Is contemporary art critical?

When in the 1820s Goya produced his celebrated «Disasters of War» series, he was at the end of his career. Like his contemporary, French painter Jacques-Louis David, he had lived through the French Revolution and had witnessed the world in one of its greater social transformations. Art could not but partake in them, in the process changing the role of the artist. As Shelley famously pronounced, poets «are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,» capturing in this saying much of the spirit of Romanticism. If art is a reflection of its times, then Goya’s series was a revolutionary artistic statement at a time of revolution. To look for its equivalent today we would need to redefine the notion of revolution, politics and the role of art. How politically engaging, if not necessarily revolutionary, can contemporary art be? This is one of the questions raised by «The Death of Che Guevara,» an exhibition curated by Professor Nikos Hadjinicolaou, an art historian. Shown at the Rethymnon Contemporary Art Center several months ago and currently at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki – which has produced an enriched, bilingual version of the catalog for the occasion – the exhibition addresses the controversial relationship between art and politics. Can aesthetic values be separated from ideologies, and does a political message subordinate the aesthetic merit of the work of art? These are some of the issues that hark back to the interwar period, when art was frequently used as a political vehicle. The exhibition prompts the viewer to think about them; but what it seems to be more concerned with is testing contemporary art’s potential for carrying political content without mitigating the significance of that content. It opens the question of how contemporary art is consumed and understood, but also how it is produced and exhibited. It also raises the question of how politically sensitive we are today. In many ways, the exhibition reflects the socially minded ideas of Hadjinicolaou, whose influential «Art History and Class Struggle» from the early 1970s heralded his approach of analyzing art in a social and political context. Hadjinicolaou’s introductory text for the «Che Guevara» exhibition is revealing of his aims. Taking a rather deprecating stance against the present condition of art, Hadjinicolaou refers to the majority of works shown in art galleries as «artifice without meaning, narcissism in a vacuum.» He questions art’s critical role and its capacity for bringing us closer to reality rather than distancing us and alienating us from it. The fact that Hadjinicolaou has chosen the image of Che Guevara, a cult image consumed and used to the point of exhaustion by mass culture, raises an extra challenge for the role of art and the aims of this particular exhibition. Can an art exhibition on Guevara go beyond the influence of mass culture on our appraisal of images? And what it does say about how we perceive politics today? The exhibition contains 35 works, paintings, engravings and posters brought together from various private and museum art collections worldwide. The works are meant to be seen in juxtaposition with the two original photographs (also on display) that Freddy Alborta took of Che Guevara in 1967; the first shows him still alive in the hands of his enemies, and the other depicts his corpse displayed in the company of the Bolivian colonel and the rest of the people surrounding the dead Guevara. When this second photograph was published in 1967, it prompted the celebrated art historian John Berger to write an essay comparing the image with Rembrandt’s famous painting «The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp» (the painting in which a team of doctors study a corpse) and Mantegna’s «Lamentation over the Dead Christ,» the famous Renaissance painting which depicts the body of Christ from an unusually realistic angle. Berger’s essay, which is reproduced in the exhibition’s catalog, draws an interesting analogy between the notion of public display and «making an example of the dead» in respect to Alborta’s image and Rembrandt’s paintings. It draws an analogy between the emotional response that people in the 16th century must have felt in front of Mantegna’s Christ and the emotions he experienced when seeing Alborta’s photograph. The connection between Alborta’s picture and Rembrandt’s painting also seems to have struck the Mexican artist (of Canadian descent) Arnold Belkin in a series of four paintings he produced in the early ’70s. Shown at the exhibition, they are one of its highlights. Most of the works displayed evoke the physical presence of Guevara’s body. Paolo Gasparini’s composition of photographs is one of the most moving works. Closeups of Guevara’s body and face in red and black are juxtaposed with black-and-white photographs of poor South Americans seen at work or on the street. The composition turns Guevara’s body into a symbol of struggle and an expression of common fate. Also moving is a work by Cuban artist Alicia Leal, a folk-like composition which shows crops sprouting from the murdered corpse. There are also works by some Greek artists whose work has often dealt with social issues. They are Despina Meimaroglou, Angelos Skourtis, Dimitris Zouroudis, Yiannis Gaitis and Kyriakos Katzourakis. An important addition to the Rethymnon version of the exhibition is the seven-piece woodcut that the celebrated Greek engraver Tassos had made in commemoration of Guevara’s death. Moving in many ways but cliché in others, the exhibition points out the ambivalence of images, of the notions of politics and of contemporary art, and of our perception of it – all in the hope that art may exercise a more critical and thought-provoking role in society. «The Death of Che Guevara» at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port, tel 2310.589.140) through April 13.

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