Politics of Visual Arts

Arts have been periodically, but consistently, subjected to political pressures. Generally, opposition comes from the conservative end of the political spectrum, as evidenced in the Culture Wars of the early 1990s in the United States. Now, in many parts of the world, new voices are clamoring to constrain artistic expressions. They range from animal rights activists successfully forcing institutions to remove works seen as being cruel to animals (The Art in China after 1989 show at Guggenheim, a contemporary art exhibition in Lyon, France) to artists or particular ethnic communities insisting on removing works of art from public view or even destroying them for being offensive to their beliefs or histories (African-American artists demanding that a painting of a slain young black man by a white woman artist be destroyed, for example).

Simultaneously, recent successes of populist, politically conservative leaders in many parts of the world are putting new pressures on artists and art institutions. These days, writers, painters, film makers, dancers, and musicians alike are feeling the pressures at both ends: governmental forces pushing for greater control over artistic practice and special interest groups arguing for their particular agendas and constraining freedom of expression in the process.

Politics of Visual Arts in a Changing World aims to study new trends that are affecting the creation, presentation, and preservation of works of art in diverse cultural contexts. From preliminary discussions with colleagues inside and outside the university, a number of potential areas of exploration have emerged:

  1. What is the role of social media in increased attacks on art by special interest groups?
  2. Are arts being targeted by new autocratic rulers as part of their efforts to curtail all democratic institutions or are they singled out because of their unique ability to symbolize freedom of expression?
  3. In the United States, the very idea of the first amendment is now coming under greater threat because of new forms of cultural expression. Does this also change the resources available to artists to defend their freedom of expression?
  4. How are artists responding to new threats?
  5. What is the relationship between the movement to take down sculptures reflecting a difficult past and other forms of protests against contemporary art works that are deemed politically insensitive by particular groups?
  6. Generally, issues surrounding cultural heritage are seen very separately from issues of contemporary art making. How might we explore the possible relationship between them?

Embedded in these questions are issues of cultural appropriation, repatriation, freedom of creative expression, as well as legal frameworks that need to be understood better with the help of diverse groups of scholars and practitioners.

Led by Vishakha N. Desai, Vice Chair of CGT, the project is developed in collaboration with an inter-disciplinary group of CGT members and several of the Columbia Global Centers. It will include closed door workshops and discussions as well as public programs on campus and at Global Centers and conclude with a conference and a publication.

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)
  • 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