#onartandpolitics — an interview with Matthew Harrison Tedford

#Hashtags features writing about art at the intersection of both pop culture and politics, but what does it mean for a work of art to be political? #onartandpolitics will feature occasional interviews with writers, artists, and curators on this topic, kicking off with Matthew Harrison Tedford, an editor at Art Practical and a #Hashtags contributor. DS spoke with Tedford last year as he coordinated programming a panel event about the nature of performance, art, and politics at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. This interview was first published at KQED.org.

Installation view of Wafaa Yasin's 'Aesh (Livelihood),' 2008.

DS: You’ve been writing about the relationship between politics and art for a little while, not just at Art Practical, but in other publications. How did you come to the topic?

Matthew Harrison Tedford: Originally, I studied political philosophy, so I’m indebted to that discourse. Personally, however, I became disillusioned because I felt the conversation was disconnected from reality. So I began to look at art through this lens. It’s not that art is really any more concrete, but there’s something about it that’s helped me to clarify my questions about politics. There are other avenues for this: becoming an activist, becoming a politician, for example. But, for someone interested in the arts, like myself, looking at political art is a way to engage as an activist or a politician might, without having to martyr yourself to a profession you might not be interested in.

DS: Were you an activist? Or an artist?

MHT: I tried to get involved with campus politics, but I found it frustrating. There was this mentality where if you raised a legitimate question, you were attacked for somehow being counter-revolutionary. It seemed very superficial and reactionary. So in that proto-radical, post-adolescent scene, I became withdrawn, but this wasn’t something I was happy about. I was left with a question about how to be involved with politics, given the unappealing experiences I’d had. Which is not to say that all political groups are like this, or that even most political groups are like this! I just didn’t want to be part of a group that wasn’t open to being questioned.

DS: Do you feel like there’s a lack of conversation about the relationship between art and politics?

MHT: No. Certainly not. My personal interest is to clarify this relationship, to make it more concrete. I think sometimes works are seen as political just because they have political content. For instance, just because it’s a painting of George Bush, it’s seen as political. For me, I need the definition to be more meaningful. My goal has been to really define what makes a work of art political, or when does art function as a political phenomenon versus just an artwork?

MIchael Heizer's 'Levitated Mass' on the move, 2012. Photo by Will Brown Hernandez.

DS: What conclusions have you drawn? What makes a work political?

MHT: Answering for myself — as there are a lot of different approaches — I had to say forget art, what’s politics? I was looking at [philosophers] Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière, and for them, something is political if it involves a plurality of members of a given society. If it engages a large group, people of different perspectives, and not a homogenous mass. Secondly, if it’s doing so in a way that creates debate or dialogue among these people with regard to the structure or function of their society. For me, something’s not just political if it creates a debate alone — we can debate about whether a table is hard or soft — but really, it becomes political when the debate is about the way in which we live and structure our society.

DS: Would you consider Piss Christ (a photograph of a crucifix in the artist’s urine, a copy of which was recently smashed in a London Museum) a political work?

MHT: This recent attack was interesting. I don’t know if this is too cynical, but you could choose to look at the fact that it was smashed as ‘debate.’ On the other hand, you could say that it was just smashing an artwork. I don’t know, but I have a sweet spot for iconoclasm.

DS: But when it’s just one individual, that doesn’t constitute a plurality, does it?

MHT: No, but the fact that this work and works like it are so often attacked — not just physically, but via funding or visibility — indicates that there is a larger debate happening. So yes, you could say that this is acting as a political work of art. The unfortunate result is whether or not this means a work of art is more political if it has more celebrity? I don’t want that to be the case, but then again, if I have this brilliant work of political art, but it never leaves my studio…


Andreas Serrano's 'Piss Christ,' 1987, after being smashed with a hammer at the Lamber Collection Contemporary Art Museum in France.

DS: How much is artist intention involved?

MHT: Well, even if the work has no political intent, if it raises the kind of debate I’ve mentioned, I would consider it political. To do this accidentally — it’s complicated. So much is contingent on what happens. Really, any artwork has the potential to be political, depending how it enters into the public arena.

DS: Besides creating debate, does a work need to be effective in a particular way?

MHT: No, I don’t think it does. An artist creating a political work probably wants it to be effective, but it doesn’t need to be. Take voting, for example. It’s a political act, but even if you vote for someone who loses, you’re still engaging in politics. So, no, I don’t think the efficacy of something is tied up in whether it’s political.