"No Art without Politics" – An Interview with Alfredo Jaar

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Arts, Media & Internet Activism, Transnationalist Theories, Contemporary Struggles
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In his work Chilean-born, New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar explores the relationship between the “First” and the “Third Worlds”. How the two are materially interdependent and the former implicated in maintaining the power dynamics of the relationship, and how this translates into visual representations of the “Third World” by the “First”.

Eva Oddo: What do you think of the European Union and how do you see its future?

Alfredo Jaar: I have always seen the EU as a potential model that has never been fully realized. It is a utopia that became a quasi-reality. I have always felt the potential was enormous, as a model of community. In fact the EU is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in the world. Some significant progress has been made in certain areas, for example regarding the common currency, the euro, it has been interesting to see how we finally have a counterweight to the US dollar and its hegemony. But when you realize that the EU generates more than 30% share of the world's gross domestic product, you ask yourself why is it such a minor, ridiculous influence in world affairs? The incapacity of the EU to articulate and promote a common foreign policy, to have a voice in world affairs of a certain weight is truly frustrating. The EU has never fulfilled its responsibilities according to its relative geopolitical weight in the world This is really a domain that the Americans dominate fully, and until now no one has been able to challenge them. The world would be in such a different state if the EU had a voice. On the other hand, it is undeniable that we have freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital but at the same time, how many doors have been closed? Visit Italy to look at how the immigration issue is being played out, or ask an African businessman trying to penetrate the EU market and you will hear a catalogue of frustrations. 

Moving on to the artist: do you think the artist has any responsibilities? 

Absolutely. Artists are human beings, and every human being has responsibilities. Artists are an integral part of society, and within society we are very privileged because artists have been blessed with time and resources to think, to speculate, to dream about different worlds, better worlds. This privilege comes with a responsibility, to respond to what surrounds us, and to suggest models of thinking about society and about the world, and that’s what the best art does. The best works of art take you to places you have never been - I’m referring to mental places -places where we create new models of thinking, and new possible ways of seeing the world. And that’s a tremendous responsibility. 

While I’ve read your art described as ‘political’ art, I think I’ve read that you describe it as ‘moral’, or ‘morally-engaged’ art.

No, I do not accept any of these labels. All art is political. It is impossible to do anything in this world that does not have a political reading. It is impossible to make a gesture that does not at the same time incorporate aesthetics and ethics. I always quote Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker that I admire, when I am asked this question, when he said that “it may be true that one has to choose between ethics and aesthetics, but it is no less true that, whichever one chooses, one will always find the other at the end of the road.” This is the reality that we face as artists and as cultural producers: we are always confronted with the issue of ethics and aesthetics at the same time, and they have to be incorporated not only in the way we do things, but also in the final articulation of our ideas in the works. When art does not do this, it is just decoration, it is part of another world, the world of decoration and design, which has other, different objectives. You have decoration on one side, and you have art on the other side, and art for me has always been about critical thinking. But that doesn’t mean we must leave out poetry. Poetry is an essential element of art. We could even say that there is no art without poetry, and there is no art without politics.

Do you think art has changed the world, and if so how? And in the future do you see art changing the world, and how?

Well, can you imagine a world without art? In the answer to this question you will find the answer to your question. What would the world be without art, without culture? As Nietzsche said, “Life without music would be a mistake.” And you could paraphrase him and say: Life without art would be a mistake. Just take a look at around us, look around the city, look around the world – what would it be if there was no art and culture around us? Art and culture are essential elements of contemporary life, of life. Life is unthinkable without it. Art does greatly change the world, and as an artist I have always said, even with the risk of sounding naïve, that I want to change the world. I became an artist because I was unhappy with the state of the world, I am unhappy with the way it is now, and I want to change it. Now, I change it one person at a time – it is a very slow process, it’s a very modest change, but we can touch people, we can inform them, and we can move them to action. In that sense I am Gramscian. Gramsci was an extraordinary intellectual of the 20th century, and an inspiration. He really believed in culture’s capacity to affect change, and it is difficult, sometimes it seems futile, but culture and art have definitely changed the world, and as the world becomes even more complex and difficult, the more art’s potentiality will be realized, culture’s potentiality can be realized. The spaces of art and culture are the last remaining spaces of freedom.

And how do you see the state of the contemporary art world?

The world of contemporary art has an image problem, which is of course ironic. The image circulated by the media with vicious vulgarity and spectacle, and it is a circus image of a few so-called art stars and a lot of money. 

Honestly, this has nothing to do with the world of contemporary art. The world of contemporary art is not monolithic; it is a network of systems. In one of these systems you have thousands of artists looking for meaning in life, in society, working with communities, trying to creatively expand their horizons. In another system you will find thinkers and intellectuals and dreamers discussing issues that affect society and the world, and producing papers and documents and publications and participating in lectures and debates, and expanding models of thinking. Contemporary art is film, theatre, music, poetry, dance, visual arts, which makes you think, makes you cry, makes you feel, and makes you act in the world. Where is that image of contemporary art in the media today? It just doesn’t exist. The media makes a spectacle out of it, and it is quite sad.

Do you think part of the artist’s role is public intervention? For visual artists, for example, it is not staying within the confines of the exhibition space, but going out onto the street?

Personally I have felt the need to get out, and that is why I have divided my work in three main areas; only one third of my time is spent working in the so-called art world, in museums, galleries and foundations. Because this art world is so insular, I have tried to reach out to a larger audience, and that is why I have created more than fifty public interventions around the world, outside of the confines of the art world. In these projects I work with different communities, removed from the art world, and I confront myself to real life problems, from real life people, and these confrontations, these exercises in reality, keep me real, keep me grounded, and inform my practice as an artist within the art world. The third part of what I do is teaching. I direct seminars and workshops around the world where I exchange ideas with the younger generations, I share my experiences and I learn from their own experiences, and their own dreams. I would say that teaching is probably the most political of all three. But they are all three very important, and all these practices inform me as a professional and as a human being and make me complete. 

About the contributors

Alfredo Jaar
Artist, Architect & Filmmaker

Alfredo Jaar is an artist, architect, and filmmaker who lives and works in New York.  His work has been shown extensively around the world. He has participated in the Biennales of Venice (1986, 2007, 2009, 2013), Sao Paulo (1987, 1989, 2010, 2020) as well as Documenta in Kassel (1987, 2002).

Important individual exhibitions include The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1992); Whitechapel, London (1992); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1994); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1995) and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome (2005). Major recent surveys of his work have taken place at Musée des Beaux Arts, Lausanne (2007); Hangar Bicocca, Milan (2008); Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlinische Galerie and Neue Gesellschaft fur bildende Kunst e.V., Berlin (2012); Rencontres d’Arles (2013); KIASMA, Helsinki (2014) and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK (2017).

The artist has realized more than seventy public interventions around the world. Over sixty monographic publications have been published about his work. He became a Guggenheim Fellow in 1985 and a MacArthur Fellow in 2000. He received the Hiroshima Art Prize in 2018 and the Hasselblad Award in 2020.

His work can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; MOCA and LACMA, Los Angeles; MASP, Museu de Arte de São Paulo; TATE, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centro Reina Sofia, Madrid; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; MAXXI and MACRO, Rome; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlaebeck; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art and Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Japan; M+, Hong Kong; and dozens of institutions and private collections worldwide.

Eva Oddo
Art Historian