Saturday, December 11, 2010

Can There Be Good Political Art?

This is not meant to be a provocative question. Instead, this is a question I ask myself all the time. Political art is usually terrible. I pretty much agree with Edward Winkleman when he wrote "most political art not only sucks, it can barely aspire to sucking." One thing about it is that I think because artists feel righteous about whatever political cause they are dealing with, they don't realize that they also have to be good. Another problem with political art is that it is very possible to do really fantastic art for some pretty horrible politics. Think of the great Soviet posters and paintings, Red Chinese and Cuban posters, Nazi propaganda art--some of that stuff is amazing, and all the more sinister because of it.
This is a lead in to a piece of political art that quite appeals to me. One where I have to eat my above words. I think there can be good political art, and I think The House that Herman Built is a good example.
Herman Joshua Wallace has spent the past 38 years in Solitary Confinement (or closed cell restriction) in Louisiana's State Prison System. For a minimum of 23 hours a day, he is shut up in a six-foot-by-nine-foot (2m x 3m) cell. It is very likely that Wallace didn't commit the crime he has been sentenced for.

 In 2003 artist Jackie Sumell contacted Herman Wallace and asked him: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' X 9' box for over 30 years dream of?" [...] Through exchanges of hundreds of letters, phone calls, and numerous visits to the prison, Wallace and Sumell have been sketching and designing the dream house together.

The construction of the house is currently being funded by a network of activists, artists, architects and other concerned individuals. Hopefully, the House will one day be a place for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox to comfortably retire. But until Herman is able to win his legal battle, the house will be maintained by a network of volunteers. ("The House That Herman Built" by Regine at We Make Money Not Art)
What I like about this as political art is that it is engaged with the affected party. Herman Wallace is not an abstraction or a symbol or a rallying cry. He is a real person who has participated in making this piece of art happen. Second, no matter what happens in the Wallace case, this house--if it is completed--will have an actual, measurable positive effect, above and beyond its value as propaganda. Finally, it just seems like such a humane project.

Here's a trailer for a documentary made about this project.

This would be a good one for the Cinema Arts Festival next year.

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