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Lawrence Rinder

Notes Toward a 
Conversation on Painting

A critical question for many artists today is whether their work can make any difference in the world. Can art play a role in the profound political struggles of our time? Certainly, there are a variety of ways in which art and politics are intertwined. Many artists represent political subjects and use their skills as image-makers to direct viewers’ opinions and actions in one direction or another. Other artists seek to engage the political and economic status quo through the form or context of their work, for example by avoiding commercial galleries or the production of commodifiable objects. Recently, new forms of artistic practice have emerged that blur the boundary between art and politics by using social organization itself as a medium for new artistic creation. Called Social Practice or Relational Art, works of this kind often seek to explore or demonstrate alternative political realities within the permissive framework of the artistic sphere. One example is the collective Red76’s recent Revolutionary Spirit project, which fostered conversations across the US on the topic of revolution. Others, like the culture-jamming duo The Yes Men, raise the stakes by inserting their imaginary pronouncements into the very maw of the mass media. 

But not all intersections between art and politics are in the hands of artists themselves. During the Cold War, for example, the US State Department co-opted the Abstract Expressionist movement for political aims.[1] The Abstract Expressionist example is particularly interesting because it is generally assumed that if such work has political characteristics it is because of how it is used symbolically (i.e., to represent the artist’s “free” creative act) rather than how it performs in the viewer’s experience. In other words, the aesthetic of abstraction itself was not considered to be politically instrumental. Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg’s politically inflected defense of abstract painting in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) argued that genuine Socialism needed abstract painting to preserve culture for those to come. So, even here, abstract painting is understood to be politically effective in the viewer’s experience—that is, as a handmaiden to a deferred Socialist apotheosis—only in contrast to other cultural forms (e.g., kitsch).

Painters today face an especially difficult challenge in assessing the potential political relevance of their work. Not only do they—like many artists working in other media—often feel trapped in the vortex of commodification, which has demonstrated the capacity to absorb even the most contestatory imagery, but their very medium has come to be viewed as a marker of old-fashioned, bourgeois status.[2] Does the politically concerned painter—even one with overtly political imagery—have any choice today but to select a different medium or definitively to separate his or her political and artistic aims? Or is there even now a political opportunity available to painters—even to those working in an abstract vein? 

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About this Article

Notes Toward a 
Conversation on Painting
 was first published in Fillip 11 in Spring 2010. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.

Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. He is Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.


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