Art and Politics: towards a post-utopian, participative paradigm

They did not know it was impossible: so they did it.

FAce2Face JRFace2Face,

JR, 2007

  JR is a young French street artist, born in Paris, in 1983. Nobody knows about his real name: his initials, J and R, are the only clue he uses in signing his performances. Since the late 1950s, the number of street artists has grown exponentially. However, JR’s art is different. It may be said to be the ideal blend of graffiti, now perfectly integrated into landscape of the common city, and the power of Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s drawings deposed on pavements and monuments, catching the walker’s eye in order to remind him of the darkest hours of recent History (Deportation, the criminalization of abortion, civil war, and exile). JR’s creations are based on the same paradigm: huge black and white, always highly expressive, portraits pasted on urban walls, originally illegally but JR now having reached fame, occasionally officially authorized, even patronized. There are several aims to his infiltrative art: forcing walkers into confrontation with art (even if - above all if - they might not readily have taken the step of going into a gallery to appreciate artistic creations of their own initiative), creating a feeling of surprise, fear or laughter. Thus placing them artificially face to face with people they would ordinarily ignore or stigmatize.

His first big exhibition took place between 2004 and 2006, during the French suburban riots, and was called Portrait d’une génération. In this show, JR forced Parisians to face suburban youths, through the huge portraits he pasted up in the smartest neighborhoods. By doing so, he wanted to confront the image from the media –and thus, the image most people had of such young people- with one inspired by reality.

Face2Face was his second large-scale project, held in 2007. Once again, JR wanted to be confronted with a reality he knew nothing about. As he explains in several interviews, the Middle-East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular are the most reported struggles of the 21st century, they are daily featured in the media, when none of his friends or the members of his family actually have met either an Israeli or a Palestinian.  The situation is the same for most people and that is why he decided to take a trip to the territories concerned. Obviously, he did not go there without some misgivings. After the trip, he explained that overcoming his own prejudices was the most difficult part of the project. Accompanied by a friend, Marco, he travelled there without knowing exactly what he was going to do. They both just knew they wanted to do something on both sides of the area. The project took form through their contacts and dialogues with the local population. Every time they talked about their idea of making a participative artistic project involving both Israelis and Palestinians, each side answered that it would be all right for them, but that the opposite side would refuse. JR and Marco had been struck by the similarities between the two nationalities: according to them, it was obvious that even if they did not hold the same religious beliefs, they were similar in many other ways, for instance in appearance or their ways of life. Thus, they decided to paste pictures of Israelis and Palestinians plying the same activities and of a comparable age side by side, subsequently challenging the onlookers to guess which was Israeli and which Palestinian. For many of them, it was the first time they actually had seen anyone from the other side within a context other than war, the Media and propaganda. Several observations were triggered by this project. First, and contrary to what they were expecting, most of the people concerned were enthusiastic and readily accepted to participate. The project was a real success. Secondly, most of them did not succeed in finding out which of the characters was Israeli, and which was Palestinian. Obviously, this does not mean that they totally changed their mind-sets and decided to make peace with the other side: but, at least, for a short moment, both sides artificially got together, peacefully, and observed each other with a new eye.

With regard to this project, we may view art and its effectiveness for acting on political and religious conflicts anew. As we are neither naive or nor utopian, we will not baldly pretend that art can resolve a crisis such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its own. The effectiveness of art should not be measured in such simplistic terms. We cannot expect any artist to resolve single-handedly a struggle involving thousands of people. The very nature of globalization is a hindrance against any single artistic intervention producing a direct, simultaneous impact on the whole world. But the most retrograde attitude of all would consist in declaring that consequently, art has no role to play in political conflicts. Another discursive strategy consists in saying that art is not serious enough to be relevant. Face2Face shows that art can intervene in massive conflicts, when respecting certain conditions. As an example, the intervention by Banksy on the wall of separation (2005) was little appreciated by one of the local inhabitants: “we don’t want this wall to become beautiful, go home”. JR’s approach was different because he directly talked to people, explicitly asking them for the permission to take pictures and then to paste the results on their walls. This new participative art implies enhancing communication between artist and public. In JR’s approach, the public is itself the art. We can reckon that reducing the gap between the artist’s status (superior, active, deciding what art will be) and the status of the public (inferior, passive) is one of the fundamental elements in the successful development of political art in  a sensitive situation. The “active-public-paradigm” should be the new strategy in enhancing the effectiveness of art. We may conclude with the following quotation from JR’s speech on winning the TED Prize in 2011: “In some ways, art can change the world. I mean art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world”.