ESR 7 Blog October/November 2023: Noa Mamrud

These past three years have been filled with significant events, prompting me to reflect on the motivations behind the creation of socially and politically engaged art. Whether it was the impact of the pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, or the rise of populism, fascism, and inflation in Europe, I found myself questioning if my heightened focus on politics influenced conversations with acquaintances or if widespread uncertainty about the future led everyone to delve into political discussions.

As a researcher in socially engaged art, I have embraced the idea that everything holds a political dimension, particularly viewing all art as a form of propaganda. Jonas Staal (2014) argues that while the association of art has evolved within the democratic-capitalist framework, its function as propaganda persists. Staal’s perspective challenges the notion of a neutral artistic space, asserting that, at the infrastructural level, art operates within political dynamics. Considering this, the prevalence of political literalism in the art world seems like a compensation for its material dependence on political funding. As if there is a moral obligation for the art world to ensure its ambiguity is not misused.

The overtly political aesthetics in art have added to my feeling of incapacity to temporarily transcend or find respite from the actual. Art that engages with intellect and politics often sidelines the perception of the artistic space as a realm that also fulfils spiritual needs to feel otherwise than what lies below or above concrete reality. My intention here is not to advocate for a return to oppressive modernist aesthetics and worldview, but to highlight the diminishing freedom for independent research, interpretation, and genuine encounters within the artistic space. I observe that the internalization of postmodernist consciousness, where relativity has becomeontological, adds another layer to Staal’s argument: in a world where everything is biased and relative, taking a stance becomes imperative.

Taken from the Instagram page of Dan Perjovschi.

In his work ‘The Post-Agonistic Institution: Four Positions on the Structural Relation between Art and Democracy’ (2017), Bassam El Baroni challenges the art institutionalisation of Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic model of politics that is reliant on incommensurability. He poses the question of what impact has this specific design to promote democracy had on art discourse and its resulting institutional imaginary and limitations. Throughout the text, Baroni argues that the foundation of Mouffe’s model, the ‘differend,’ has been institutionalized in art, leading to a fixation on conflicts rather than considering subjects for their possible commonality. This emphasis on conflict has overshadowed other dynamics that may exist within a democratic framework. Baroni’s diagnosis holds particular significance in the context of socially engaged art, which revolves around the question of how art can propel social change.Some of my research findings add an additional layer to the problem of conflict, suggesting a pattern of conflict avoidance.

My research is grounded in interviews with groups of artists who have shared the stories of their work in the manner they tell such stories to themselves. Many artists responded by expressing that the interviews felt like conversations in a therapeutic space, suggesting that I was able to create an intimate atmosphere and instill trust. Common themes that emerged across interviews highlighted the artistic and emotional need for collective work, and that this takes place within a homogeneous environment. For instance, some queer-identifying artists revealed a preference for collective curation with fellow queer artists. In their annual festival they address their work to a left-wing LGBTQ audience in Stockholm. Similarly, an LGBTQ collective in Athens positioned itself as an artistic producer working towards restorative justice for the local queer community.

Examining the viewpoints of these artists implies a shift in perception concerning the vision of social transformation linked to the political philosophy of socially engaged art. Rather than directing efforts towards expanding their movement by impacting nearby communities, socially engaged artists seem to prioritize the nurturing and strengthening of the community they already align with and identify with. It is probable that a combination of factors has contributed to this perceptual and strategic shift within the framework of social transformation, particularly the redirecting of focus and energy towards familiar environments where consensus is inherent. I expand on these factors in my thesis, and especially on the intriguing way in which art, on the one hand, reflects the state of the political left, and on the other hand, may inspire it.

In contemplating the potential for art to inspire change, it becomes essential to reflect on our abilities, especially in polarized and tense times, to communicate and, as Gili Karjevsky allegorizes in her writing on social practice, “walk the walk.” Are we willing to embrace differences, explore their origins, and seek common ground?

These were three turbulent, challenging, educational and expanding years. I thank everyone I met along the way, who, through discord or harmony, taught me a thing or two about myself.

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El Baroni, B. (2017). ‘The Post-Agonistic Institution: Four Positions on the Structural Relation between Art and Democracy’. In P. O’Neill, L. Steeds, & M. Wilson (eds.), How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse MIT Press.

Staal, J. (2014) ‘Art. Democratism. Propaganda.’ eflux, Issue 52. Available at:


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