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Who Said Political Art Can’t Be Moving?

Last week, David Brooks published an op-ed in The New York Times, titled “Who Will Teach Us How to Feel?” Responding to the recent T Magazine article, “The 25 Works of Art That Define the Contemporary Age,” Brooks argued that most of the featured artists “have adopted a similar pose: political provocateur.” Those artists include , , , , and , among others. Brooks lamented that unlike other creative eras, ours is rife with artists who choose to create protest gestures instead of artworks that promote beauty and explore the “inner life.”
Like Brooks, I value art that produces an emotional reaction and offers a new way of looking at the world. As far as beauty goes, I can appreciate a strong composition or work by a skillful colorist. Yet I also believe Brooks’s thesis is fundamentally flawed. By pitting “political” art against work that’s beautiful and/or moving, Brooks creates a false dichotomy, traffics in ahistorical ideas, and entirely denies the subjectivity of viewers other than himself.
Early in his piece, Brooks argues that a similar list of “era-defining artists from the 49 years prior to 1970” would have yielded household names such as , , , and . He implicitly suggests that these artists—unlike those on the contemporary list—weren’t “political provocateurs.”
Michael Lobel, an art history professor at Hunter College, expressed his own disapproval of Brooks’s article in a Twitter thread.“I don’t think he fully recognizes, or is willing to acknowledge, the deeply political stances of earlier modern artists in their own times,” Lobel wrote to me via email. He calls Rivera and Kahlo’s work “deeply, unapologetically political (an understatement!).” Frida Kahlo even painted a hammer and sickle onto her corset. Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica (1937) is an iconic anti-war statement. Jackson Pollock made anti-fascist art.
It’s unclear what past Brooks is referring to when he says, “the aesthetic has given way to the political.” The aesthetic and the political have always been deeply intertwined. In the , art was a symbol of patrons’ political power. That doesn’t diminish the beauty of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. In 19th century France, ’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) (1863) was so risqué that the Parisian establishment refused to hang it in its annual salon—Manet’s work was political, challenging, beautiful, and beguiling at the same time.
“The most provocative pieces [in the T article] are in the realm of sexual politics, where the art world has had its biggest influence,” Brooks wrote. I agree—this has been true for centuries. Yet it’s not sexual provocation for its own sake: It’s often integrated with humor, desire, and beauty. Even the 19th-century movement, which advocated “art for art’s sake,” was political in its own way. Many of the men involved were queer, and their artistic community and doctrine of decadence promoted sexual freedom in repressive Victorian society.
Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”), 1863. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”), 1863. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mostly damningly, Brooks refuses to acknowledge that people have different experiences when looking at art. While Brooks laments the “impersonal” quality of contemporary art and its inability to address what life is like for another human being, Lobel thinks that many of the works on the T list actually do just that. On Twitter, he wrote, “it’s hard for me to think of a more deeply felt work than ’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991).” The piece comprises a pile of candy, available to viewers for their own consumption. It references Gonzalez-Torres’s long-time partner, Ross Laycock, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991 (the artist passed away from the disease five years later). “I think the failure is not in the art itself, but rather in Brooks’s seeming refusal to accept that artists might use updated modes of creative expression,” Lobel wrote. Gonzalez-Torres conveyed significant emotions—grief, love, a desire for connection—with “a relatively new artistic form, one that models a different mode of participation and engagement.”
Brooks may not see Gonzalez-Torres’s work that way—it may not, to use his headline, “teach him how to feel.” I disagree, and find the work moving, though I respect that perspective. After all, the power of art—including all of the works on T’s list—rests in its openness to interpretation. One viewer’s epiphany is another viewer’s bore.
Personally, I’d like to quibble with Brooks’s description of Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), which features the artist’s bare torso, into which someone has cut stick figures holding hands outside a house. In the photograph, Opie’s back bleeds from the action. “The figures depict an idyllic domestic dream that was hard for lesbians to realize at the time,” Brooks wrote. His next line, the start of a new paragraph, reads: “The general attitude is: Let’s smash injustice with a sledgehammer.” When I look at Opie’s picture, I don’t see a political statement. I see the pain, desire, and hope of a single individual. She’s not generalizing about gay rights: She’s carved her own personal dream into her own back. The fact that her work simultaneously touched on key political issues only opens it up to additional interpretations. Opie turned her body into a raw, vulnerable canvas. How much more emotional does it get?
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.