All art is exchange: between the artist and subject, between the artist and the work, between the work and the viewer. There is an intimacy in these exchanges which, when welcomed, creates a kind of love. The opposite is when art works against the assumptions of the viewer, whether it be on morality, politics, or something else. Subversive art is the rarest of these, and the most ephemeral.
But what is subversive art? Can art be subversive permanently, or is it always a transient effect? Let’s look at a few examples:
There is a contrast between subversive and offensive. Offense is a personal reaction, whereas subversion is the challenging of established structures such as government or organized religion. Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866) is still seen by some as offensive, but challenging the polished-smooth, hairless ideal of feminine beauty was not the kind of act that topples governments. Indeed, the painting now belongs to France, and is in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, though posting it on Facebook could get your account suspended. Courbet’s bold realism has long since become an accepted part of the art pantheon, and is central to photography, which starts with realism.
Banksy has gained a lot of attention for politically-charged works utilizing elements of graffiti and graffiti art, but who does he challenge? The commercial art world, by painting works directly on walls, where they cannot be sold without difficulty? Governments, through his use of political and social commentary? Banksy’s use of pop culture elements can both raise its subversive qualities by using Hollywood, for example, as material for satire of government, but Pop art did things like that years ago. While Banksy functions outside the capitalist art market, and largely outside the law, his subversive qualities are quite limited.
Ai Weiwei is subversive only if you are the Chinese government. Otherwise, he’s a politically-motivated artist (some of the time) with the daring to stand up for his beliefs.
The Guerilla Girls are just as powerful and necessary as ever – perhaps even more so – but no longer subversive. Museums welcome them, even as they condemn the patriarchal structures that still dominate the art world. Have they been co-opted or corrupted by becoming more a part of the mainstream? Not at all. Their long careers are testimony to their righteous indignation and, sadly, the turtle-like crawl of the art world toward more equitable representation of women.
I was reminded of a quote from P.G.Wodehouse’s novel, The Adventures of Sally (1922), while writing this: “The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.” So it is with subversion. If your societal worldview is threatened by art, that art is subversive; if your personal worldview is threatened, that art is offensive. Portraiture, the human face, is subversive in the face of a corporate society that sees human beings as markets or demographics. Corporate thinking sees people as objects, to be moved in the right direction, that of consumption. The individual is subversive if you buy into that culture. Individuals are separate from corporate/governmental belief systems: “true believers” are fanatics, and rare. That is why the portrait will always appeal to the individual even as it challenges the official truths being told from above. Faces break stereotypes. Abstraction reminds us of the elemental components of the world. Line, shade, color, are what the inanimate share with the animate. Both have their potential for subversion. All you need is some organization to take offense.