The debate over whether art should be political is one which has dominated discussions amongst those who dwell in the world of creative expression. It is ongoing and arguably, gathering momentum.
On one end of the spectrum it is argued that art should be didactic, that it has a necessary role in unveiling social injustices, to make the personal political, and serve as provocation in order to generate discontent amongst the oppressed. In contrast, others argue that art with an assigned meaning ruins the beauty of art itself. Photographer Viktoria Binschtok, however, illustrates how politically motivated art is anything but disposable with her collection, Die Abwesenheit der Antragstellar (translated as, The absence of the applicant).
Binschtok is a Russian photographer born in 1972 who works and lives in Berlin. She uses her lens to capture everyday social occurrences that often go ignored. The piece in question is a set of images capturing a plethora of marks left on the inside walls of an unemployment centre in Berlin. The pure simplicity of the images means that without context, their significance is rather ambiguous. But once thoroughly explored, perhaps through Walter Benn Michaels’ The Beauty of a Social Problem, it becomes clear that her isolated images are an allegory for a wider systematic problem.
The alienated marks on the walls is a deliberate and orchestrated move towards de-individualising those who await eligibility checks in unemployment centres. In our current neoliberal climate, the bodies of those in poverty are often situated at the forefront of political discussions – whether they be empathised with or condemned for their lack of ambition. Other artists including Andres Serrano and his series Nomads and Kevin Carter’s the vulture and the little girl sought to illustrate poverty through singular victims. What makes Binschtok’s work so idiosyncratic is her removal of persons to illuminate a profound ideological mechanism that not only caused but also needed the unemployed persons to be exactly that; unemployed. Her call for the recognition of capitalist contradiction lies at the core of Die Abwesenheit der Antragstellar.
the contradictory statement bolstered by neoliberals – that poverty is chosen and the result of bad individual choices
By shifting the attention away from the subject and towards the context which guaranteed the subject’s existence, Binschtok delves deep into Marxist school of thought. Marx believed that unemployment was a necessary phenomenon under capitalism. He coined the term “industrial reserve army” to describe an everlasting state of unemployment within capitalist society that serves the purpose of ensuring wages of those in working-class jobs are kept low. Moreover, this further strengthens the competition between those in the lower classes, causing resentment between the working and the jobless. It is, in this sense, why Walter Benn Michaels called unemployment ‘as much a solution as a problem’ for the capitalist, unemployment creates further exploitation for workers and non-workers alike and thus generates more profit. This is, however, a problem for those being used as cogs in the capitalist machine.
This piece of artwork, you could argue, is extremely radical in today’s neoliberal society where television offers a plethora of programmes demonising the underclass for being lazy and too dependent on the state, such as, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away! and Benefits Street, reminding us that society hates poor people. Binschtok offers an alternative perspective on the way our society works through the medium of photography and simultaneously highlights the contradictory statement bolstered by neoliberals – that poverty is chosen and the result of bad individual choices. It therefore takes the weight of the blame from those suffering in poverty and directs the blame towards the structures that create and maintain poverty. Indeed, the first step in abolishing inequality is to recognise the power structures that are dependent on it.
The poor are not an aesthetic to be hung in a gilded frame. To caress those in poverty with a sympathetic gaze proves useless, according to Walter Benn Michaels, when you are unaware of the manufactured causes behind their suffering. By removing the subject altogether, Binschtok prevents this from happening. And so, far from being disposable, Binschtok’s faceless images will continue to serve a purpose in exposing the contradictions of capitalism. She shows us that the coexistence of art and politics generates fruitful opportunities to confront the status quo. Therefore, artistic activism will always be pregnant with the chance of provoking revolutionary thought which can then be translated into grass-root activism.
Image: With kind permission from Viktoria Binschtok