new about “political art.” Its current visibility is merely a chapter—if a rather loud one—in a centuries-long journey, ranging from totalitarian propaganda to protest graffiti. Every ancient temple, every statue of a monarch, every soaring cathedral, and every war monument is art with a political message. We take it for granted. Georgia’s Stone Mountain Confederate monument, intended as a celebration of the Jim Crow social order, is just one painful example.
Nor is protest art a recent trend. George Grosz, one of the most famous artists in 1920s Germany, dared to take on the Nazis (and had to flee for his life):
Art as social criticism is not always so obvious. It can sneak up on you. Although the free and spontaneous work of the Abstract Expressionists was hailed as “art for art’s sake,” it was also a slap at the social rigidity and political conservatism of post-war America. It is more accurate to say that the work of Rothko, de Kooning (Elaine and Willem), Pollock, et. al. reflected Danish architect (and Nazi refugee) Poul Henningsen’s claim that “All political art is bad, and all good art is political.”
Converge 45’s key players, Viveros-Fauné and Franklin, are sensitive to this history. Indeed, the biennale’s title is taken from Viveros-Fauné’s book Social Forms, A Short History of Political Art. For Viveros-Fauné, the need for social healing is rooted in personal experience. As a refugee from the CIA’s sponsored 1973 coup in Chile, he experienced first-hand how “everything you treasure—home, family, well-being, your own hard-fought place in the world—can be taken away from you tomorrow.”
That lesson is Converge 45’s premise. Many of us, for example, are hesitatingly coming to accept that climate change could make the Earth uninhabitable, but that is a mental concept. Few of us have had Viveros-Fauné’s experience of our world dissolving under our feet. That may explain why Converge 45 opened with Richard Mosse’s bone-chilling film about the devastation of the Amazon forest, Broken Spectre (now on view at Lewis & Clark College’s Hoffman Gallery). Watching the world’s “heart and lungs” being dismembered by logging, fire, and hordes of grazing cattle may be Viveros-Faune’s reminder that it can happen to us all. The stunning beauty of many of Mosse’s images further drives home what is being lost.
Does any of this matter, other than as a spectator sport? Can art, even Guernica, change (or open) minds? Perhaps, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1840, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Art can communicate at a symbolic, visceral level that speeches and rallies cannot approach. It is polemic for the heart. Perhaps this example from my personal memory makes Shelley’s point:
The 2023 edition of Converge 45 is both a call to action and an invitation to the Portland public to help plot the course of contemporary art. It is also a summons to a visual adventure.
Learn more about the Exhibitions, the Artists, and Visiting the Biennial here. Exhibits are open through October, then close on a rolling basis through year-end.
- Converge 45’s opening weekend, by Georgina Ruff.
- Converge 45: Popping up with the times, by David Bates.
- VizArts Monthly: Conversing and converging, by Jason N. Le.
- Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship, by Friderike Heuer.