Brett Wilson asked a while ago if conscience should go into toy photography. I think it should, and it should also go into art (and obviously into toy photography that aspires to be art).
Why don’t I like political art?
However, there is one kind of art that usually does not do the job for me. It’s what they call political art. Most political art is very efficient in getting its message across. A Parthenon made of forbidden books: Once you know all these books were sometimes forbidden somewhere, it seems to be hard to misunderstand this work. The artist may mean well, but I am not satisfied.
I do not care for the good intentions of the artist. I care for the kind of art that stays with you because you can never really figure it out although you would really like to.
“Great art poses questions, and the more questions it poses, the better it is.” Robert Longo
For lack of a better explanation, let me start from this one: A work of art is a self-referential configuration (of elements) that challenges the recipient to become active. The recipient’s activity in the face of the work of art can be called interpretation. It encompasses dancing, playing, singing (in music); making sense of forms and colours (in the fine arts); filling narrative gaps, reciting, making sense of rhyme and rhythm (in literature) – among other things. These activities are relevant to the sphere of human action, partly in that they change the way we see and understand our world.*
As far as I understand, seeing art like this implies two more things:
1. There is no meaningless element in a work of art. Everything you hear, read or see is an ‘element’ that contributes to the constitution of the work. Every word counts. The choice of instruments makes a difference. There is no saying, “oh, that’s just the picture’s background and can be ignored.”
2. Because everything means something, works of art are complex. Due to this complexity, the interpretive activities never come to an end: orchestras can play a symphony again and again, re-reading a book opens new perspectives, revisiting an art exhibition is quite rewarding.
Art’s social relevance
Based on this, I would like to suggest that conscience does have a place in art because art is tightly interwoven with our everyday lives. If art helps mould the ways we exist in this world, then there is always a political, social, moral aspect to it. Each work chooses to be avantgarde or conservative, a challenge to or a confirmation of our worldviews.
I might like the moral but not the art
If interpretation really never comes to an end, this might explain the tendency of totalitarian states to subjugate art. Because art is everything but totalitarian. On the other hand, the work of art that succeeds in getting the political message across in the most efficient way might not be a great work. It often brings interpretation to a quick halt.
* These ideas are not mine. This is my attempt to give a short summary of the most intelligent text about art I have read so far: Georg W. Bertram, Kunst als menschliche Praxis. Eine Ästhetik, Frankfurt/Main, 2014. (Apparently also available in Spanish but not in English.) Based on Bertram’s description, it should also be possible to decide whether a toy photograph is a work of art – but that’s an altogether different question.