You Shouldn't Have!

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

An interesting convergence will occur Wednesday, when the National Endowment for the Arts begins a three-day celebration of its 40th anniversary at American University's Katzen Arts Center. Inside the impressive new facility, commandingly perched on Ward Circle in Northwest, is an exhibition of political art, or "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement," as it is called by the curators. This is art as provocation, political commentary, utopian imagination, protest and, sometimes, pure unmitigated rage. It deals with gender, race, war and imperialism.

It is, to its core, exactly the sort of art that got the NEA into so much trouble more than 15 years ago.

In 1990, as the New York City Opera prepared to stage Arnold Schoenberg's classic "Moses und Aron," the climate was radically different. Staffers in the development department felt obliged to circulate a worried memo asking, "Will the three naked virgins in 'Moses und Aron' jeopardize our NEA grant?" Fear, perhaps even paranoia, was in the air. But now, NEA bigwigs will share the Katzen facility with a large charcoal drawing of Ronald Reagan as Mickey Mouse painting anti-communist slogans with a bucket of blood -- and there seems to be no worry about jangled nerves.

We've come a long way. Parallel to the art of engagement has been a politics of disengagement, at least when it comes to arts funding. The only reason the NEA could meet in the midst of this exhibition without a firestorm is that, politically, the NEA has disengaged not just from funding this kind of art, but from the people, artists, curators and audiences who are interested in it. The "art of engagement," most of it left-wing and left-coast (the current exhibition is drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art), exists in a different world, utterly removed from the new NEA's focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry.

You get a sense of the costs and consequences of this new order from an austere bell, cast by Bruce Hasson, that greets visitors to the exhibition. It is vaguely Asian in its elongated shape, with a narrow mouth and pointed top, and it is one of a series the artist has crafted to mark important political events.

"Millennia #2" is a small version of a much larger bell, called "Millennium," also by Hasson. Both were made from metal melted down from firearms. Like most things in the show, this might be called the "riddle" or the "punch line" to the piece, depending on whether you take it seriously or deem it a joke. A video shows the larger bell being struck by Mikhail Gorbachev, at a public ceremony in Rome to mark a 2000 world summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The bell clearly has good tone, and that alone proves Hasson's art is no joke. (Casting bells isn't child's play.) But the video also demonstrates, in a rather sad way, how foreign the idea of politicians participating in an artist's fancy has become to Americans. The bell-ringing ceremony -- with European politicians respectfully participating -- reflects a comfort with art and its public symbolism that is decidedly not a part of the American political landscape. You simply can't imagine important American politicians submitting to the web of meaning that an artist who makes peace bells would construct.

Which is rather odd, given that "peace is good, violence bad" is about as anodyne an artistic message as one could possibly imagine. If ever politicians could play nicely with artists, it would be with this sort of subject, but, alas, the divorce seems absolute. Are both parties in this breakup equally guilty? Art, or at least overtly political art, is generally presumed to be the wayward partner, the one that took provocation to the limit, and forced the government (and most everyone else) to abandon the relationship. From a political and pragmatic point of view, that's probably true.

But throughout "The Art of Engagement," you sense a different emotional dynamic. The artists here don't consider the relationship over. They're still talking, if not with politicians, at least at them. They have more hope, when it comes to politics, than most politicians have when it comes to art. As you walk through the exhibition, past the gay Latino art and the flying Jesus with swastikas under his wings, you can't help but wonder how the great gap between the pragmatic political mind and the idealistic and sometimes childlike artistic one might be spanned.

If you removed the particular causes that are advocated in this exhibition -- opposition to particular wars, support for particular minority groups -- you would be left with a set of basic values that are difficult to quibble with, no matter what one's partisan affiliations are. Individuality must be defended in the face of powerful, crushing forces. Inclusiveness is a fundamental strength of democratic society. Concentrating power in the hands of a few can threaten liberty.

It's only when you get to specifics that the problems begin. Commercialism is represented by Mickey Mouse, a beloved icon. The groups vying for inclusion include gays and lesbians and Latino immigrants. The fear of concentrated power is often directed at the Catholic Church, as in Manuel Ocampo's "Untitled (Burnt-Out Europe)" from 1992, or the foreign policy of the United States as a imperial power. If you removed Ronald Reagan, Mickey Mouse, Jesus and the swastika, this show would lose a lot of its traction in the real world of specific political meanings.

These symbols feel strangely innocent here, almost as if the artists deploy them without thought or concern, like children putting stickers on their lunchboxes or notebooks. They're habits, or tics, or just highly polished epithets that can't detach themselves from the artists' basic vocabulary. Underneath, there is real political thought, real engagement, but for many people, a handful of political symbols shut down access to it.

So you feel a kind of impotence in many of these pieces, not because they are weak, but because a vast void separates them from their target. The art hasn't necessarily been neutered, but it's been fenced in. And often the fences are of the artist's own making. Perhaps that's why the art here that deals most directly with fences, with separation, has the most impact -- especially when the artists avoid the symbols that demarcate them as part of an angry minority.

"Beyond Manzanar," a 2000 work by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand, uses video game technology to allow viewers to walk through a three-dimensional reconstruction of the infamous Japanese internment camp in California. Inside individual barracks, set against a stark backdrop of mountains, are photographs of the people once imprisoned there, often seen in their thoroughly bourgeois, pre-incarceration domesticity. Along with these black-and-white images are little surprises, portals that take one out into a colorful dreamscape of a Japanese garden, as if the viewer can enter private fantasies of escape. It is a remarkably peaceful, calming little piece, and perhaps because the viewer can explore it at leisure -- using a joystick set on a bench in the middle of a small room -- it never feels claustrophobic. The viewer learns about the humiliation of other people without feeling constricted, which parallels the effect of the piece as art: It makes its point without hectoring.

Sandow Birk's "San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA" (2000) has a similar effect. The prison of the title is barely visible in the far distance of the painting, which plays with the conventions of landscape and the sublime (and with Alfred Bierstadt's 1870 "Passing Storm Over the Sierra" in particular). The prison feels as if it's at the end of the rainbow, a small architectural dot in a vast, open landscape. Prison is the end of the line for too many Americans, and this prison, where California carries out its executions, is indeed the end of the line, and life, for some its most violent inmates. The painting leads one down complex paths to a startling sense of sadness about society -- and it feels, every step of the way, like a meditative walk in a dark wood.

It's probably no accident that both of those pieces, and other strong works in the show, including photographs of environmental devastation by Edward Burtynsky, can't be understood without reference to landscape. Although neither work is likely to convince anyone who has despaired of art as a serious forum for political statements, both suggest a ground, underneath, where people of different views might find commonality. Even though the land is hardly valorized in much of this work, a fantasy lingers: In the land, in mutual love of it (or despair for it), resolution of other conflicts can be found. There is a sense, in many pieces in this exhibition, of longing by the artists, to break out of their own hermetic language into an open space where rapprochement is possible.

Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement, through July 30 at Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday noon-4 p.m. Admission is free.

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