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Artforum, Sept. 1970 JUDD

The Artist and Politics: A Symposium

The symposium question which follows was sent to various artists. Some of the replies are printed below. Others will be published in subsequent issues.

A growing number of artists have begun to feel the need to respond to the deepening political crisis in America. Among these artists, however, there are serious differences concerning their relations to direct political actions. Many feel that the political implications of their work constitute the most profound political action they can take. Others, not denying this, continue to feel the need for an immediate, direct political commitment. Still others feel that their work is devoid of political meaning and that their political lives are unrelated to their art. What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?


Given: Art as a branch of agriculture.
1. We must farm to sustain life.
2. We must fight to protect life.
3. Farming is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
4. Fighting is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
5. We must be fighting farmers and farming fighters.
6. There is no merit in growing potatoes in the shape of machine guns. 
7. There is no merit in making edible machine guns. 
8. Life is the link between politics and art.
9. Settle for nothing less than concrete analysis of concrete situations leading to concrete actions.
10. Silence is assent
—Carl Andre

I think the time for political action by artists is now and I believe action should be taken in the art world and in the world at large. Political action need not inhibit art-making; the two activities are dissimilar, not incompatible. In fact all art is eventually political. As the carrier of esthetic experience, art is a powerful effector of choice and action. Primitive peoples knew this and couched their magical rites in colors and forms, story and dance; the ancient Greco-Romans knew it and used it to smooth and civilize barbarians; the Medieval Church knew it and furnished glorious cathedrals for their impoverished flocks; the princes of the Renaissance knew it and hired artists to paint and carve monuments to their great humanism; Louis XIV knew it and ensnared dukes and counts in his total-art court; and the 19th-century bourgeoisie knew it and bought it to reflect their growing opulence and power.

While the political power of art is easily seen in the past, the political effects of art today appear somewhat obscure. This is probably because any contemporary time presents so much material and allows so few conclusions. Aristotle, in the Poetics, provides the most direct analysis, describing artists who imitate the past, artists who imitate the present, and artists who imitate the future (ranking them in an ascending order of value). Past seeing, the preterit mode, sustains the conservative heart, which longs for that idealized childhood where authorities were strong, rules were clear and properties were unequivocally possessed. These desires are reinforced by reactionary art. There is no doubt why Nixon removed all the abstract art from the White House when he moved in. Abstract art seldom provokes a clear affection for the past.

Art which mirrors the present moves in a different way, from another cause and toward another effect. Its mainspring is the status quo. It is unidealized, displaying both the good and bad aspects of the now. Pop Art is the most obvious example but Machine Art, technological light works and most painting and sculpture in plastics are also typical. Other commemorators of the contemporary scene are Earth Art (reflecting the ways of our environment); the New Realism (recording the peoples and places of today); Protest Art (reproducing sado-masochistic brutalities); and that pair of sexual solipsisms currently known as Concept Art and Color Painting (rejoicing in the separative forces of our old friend, the mind-body problem). It is interesting to observe how intimately these art movements are joined to modern media, with their heavy reliance on promotion for distribution of products (and it is no accident to find their best customers in the bourgeoisie), for all these art ways and works of the present are entertainment commodities. They posit no radical changes and deal with conundrums, not problems. Their net political effect is a tacit support of the present system.

There is a radical art in America today, an art which innovates and is aimed at the future, but elucidation of its effects must wait until that future.


Since the consequences of radical art are unavailable, it is only possible to sort out some of the issues engaging radical artists of the past twenty-five years. The most far-reaching endeavor has been the reordering of subject matter so that the art object itself dominates its particular parts. Figure/grounds and hierarchical arrangements give way to paintings that picture their own shapes and pigments and sculptures that render their own shapes and matter. In prior works a figure/ground or hierarchical arrangement is imposed from outside the structure arbitrarily. In the new work, forms arise internally and the materials function to prescribe their own arrangements. Some recent work develops and explores interdependences between these new configurations and their surrounds, work-process in its relation to material and form, and a reintegration of color with black and white. These new ways have political implications that bear on the sovereignty of the subject and the nature and ramifications of self-determination. Other new work is obsessively concerned


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