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Art and Populism

As a political concept, ‘populism’ gained traction over the 2010s to describe governments that reject pluralism and exclude among ethnic, religious and political lines. Yet this discussion has far deeper roots within philosophical debate. Several theorists have offered alternative understandings of populism as a form of direct democracy that strives for popular sovereignty, equality and social justice (Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau). More recently, critics of anthropocentrism have also understood populism’s ties to the devastating effects of extractive and racializing capital as a driving force in the climate catastrophe (T. J. Demos, Bruno Latour).

In art history, however, the term populism has largely been kept at a distance, because of its associations with illiberal and exclusionary forms of governance. Some significant exceptions include thinkers such as Frederic Jameson (‘populist aesthetics’ in architecture), and Mirko Lauer (native art production in Latin America as co-opted by populist ideologies).

This panel invited speakers to consider populism’s relevance to art from the twentieth century to now, in both its understanding as an authoritarian style of governing and a form of critical praxis seeking to reimagine popular control. Questions that the panel will consider include:


–   In what ways have populist governments impacted artistic production and institutional cultural practices?
–   How have artists formed collectives and/or engaged with communities to take control over the key decisions that affect their lives?
–   Can practices seeking to ‘democratise’ art, as well as those engaging with the mass media or dismantling hierarchies (high/low, art/craft, alternative/institutional) be better understood as populist?

Session Convenors: 

Sofia Gotti, University of Cambridge 

Marko Ilić, University of York 

Speakers: 

Matthew Juan Mason, University of Oxford  

Rehabilitating Populism: The Museo de la Solidaridad and the Chilean Way to Socialism 

In 1972, Chilean President Salvador Allende inaugurated the Museo de la Solidaridad in Santiago Chile: an art museum made up of works donated by artists across the world in support of his socialist government. Upon his election in 1970, Allende became the first Marxist to lead a liberal democracy in Latin America. This offered hope that a path to socialism could be accomplished through a democratic and institutional process, as opposed to violent revolution.  

This paper considers how the Museo facilitated what Michael Warner and Hannah Arendt term ‘public formation’: the bringing together of private individuals to articulate their needs, thus sustaining a ‘bottom-up’ model of democracy in which political action stems from the collective will of the people.  

Despite contemporary associations of the term ‘populism’ with a brand of reactionary authoritarian governance, Allende’s Chile, and specifically the Museo de la Solidaridad, help rehabilitate populism as a political project defined not by exclusion, but rather the building of popular consensus. By offering a vision of a new world, the art on display became integrated into a broader political undertaking, serving as a vehicle for, not just a document of, popular emancipation.  

While the military coup of 1973 forced the Museo into exile, in this capacity it continued to unite those displaced by military regimes, and to form transnational publics. By revisiting this moment in the early 1970s, I consider how reengaging with populism’s collective potential might serve political and artistic actors in their pursuit of a more egalitarian future.  

Jacqueline Mabey, University College London 

Those Dreams Keep You Free: FOOD, SoHo, and the Contest of Belonging  

As elucidated by Neil Smith, American frontier imagery is central to urban gentrification narratives. I argue that the gentrification of SoHo, New York during the late 1960s and 1970s is related to its status as a populist frontier. Decades later, artist Tina Girouard reflected, “We [SoHo artists] really wanted to change America. Or maybe it’s that we wanted to hold on to the true nature of what we thought America was or should be.” Their desire to manifest the promise of liberty and equality posited in the nation’s founding documents is evident in, FOOD (1971-1973), the restaurant-as-social sculpture. The collectively operated project took up the democratizing call of art into life, directly addressing the community’s bodily, economic, affective, and artistic needs.  

Most SoHo artists occupied the contradictory positionality of underdogs of power, after Ernesto Laclau. Thus, their actions exhibit a simultaneously progressive and regressive populist logic. New York’s financial crisis ensured abundant space and time for artists to work in a spirit of speculative inquiry. Their low-stakes artistic experiments, however, were part of a high-stakes contest of belonging. The question of whom, at a structural level, New York should welcome was at the heart of this conflict. Artists’ real estate activism leveraged their connections to people in places of power to keep SoHo a separatist community. Boundary policing is evident in FOOD’s extant material traces: the white, middle-class SoHo artists drew the new urban frontier line along the classed and racialised exclusions of suburbia.  

Hella Wiedmer-Newman, University of Basel 

Re-Balkanizing Europe: Performative Orientalism and Decoloniality in Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus 

In recent years there has been a concentration of works drawing attention to the histories of multi- and trans-culturalism across the Balkans and into Central Asia, particularly in the countries that were under Ottoman rule. In works by artists, such as the Slavs and Tatars collective, Bosnian artists Kemil Bekteši’s Etnos Eros and much of Selma Selman’s practice, and positions represented in the Evrovizion traveling exhibition, tongue-in-cheek re-appropriations of discriminatory imagery and discourses (sometimes in form of a kind of perverse World’s Fair, in the case of Evrovizion) oscillate with an earnest pan-European celebration of the periphery.  

I would like to argue that these works operate along a continuum of subversion and populism and might offer a third way between a kind of left-wing anti-populism and right-wing working populism. As Raymond Williams remarked on several occasions, populist parties have often formed alliances with labour organisations, but the tenets of populism are continually instrumentalized by the populist Right: “… a version of ‘the people’ is effectively mobilized, in periods of social crisis, as a way of altering the character of class rule or of foreclosing socialist solutions.” (Williams, Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945, 86). This third way of living populism, I would argue offers an intersectional populist imagery for our particular moment in European history, amid flagrantly xenophobic alt-right movements and tightening asylum regimes. It also re-examines fascism and nationalism in light of Russian military aggression in Ukraine. Using ideas about class, taste and populism from Pierre Bourdieu, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, and Uroš Čvoro, and reflecting critically on ideas about Eastern European Orientalism and colonialism from thinkers such as Alexander Kiossev and Milica Bakić-Hayden, I will query the limits of such performative subversions and question whether it might inadvertently prop up the very system it attempts to critique.    

Harper Montgomery,  Hunter College – City College of New York 

Weaving and Video, Ritual and Performance: Populism and Contemporary Art in Havana 

By considering the role populism played at the 1989 Havana Biennial, my paper responds to the panel’s call to view populism as, “a form of critical praxis seeking to reimagine popular control.” As is well known, the biennial sought to wrest control of the international art scene from the elite and to emphasize the contemporaneity of traditional culture. The Cuban state had drawn on populist rhetoric to cultivate its reputation as a responsive government that protected its citizens from the neocolonial designs of the United States. This populism still held sway in the 1980s when Cuban curators were institutionalizing the biennial as an event that could respond to the needs of artists in developing nations. 

What is less understood is the role that the biennial played in refiguring the relationship between populism and contemporary art. Focusing on conferences organized by Gerardo Mosquera for the 1989 biennial, I will ask how the papers presented drew on populism to question dualities that produced false hierarchies in art discourse, such as divisions between contemporaneity and tradition, the avant-garde and the popular, or the international and the local. Examining key figures’ contributions, including Mirko Lauer (Peru) and Juan Acha (Peru and Mexico City), I will consider how they simultaneously embraced arte popular and avant-garde tactics and how they viewed these seemingly disparate forms as resources for the many Latin American artists who were seeking to generate immediate encounters with art for broad, non-elite audiences.  

Grace Thompson, University of East Anglia 

Authentic Affect: Exposing the Power in – and of – Emotions in Tania Bruguera’s Hyundai Commission 

Within the recent expansion of populist politics, the mobilisation of affective emotions has been central to both right and left wings. Tania Bruguera’s Hyundai commission in Tate Modern (2018-19) took ideas of emotions around immigration and contrasted them with demonstrations of control over the body. For example, on entering a small side-room, visitors’ hands were stamped with a statistic corresponding to total global migrations plus migrant deaths, and their eyes involuntarily began to water on exposure to a ‘secret’ gaseous compound. Bruguera termed this “forced empathy”, and claimed she was “interested to see what happens when others see you cry.” Installed during the aftermath of Brexit – in which both campaigns had appealed to voter’s ‘feelings about migration’ – the work explores ideas of control and authenticity which are a central tension in the recent debates over ‘left populism’.  

This paper uses the specifics of Bruguera’s commission to pursue larger questions around how contemporary art might engage, represent, or disrupt the mechanics of populism. What can ‘forced feelings’ tell us about the place of the body in populist logic? How does opening a tension between ‘force on the body’ and ‘the force of feeling’ add to an expanding literature of affect in visual arts, and problematise a progressive adoption of populistic tactics? In exploring such questions this paper will expose the emotion-body-populism nexus, its representation in contemporary art, and articulation to both left and right political projects. 

Di Liu, University of Cambridge 

Is documenta fifteen a ‘populist’ exhibition?  

The quinquennial exhibition documenta fifteen concluded in Kassel, Germany, in September 2022, amid waves of anti-Semitism accusations (or ‘smear campaigns’) that had started in January 2022. On the other hand, this edition of documenta, curated by the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa, is seen by many as a celebration of community-oriented, socially engaged, non-mainstream art practices mostly from the Global South that are still deeply entangled in decolonial struggles. As a result, comments and discussions on documenta fifteen tend to differ widely.  

In at least one review article, documenta fifteen is described as having a ‘focus on populist art’, with Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s work People’s Justice as evidence as well as some other artworks that harbour ‘NGO aesthetics’. While another critic points out that it was the ‘populist-hysteric tendency’ in German politics to be blamed for the relentless anti-Semitism accusations. Noticeably, the term ‘populism’ is used by different critics to point in different directions.  

Therefore, could we argue that documenta fifteen is a ‘populist’ exhibition, and in what sense? If a piece of artwork was born out of a particular popular uprising (for example, Taring Padi’s People’s Justice), does it mean that this piece of artwork is ‘populist’? Given that ‘populism’ is a concept that largely originates in Western liberal democracies, could we find better alternatives (for example, anthropological studies on popular festivals in a non-Western culture) to analyse an international exhibition like documenta fifteen?  

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