NAS WHY? or can art be apolitical?
On 9 June 2013 one of old ‘common yards’ in a quiet area in the centre of Tashkent became the venue for an improvised exhibition My Favourite Tree organised by the art group NAS WHY?. The exhibition lasted only for a couple of days but then attracted the attention of the police and ‘the men in plain clothing’. The reason for their interest was not only that the exhibition was held in a true spirit of street art without any sanctions. The tree in question was the ubiquitous fir-tree, which can be seen not only in the place of chopped down huge plane trees, but also placed on decorative banners around construction sites and other aesthetically challenged places.
Those interested in the exhibition are welcome to visit the NAS WHY? Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/NAS-WHY-/163623890485180?ref=stream, to watch videos https://vimeo.com/naswhy and to read about it in the following publications: http://www.fergananews.com/articles/7774 and http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=ru&sub=top&cid=30&nid=23065
In this article I would like to reflect on the discussion I have had with the members of the art group (see http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=ru&cid=33&nid=23097 and http://youtu.be/hr4jEPJAWgM ) and to discuss the question whether public art today can be apolitical, as claim some of the members of the group.
Photo by “Nas Why?” art-group
One of the discoveries of contemporary art which is not disputed by any serious art critic or theorist is that its representation is strongly linked with the dominant discourse of power. Some theorists maintain that art can either reinforce this discourse or challenge it: the famous educator Paolo Freire once said that education can be either domesticating or liberating. In my opinion, this black-and-white, either-or approach is too simplistic. The relationship between art and power is more complex; to challenge the dominant discourse, an artist must find the way to engage it, to establish (may be, unilaterally) a kind of dialogue, which is possible only when both parties speak the same language.
Many artists in Central Asia traditionally position themselves as ‘apolitical’ and thus open themselves to a criticism from the ‘progressive’ camp of theorists who see that as a failure to challenge the dominant political discourse, or even worse, artists’ claim to be ‘beyond’ politics is seen as a demonstration of endorsement, of happiness with the status quo.
The members of NAS WHY? sought to challenge the right of the Uzbek authorities to impose their dubious aesthetic taste for the fir-tree on the citizens of the country. The aim of the project was ‘to show the irrationality of our understanding of the favourite tree and our needless desire and pathos in displaying ourselves in action.’ However, to claim that it has been just a ‘game’ and that the artists ‘did not intend to fight against anyone but wanted only to implement their artistic ideas’ can be seen as an attempt to subvert the political content of the exhibition. The follow-up inquiry by the police, as the artists have rightly indicated, only added up to the project, enriched its semantic domain, but, on the other hand, this action by the police has irrevocably placed the project into a certain political context. This competition of artistic and political discourses reminds me of a dialogue in one of Victor Pelevin’s books: ‘- All this exists only in Buddha’s mind. – Yes, but Buddha’s mind is held in Allah’s hands. – But Allah’s hands exist only in the mind of Buddha’ and so on.
Therefore I would like to disagree with the opinion expressed by Boris Chukhovich, one of the most prominent writers about Central Asian art, who maintained that that the lack of any meaningful dialogue between the members of the art group and the mainstream art critics represents the extreme form of postmodern plurality, where parties exist in total isolation from one another and have nothing to discuss. I believe that by asking the police to investigate the exhibition, the authorities showed their willingness to engage in a dialogue – but, like the artists, they have chosen their own terms of the dialogue.
The biggest problem of any left-wing activism, including artistic activism is, as I have said above, that seeking to challenge the dominant perception, it must by definition speak the same language with those who it wants to challenge. Opposing the dominant discourse, contemporary artists accept the reality of this discourse. Marxism is not a reasonable and humane alternative to the cruelty and injustice of capitalism – it its alter ego, the other part of the same reality, seen as entirely materialistic, ‘worldly’ and driven primarily by economic and political forces.
In other words, not only ‘art for art’s sake’ can be a form of endorsement of the status quo, but, on a deeper level, any political opposition is meaningful only when the reality of the dominant discourse is not disputed – and this double whammy, a Catch 22 poses a serious problem for all contemporary artists.