ART AND SUBVERSION
“SEJA ARTISTA, SEJA HERÓI”
1923. Marcel Duchamp wrote in one of his notebooks the following question: “Is it possible to create work that is not art?”.
1917. The author creates “Fontaine”, signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt. It is a horizontally placed urinal shown in an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists of which Duchamp is the president. After lengthy discussions, the other members decide that the piece is not art and should be removed from public display. Once the exhibition is over, Duchamp resigns as president of the Society.
1937. The Nazi party displays the show “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) at Haus der Kunst in Munich. It is a chaotic and disorganized exhibition of artworks, which the regime seeks to ridicule for not fitting with the ideal of art promoted by Hitler, such as that of the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung” (The Great German Art Exhibition).
1939. The owners of the store Bonwit-Teller, centrally located on Fifth Avenue in New York, request Salvador Dali to decorate one of its windows. After realizing that the work of the artist is too shocking, the managers modify it without consulting with the artist. Dali, in anger, destroys the window. As a result he gets arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to compensate the agents.
1968. A group of artists develop the slogan “Tucumán Arde” (Tucumán’s burning), a set of actions aimed to criticize extreme poverty and hunger (result of government policies) suffered by this region in northern Argentina. The initiative brings art to its social context and ties it to activism and social movements. It ends when prohibited by order of the military government of Onganía.
1969. In one of their concerts Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes display a banner made by the artist Heio Oiticica with the slogan “seja marginal seja hero”. It shows the silhouette of the body of Cara Cavalo, a drug dealer assassinated by the police. As a result, the military government imprisons Caetano and Gil and then expels them from the country, forcing them to seek asylum in the UK.
2001. The Taliban government in Afghanistan destroys with dynamite and artillery the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two large statues carved on the side of a cliff. The reason: the monuments are considered as contrary to the rules contained in the Koran.
2003. Opus Dei distributes among its members a bibliographic guide that compiles books, which should not be read for being considered harmful. Among the titles are “Papa Goriot” by Balzac, “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Bierce, “The Hive” by Cela, “Manuel’s book” by Cortázar or the volume “Sodom and Gomorrah” forming part of ” In Search of Lost Time “by Proust.
2010. Chinese authorities destroy the studio of artist Ai Weiwei. This event is followed by a campaign of harassment that includes house arrests and illegal detentions.
Although the events stated are limited to the XX and XXI centuries, the relationship between art and power throughout history might be considered at least as tortuous. One of the functions of art is to be critical and to modernize the society in which it emerges. In those cases in which the artists and the mainstream enjoyed quiet and good cohabitation, we might say (with the risk of being wrong) that the first activity could be described as propaganda rather than as art.
Therefore, one hundred years after Marcel Duchamp reflected on this human activity by raising the question that heads this article, perhaps it is appropriate to ask ourselves: “Is it possible for art to not be subversive?”.
History shows that being an artist necessarily implies risking one’s personal well-being with each new suggestion. Please abstain if you’re unwilling to face this: art needs heroes, not collaborators.