Can art be subversive?

Size is important. Or at least, the consideration of comparisons, exaggerations and miniatures, reflected realities.

When I think of political art, I think first of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the giant clock and a man working for 10 hours straight to move the arms according to the directions that appear in miniature. Lang created a city that appeared on film as expansive, but in real life was a model. Eugen Schüfftan, the effects expert for the film, pioneered the Schüfftan process – a technique that uses mirrors to project the images of actors onto model sets.

In the documentary Ah the Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet, the artistic director says their purpose is “to provide the world with an unfragmented and uncontrollably large picture of itself, a picture that only puppetry can draw, a picture which praises and attacks at the same time” (Part One, 19:18). The documentary begins by showing a group of cows walking through a field, then a puppet cow giving birth. A plastic sheet covers the calf as he is born, the rocking back and forth of the mother in a rhythmic trance. To most people cows are landscape. As inert and common as trees. But by changing the dimensions of the animals, loose sheets draped over bony hinges, we see them again and we recognize them as alive, as cogent beings experiencing life as we all do – one painful moment at a time.

I believe the uncanny makes the familiar visible, and fluctuations in size effectively create a distorted image of reality.

Wayne White, an artist and puppeteer, designed the set for the television show Pee Wee’s Playhouse. While not championing for overtly political causes, I would still consider the show political. It muddies the divide between child and adult. It asserts the value of play over the traditional adult considerations of capitalism.

To return to Bread and Puppet: “Sculpture is not exempt from earthquakes, nor music from volcanos, and by the same token, none of the arts are exempt from politics” (Part One, 19:58).

The threads that connect one person living in a city in Wisconsin to the tunneled expanses of power in Washington operate on the same principles as an artist dipping their hands into the raw materials of story or sculpture. We are a web, an interstices of outer, real worlds and inner, imagined ones. By taking a concept and creating it physically in the world, artists amplify it in size.

To have a political impact, these images need to play with size, to push us back from the safe ground of familiar realities, so that we can re-see what we have become accustom to.

To produce this amplification, collaboration becomes an invaluable resource. Art does not have to be unkind or impersonal to be subversive and political. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, covering the Mall in Washington D.C. with the names of those lost, became so large that people could not look away.

We must reflect ourselves onto the stage props of society, temporarily inhabiting their small spaces, then enlarge the common injustices so that others can see them.

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