Otto Piene: One day in May, World War II—although no one wanted to believe it—was over… Most of my contemporaries didn’t think we would survive the war… My friends said artists should stay away from politics. After World War II, no more politics ever! Well, that’s not the way it goes.
Liz Park: Drawing from my own biography, it seems that war is a persistent state of mind. Coming from Korea, a divided state in armistice, I, like many other Koreans both in Korea itself and in diasporic communities throughout the world, have had to live with the threat of active conflict. Whether or not we directly engage with politics through activism or cultural expression, we always bear the war in our psyche.
Sreshta Rit Premnath: I don’t think that this state of perpetual war is purely psychological. Having lived in the US for over fifteen years now, I find myself in a country that is constantly at war elsewhere. In such a situation, in action is tantamount to our complicity with war at a distance. These wars are fought because of American “interests” in other countries, and we cannot opt out of global politics. We are bound to the factory worker in China through our cellphones, the textile worker in Bangladesh through our clothes, and the oil-worker in Iraq through our cars. Inaction stems from two sources: the first is our inability to feel the violence of war at a distance; the second is a deep disenchantment with the democratic process that leaves the electorate feeling powerless and apathetic.
Visual art, and cultural production in general, may either function as a barometer of the psychological state of a society, or as the progressive force which serves as a harbinger of cultural transformation. Assuming that we are not satisfied with the former–reflected in contemporary art that simply guesses or follows fashions–how do we envision the artist’s political role?
LP: Let’s not forget the shifting scale of culture and politics.The introspection of a young soldier during World War II is an example of how world-scale conflicts and politics leave a real imprint on individuals on the ground. When it feels like that ground is pulled out from beneath us, we begin to question the arbitrary and unstable nature of the construction of our society, and of nation-states in general. One of the ways we can ground ourselves again is to construct a space of our own (real or virtual) in which to take refuge, even if only temporarily. Maybe that is the impulse behind the work of Otto Piene’s generation of artists.
If we look beyond the immediate safety of our home here in the United States, the world is not any less violent today than during World War II.We have sophisticated means of distancing ourselves from the violence; and disenchantment with the democratic process, as you say, is rampant. The overwhelming sense of despair, however, should not automatically lead to apathy. When it feels like we’re being dwarfed by something entirely out of our control, like the large expanse of the sky, should we not shift our gaze towards the grains of sand at our feet?
Artists are tricksters of perception. They can make us look hard: here, there, and elsewhere. The practice of looking itself should be coupled with the practice of questioning our own perception, so we can look at the details and zoom out simultaneously. Maybe then we will be able to appreciate the immensity of the ground and the sky without feeling paralyzed.