Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Art of Politics, Non-Shepard Fairey Style

Often in my interviews with curators of politically themed shows, I end up asking "Do you really think art can affect politics? How?"

My line of thinking is that even if I have my own varying opinions on the matter (politics being both a personal and an institutionalized affair) I'm always interested in how others rationalize or envision this connection between, say, sculptures and statecraft.

Here in Newfoundland, where I'm spending my P/T vacay, a particular case of art meeting politics is generating a lot of mainstream discussion. A well-known local artist/photographer, Sheilagh O'Leary, has decided to run for St. John's city council.

In other words, an election is happening and what O'Leary has decided is not to make a poster about it. Not make a piece of conceptual art about it. Not to create a spectacle at a rally. But actually run for it--again, to be clear, not as an art project or lost cause, as has happened in various Canadian cities in the past with other artists, but for reals.

Such a level of italicization/word emphasis might seem excessive to some, but O'Leary's quite real and untheorized bridging of the art/politics boundary gives me pause.

In part, it prompts me to reflect that in smaller communities, identities and roles tend to be less segmented than in larger communities, where role stratification occurs--in larger cities you have your artists and your politicians, your no-frills supermarkets and your luxury grocery stores. But in smaller communities, single entities take on more roles; artists, in this case, attempt political office, and a single grocery chain manages to serve the needs of most consumers.

On a less warm and fuzzy note, I can imagine some people from the big city simply saying "well, if someone doesn't have the mad skills to cut it as a full-time artist, they might well find a different career, politics included." So that's another way of interpreting the situation.

I recognize this as an elliptical, very vacay-ey stream of thought, but I am interested in any related thoughts people might have, particularly about the way geography affects artists and their roles.

And I wish O'Leary well in her campaign too. As she put it in an interview last year,

It’s a leap of faith. Why would somebody like myself, who’s been working in the arts realm take that leap? Well, who else is going to? Who’s going to take the chance and try to effect some changes at city hall? We’ve seen the same faces for the past several years, and it’s time for somebody younger, a woman—let’s get some gender equality going at the city—and let’s get somebody with some fresh ideas in there. I have no big political agenda. I’m not interested in working my way up to mayor or being the premier of the province. I just want to get on council so I can represent people who want some change.

And that's as good an answer as I've heard, for now.

Image of St. John's City Hall from CareerBeacon

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