Book Review: 'Provoking Democracy: Why we Need the Arts'
by Samuel Jones
For readers of this blog, though, I've copied the review with links below:
Recently, the arts and politics have seemed ever more connected. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain hit the headlines and Shadow Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, penned articles paralleling contemporary art and the political right. At the Royal Academy, From Russia came close to cancellation as political relationships imploded, and the British Museum’s First Emperor was not without political resonance –not just any exhibition is opened by Gordon Brown. However, as the arts and politics crowd together, it becomes harder to make out where the relationship is healthy and where it is not.
Typically, the perception that politics have encroached into the arts has met with outrage. In fact, the examples listed above – and many others –show that they have always been connected. Just as Qin Shihuangdi commissioned the terracotta warriors for political ends, so Gordon Brown uses them for his – and neither particularly devalues them as cultural artefacts. Sometimes, however, political interference is to be lamented and prevented - in the US, the right wing response to satirical images of the Bush administration, displayed at the New York Public Library, provides a case in point. What Caroline Levine demonstrates in Provoking Democracy: Why we Need the Arts is just how dependent we are upon a healthy balance between the two.
As well as being timely, Provoking Democracy is an impressively researched and well-referenced book, interrogating case studies from Jacob Epstein’s Rima to Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the lyrics of 2 Live Crew. Examining her examples closely, and using contemporary sources from newspapers to court records to great effect, Levine connects grand theories of political liberty to everyday experiences of the arts. The arts allow challenges to the conditioned uniformity that is the fatal flaw of a democracy. They fill a gap that democracy cannot.
Provoking Democracy is valuable for both policy-makers and, by taking a wider historical perspective, more general readerships as well. It also demonstrates the role of the arts in wider society and should make useful reading for cultural practitioners too. However, in focusing on what she calls ‘the logic of the avant-garde’, Levine limits her scope to deliberate challenge and less the role of cultural production in general.
For Levine, Art is ‘democracy’s friendly enemy’, providing necessary dissent, but also vulnerable to the tyrannous conformity to taste, mores and values. The Arts provide scope for an avant-garde to ask how things might be different and how people might perceive things differently. Thus, when the CIA promoted abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, they were both providing a teasing silhouette of liberty for those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and accepting the political risk of artists challenging values, ethics and aesthetics closer to home. This example raises interesting questions that Levine glosses over: although, by using cultural professionals as intermediaries, politicians did not compromise the integrity of individual artists, they nevertheless magnified the prominence that those artists gained. Democracy might depend on the arts to be challenged, but even where it actively supports them, it is necessarily discriminatory. Both politics and the market preserve our knowledge of an artistic work. If democracy needs the arts, is it only those arts that politics and the markets decide it needs? Can the arts be successful and free of them at all?
Levine finishes by examining the relationship between the arts and the polity by way of obscenity law, challenging conventional views of censorship and demonstrating surprisingly close parallels between the law and the avant-garde. Both close loopholes that democracy can leave behind: they protect minority voices and both are defined by precedent. Levine’s moral for cultural practitioners is clearest in her analysis of Jeff Koons’ failed defence against accusations of plagiarism of a mass-produced image in his work String of Puppies. Almost answering the questions posed by the example of the CIA, she suggests that it was Koons’ hubris, arguing for his absolute autonomy from society and the law as an artist that acted against the interests of the arts: by claiming greater value for his aesthetics than those of the original photographers, Koons took a profoundly undemocratic stance. It wasn’t artistic expression that Anglo-American law opposed, but a sense of aesthetic aristocracy.
Overall, Provoking Democracy encourages constructive discussion of the relationship between the arts and democracy that goes beyond territorialism. It does leave questions unanswered, but that is part of its value, flagging up areas to which policy-makers and cultural professionals must pay greater attention. One area Levine touches, but which merits further discussion, is the relationship between cultural provision, artists, and the public. If the arts are valuable to democracy, then thought must be given to the education that provides the means by which to access and interpret them. If diversity is essential to democracy, but also vulnerable to the majority, then the capacity to read and accommodate such diversity without anxiety must be similarly essential. Provoking Democracy should be invaluable in taking these challenges on.
Caroline Levine, Provoking Democracy: Why we Need the Arts, (Blackwell, Oxford, 2007), 256pp, ISBN 1405159278, £18.99