Populism is a «belief in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of common people». It is a political philosophy which asserts that «the common people are oppressed by an elite class, and that the instruments of the State need to be wrested from this self-serving group and used for the benefit of the people». The first definition comes from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (and why not!), the second from Wikipedia.
In an age of elitism, James McNeill Whistler wrote «If more than 5 percent of the people like a painting then burn it for it must be bad.»
The trouble for traditional art is of course that it is essentially elitist. Many artists desperately want to be popular but it's just not in their nature. And thus arises the fundamental dilemma, expressed by Belgian philosopher Dieter Lesage: «In the struggle against populism (and any discussion ‘on’ populism believes itself to be part of the struggle ‘against’ populism) it is difficult to not give in to populism oneself. It is an effect that challenges art and politics equally: raising the question what can we do to resist it?»
Why resist it? Why not go with the flow? The urge to be different is embedded in all artists. «I passionately hate the idea of being with it, I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time » Orson Welles (1915 – 1985).
It is an error to conjoin the urge to aesthetic dissent with political or social dissent. Philosophers might call it a category error. It does however provide a source of funds for otherwise barren artistic projects: Populism was the title for a series of exhibitions featuring several artists in Europe in 2005. It had the manifesto
Populism aims at shedding light on the new populist experience by reflecting the shift to new, mass media based politics which embody new ways of aestheticising the political and which go beyond traditional party divisions. A critical departure point for the project is also how mass audiences are increasingly organised around contemporary art and are used for the branding of cities and the forging of new lifestyles. In this way, the Populism project addresses the ambivalences and antagonisms within a populist reality. Populism is a political exhibition because of its involvement in and working through of populist discourses and practices. Through this, it is our hope to participate in the public debate about the fleeting, yet urgently present phenomenon of populism. (more here). Spot the deliberate error: the conjunction of artistic and political metaphors. A good gambit to grab Euro-grants from befuddled Brussels bureaucrats.
Populism is a modern invention. Its rise in the West has accompanied the fall in respect for traditional undisputed authority be it Church, State or Profession. Men who kick a ball around a park are feted and lavishly rewarded; men who cure cancer are not.
Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) was the best known British artist of his time. The elite queued outside his opulent Chelsea home to have their portraits painted and yet he attained total obscurity almost as soon as he was cold in his grave. «Twenty years after I die, nobody will remember me» - and his sumptuous portraits sold in the nineteen fifties for a fraction of their original price, while he was dismissed for his abundance of Rolls Royces and absence of intellectual curiosity.
Edward Prince of Wales (1894 - 1972), later Edward VIII, became Captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1922.
This little homilly shows that we have to be careful when referring to the elite. In the art world the elite are quite a different set from the elite of society. Each subgroup of humanity has its own little elite. History, in art or anything else, is rewritten by today's elite applying today's conventions. Tomorrow, history will be rewritten again according to the prevailing moral condition.
And what of the I-don't-know-anything-about-Art-but-I-know-what-I-like school? We have to be careful not to dismiss this in the same way as we have in the past dismissed the cultures of, say, primitive human societies, or indeed other species. It is all too easy to unconsciously apply our own values when evaluating others and in so doing to overlook their cultural depth. Equally, it's easy to get sucked into relativism and end up with no meaningful analysis at all. The fact that the man in the street can't articulate his reasons for liking or disliking something is not a reason to assume he hasn't got any or that they aren't valid. Quite the reverse - these are difficult areas of discourse and it's likely due to a variety of influences from peer pressure to individual cultural history to genetics. Who amongst us can completely and honestly analyse and write down his own feelings on anything?
The most successful Schools of Art have been those who could tap into the popular subconscious. Artists should not sneer at popularity. Pseudo intellectual analysis may appeal to the chattering classes but history is the ultimate judge of quality. And history is not written by the vocal majority. If your art outlives you by twenty years, then you've done pretty well.
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