The Work of Art in the Age of Political Misrepresentation

This joint show at Galerie St. Etienne in midtown leads with a statement, borrowing the words of Maya Angelou: “All good art is political.” As a response, I will take the liberty of leading with a question: if all good art is political, is it possible that all political art is good?

 Käthe Kollwitz,  Hunger,  1923.

Käthe Kollwitz, Hunger, 1923.

The way Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe, born eighty-four years apart, answer this question is, unsurprisingly, different. Kollwitz’s politics stem from the horrors of the First World War, and it is clear she knows suffering, having lost her son on the battlefields of Belgium. Her rendering of pain is acute and immediate (in a way perhaps Coe never quite achieves), summed up no better than in Hunger (1923), an image which uses the inherent blockiness of woodcut to obscure the meeting place of a skeletal body with its maternal flesh. The result is a devastating image which shows both sacrifice and suffering—a woman, emaciated but for the round fleshiness of her full breasts, has denied her own body to sustain her child’s—but in vain. Certainly reminiscent of Francisco de Goya’s Tragedies of War, which the exhibition texts reference more than once, this image could just as easily be the latest photojournalistic documentation of a war zone. In other words, this pain is universal.

Sue Coe, on the other hand, is hyper-topical, in almost direct contrast to Kollwitz, though the older artist is very clearly her stylistic mother. Many of the last two years’ buzzwords, images, and events are present here: alternative facts, Grenfell Tower, and the groper-in-chief all make an appearance in various works dated 2016 and 2017. These illustrations and prints, however, feel more like political posters rather than political art. (In fact, many of these works appeared in the New Yorker and other similar publications.) But is it “good,” whatever it is? I wonder at an image of a man of color with hands tied behind his back, which bears an inscription based on the Kellyanne Conway-ism “alternative facts.” It is black and white in its asking its audience to choose between conservative and liberal viewpoints. Is this man a) a hard working immigrant, backbone of the American economy or b) an illegal alien, rapist, and threat to our society? In asking A or B, Coe loses nuance and perhaps impact, a recurring tradeoff for the artist throughout this show.

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Or take Coe’s image Unpresidented (2017), which depicts Donald Trump grabbing at the Statue of Liberty’s crotch from behind, which feels like it might belong on the cover of Mad magazine. These images can feel as flimsy as Donald Trump’s twitter account: more noise than substance, satisfying more as images of rage than as works that move us to anger. 

When approaching these works from a sales perspective (this is, after all, a commercial gallery), I grew skeptical. My sneaking suspicion about some of Coe’s work was that it is too relevant, as disposable as that magazine cover, destined to become a relic of a moment– stale. Could an image of our lecherous president, as appalling as he is, have the same staying power as Kollwitz’s images of suffering? Before you invest why not wait and see what sifts out, I thought, what endures in the national lexicon to determine what is worthy of a spot on the wall. But this conclusion did not sit right with me either. Maybe all political art isn’t good (whatever that really means), but it is important. What Coe’s hyper-productivity indicates is much more important than the work itself: the proliferation of art and image are what create the conversation in the first place, and treating everything as a worthy subject ensures nothing important slips through the cracks. Producing art as a political act, as speech ongoing, is separate from the creation of a single image to distill an unjust reality. These artists, on the surface so similar, are complements to create a political whole.

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“All Good Art is Political: Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe”

Galerie St. Etienne 

Until March 10, 2018