Politics of Visual Arts in a Changing World


Developed in response to the increasing political pressures placed on artists and arts institutions by activists and special interest groups, on the one hand, and politically conservative governments on the other, Politics of Visual Arts focuses on new political trends that are affecting the creation, presentation, reception, and preservation of works of art in diverse cultural contexts.

Politics of Visual Arts is supported by a major grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.


Arts have been periodically but consistently subjected to political pressures. Their opposition generally comes from the conservative end of the political spectrum and is often associated with governmental actions. This was fully evident in the culture wars of the 1990s in the U.S., and in the crackdown on artists and art projects in the aftermath of the events at Tiananmen Square in China. Now, in many parts of the world, new voices are clamoring to constrain artistic expression and presentations of works of art. Even the traditional issues of cultural repatriation have taken on new urgency as the cause has been taken on by new actors. Social media platforms are creating new possibilities for artists to become politically engaged and the same platforms are utilized to instantaneously create social movements to destroy works of art seen as unpalatable to special groups.

At the same time, politically conservative leaders in many parts of the world are using populist strategies and sophisticated social media platforms to put new pressures on artists and arts institutions. Thus, pressures are felt from multiple sources: special interest groups demanding limits on artistic expressions 2 that are deemed offensive and rightwing governments seeking control over art that may be seen as critical or provocative. While it is true that all forms of art, from literary to visual and performing arts are under new socio-political pressures, this project will focus on visual arts, (painting and sculpture to installations, film and digital works), to delve deeper into the way that images are politicized by interested actors across the world.

Description of Activities

Politics of Visual Arts is developed in consultation with Columbia CGT faculty members representing diverse disciplines and further refined in a set of workshops with colleagues from the greater New York City area. Partnerships with organizations such as Bridge Figures have further enhanced the project. On the basis of these discussions and conversations with colleagues in Istanbul, New Delhi, and Rio, the following issues have been identified for further study:

  1. The role of social media platforms and new technologies in enabling or constraining politically oriented artistic expression
  2. Rising populism on the right and the left and the development of new pressures on artistic freedom
  3. Cultural appropriation, identity politics, and freedom of expression
  4. The relationship between socially and politically engaged art and “aesthetic” journalism
  5. Changing legal frameworks and public attitudes on the creation and consumption of art
  6. New demands for cultural repatriation and new responses to such demands
  7. Roles and responsibilities of cultural institutions in dealing with new pressures on presentation and acquisition of works of art

The project will explore these issues through the development of broader conceptual frames as well as through analyses of specific cases to illuminate deeper underlying questions.

The project has been a collaborative effort between a working group of NYC-based artists, curators, academics, and other interested individuals. The group has been meeting in closed-door discussions focused on a specific issue (e.g. social media) or a specific constituency (e.g. artists), of which the findings are meant to be brought to a wider audience through public programming. The next phase of the project will include several more workshops and public programs in New York City and then move to workshops at the Columbia Global Centers in Istanbul, Paris, Mumbai, Amman or Lebanon, and Rio de Janeiro. One of the main reasons to study this phenomenon in a global context is that many of the issues articulated here are not exclusively American, they have resonance in many parts of the world. Often the same issues appear in multiple locations, reflecting transnational trends. For example, animal rights activists protesting at the Guggenheim Museum gave rise to similar protests in Europe. At the same time, some issues may have specific relevance in one place and not in others. The discussions and workshops in the Columbia Global Centers will help refine the issues and provide a more nuanced understanding of the politics of visual arts around the world. The Centers will also help identify scholars, artists, and institutional leaders who can help shape the culminating conference to be held at Columbia University as well as help produce materials for broader dissemination.

The final conference at Columbia will consist of presentations by artists as well as scholars and curators, along with of installations of work by politically engaged visual artists that can provoke a conversation about issues of artistic freedom of expression. We will use an open-platform strategy to disseminate the presentations and make them available to colleagues across the world. A more formal publication with a collection of essays and relevant images is also planned in collaboration with Columbia University Press.

Working Bibliography

Academic Articles

  • Adler, Amy. (2013). The First Amendment and The Second Commandment. New York Law School Law Review, 57(41): 41-58.
  • Adler, Amy. (2009). Against Moral Rights. California Law Review, 97(1): 263-300.
  • Burgess, JE. (2013). The remediation of the personal photograph and the politics of self-representation in digital storytelling. Journal of Material Culture, 18(3): 279-298. Focuses on the consequences of online image-sharing for the digital storytelling movement, which is reliant on narratives of personal photographs sourced on family albums and online archives (p. 279). The changing tools through which photography is practiced, and then shared, have changed forms of public life and created a potential for “cultural citizenship” (p. 281).
  • “Of Art and Absurdity: Military, Censorship, and Contemporary Art in Thailand”, Chotpradit; Journal of Asia-Pacific Pop Culture 3(1):5- (2018)
  • Hughes, JS. (2012). Authenticity and Resistance: Latin American Art, Activism, and Performance in the New Global ContextLatin American Perspectives, 39(2): 5-10. Explores the impact of visual vulture and artistic production on cultural identity-making, and the effect that globalization has had on the homogenization and fragmentation of these constructions (p. 5). The different scales at which art is consumed and becomes a part of identity-making affects people differently depending on their positionality, and the authors take the example of how Disney and Hollywood cannibalize and appropriate indigenous traditions (p. 7).
  • Memou, A. (2018). Art, Activism and the Tate. Third Text, 31(5-6): 619-631. Describes a specific photography exhibition (Waiting For Tear Gas) that marries visual art and sociopolitical issues, which in this case produced a photo essay on anti-WTO activism (p. 620). Since BP funds the Tate Modern, there is a wide discussion around how arts institutions engage with the private sector, and the contradictions or tensions that this could cause between funders and the independence of content choices (p. 626).
  • Phillips, LG. (2018). Walking Borders: Explorations of Aesthetics in Ephemeral Arts Activism for Asylum Seeker Rights. Space and Culture, 21(2): 92-107. Analyzes an ephemeral visual art intervention that symbolically confronted border politics in Australia during the G20 Summit in Brisbane (p. 92-93). The artistic display elevated the highlighted issue (immigration policy) in the public eye
  • Steyerl, H. (2009). In Defense of the Poor ImageE-flux, 10.
  • Strafella, G. (2015). “Twitter Bodhisattva”: Ai Weiwei’s Media PoliticsAsian Studies Review, 39(1): 138-157. Argues that Ai Weiwei’s “communication activism” (with emphasis on blogging) is part of a broader artistic tradition that predates his online presence (p. 138). He expressed optimism in 2007 about the Internet’s possibilities for socio-political change, and incorporated different media (photo, video, audio) into his blogs to create a “citizens’ discourse space” for his readers (p. 144). Ai described his social media use in the context of his definition of “the artist as a “virus” of change, and art as the practice of challenging established values and concepts” (p. 152).
  • Wu, Tim (2017). Is the First Amendment Obsolete? Emerging Threats, September 2017.


  • Clemens Apprich, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl: Pattern Discrimination, University of Minnesota Press (2019)
  • Aruna D’Souza: Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in Three Acts, Badlands Unlimited (2018)
  • Virginia Eubanks: Automating Inequality, St. Martin’s Press (2018)
  • Nir Eyal: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Portfolio (2014)
  • Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger: Re-Engineering Humanity, Cambridge Press (2018)
  • Mark Hansen: Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-first Century Media, University of Chicago Press (2015)
  • Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms: New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make It Work for You, Doubleday (2018)
  • Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Henry Holt & Company (2018)
  • Geert Lovink: Sad by Design, Pluto Press (2018)
  • Geert Lovink: Networks Without a Cause, Polity (2012)
  • Noortje Marres, Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research, Polity (2017)
  • Nicholas Mirzoeff: The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, Name Publications E-book (2017)
  • Safiya Noble: Algorithms of Oppression, NYU Press (2018)
  • Cathy O’Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction, Broadway Books (2016)
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Program Or be Programmed, OR Books (2010)
  • Hito Steyerl: Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, Verso Books (2017)
  • Peter Weibel: Global ActivismArt and Conflict in the 21st Century, The MIT Press (2015)
  • Pnina Werbner, Martin Webb, Kathryn Spellman-Poots: The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: The Arab Spring and Beyond, University of Edinburgh Press (2014)

Interviews, Newspaper Articles, & Online Essays

Other Content