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Why is There No Current American Political Art?

Actually, there is: U.S. artists today are still addressing issues of racial, sexual and economic politics. What people really mean when they ask this question, which came up again at a New York panel discussion about the art market that I attended at the Museum of Modern Art last night, is:
Why is there no art engaging our current military misadventures?
That question is implicit in the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition, “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian.” And it’s made explicit in the catalogue authored by the show’s organizer, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, John Elderfield.
In my previous post on this exhibition, I flippantly observed that an Impressionist usually deemed outside MoMA’s chronological scope was “there because Elderfield wants him to be.”
What I didn’t say, although I knew, is why he wanted him to be.
Elderfield makes explicit the timely pertinence of this show at the beginning and end of his catalogue, the body of which is replete with references to other scholars’ work, as well as Elderfield’s own extensive fresh explorations of Manet’s artistic “execution” of Maximilian.
A bit of historical background: The emperor of Mexico, painted at the moment he faced the firing squad, had been appointed by Napoleon III, whose policies Manet opposed. The French ruler withdrew his support for Maximilian, who was tried and executed for treason by his resurgent political opponents. Manet’s artistic reponse to this event was a controversial (and for him atypical) political act.
At the end of his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Elderfield makes his ulterior motives clear:
Some readers will wonder whether it is purely accidental that an exhibition and publication appearing in 2006 are devoted to works that depict the baleful consequences of a military intervention and regime change. It is not….
One of the subjects of what follows…is what we might learn from how the pivotal figure in the modern history of painting made original, affective, and political art out of the process of representation.

Elderfield ends the catalogue with photographs of more recent “executions”— from the Holocaust to the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
At MoMA last night, the market-driven panel, “Selling Out,” (which included a dealer, auction specialist, museum curator and director, but no artist) touched on the current paucity of political art.
Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz noted that the “most political” recent show was the “Abu Ghraib” series by the artist whom critics “love to hate,” Colombian painter Fernando Botero, displayed earlier this fall at Marlborough, New York.
As to why American artists are less engaged, Saltz commented about the “new disconnect” between what artists read in the newspapers and what they feel in their own studios, where things are “not so bad.”
What Saltz didn’t discuss was why artists feel this political “disconnect”: The compartmentalization of personal and political is easy to to achieve when there’s no threat of a military draft hanging over the general population. Volunteers fight and die; the rest of us, artists included, are absorbed in usual pursuits.
So for now, the strongest artworld political statement on the war in Iraq is the exhibition and catalogue of an erudite museum curator.

an ArtsJournal blog