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Courtesy of Pierogi Gallery
Last Friday night, British artist Bob Smith (who makes work under the name Bob and Roberta Smith) staged a political revolution and the first ever meeting of the “Art Party” at gallery-cum-warehouse The Boiler in Williamsburg. He gave out “Join the Art Party” pins and read an Art Party manifesto. Smith has been exhibiting satirical politically-minded text and performance pieces for the past 25 years. The Eye spoke to him about Obama, British conservatives, and how art can change the world.
Your show opening on Friday is called “The Art Party (Gotham Golem).” What exactly is the idea behind the Art Party?
It won’t actually be a political party. The idea is to think of it quite like the Tea Party, actually. The Tea Party isn’t a distinct political party running against the Republicans in races. It’s a pressure group. The idea about the Art Party is to say “this is a point of contact for people who agree that the arts are important.”
And what is the “Gotham Golem” aspect? Is that a character you have created?
The Golem is a 16th century Jewish mythological figure, and he’s sculpted by the rabbi in Prague as a giant to save them from the anti-Semites. Humanity summons him up in times of trouble. The idea is to say that artists have the power to make things which can help us get out of difficult situations. That’s why I wanted to make one now. Also, the Golem has a relationship with what’s going on in Britain at the moment. We’ve got quite a conservative government who is running the country, and they only talk about austerity and deficit reduction. It is depressing people because they’re not giving anybody any hope. What I was trying to say with this exhibition is to say to liberal Americans who are a bit fed up with Obama [that], actually, what he is doing is trying to hold off those forces. I can see why people are disappointed in Obama, but from my perspective, Obama looks like an absolute savior.
I’ve seen your piece that reads “I wish I could have voted for Barack Obama.” What is your interest in American politics? As an artist who lives and works in England, do you feel you have an outside perspective on American politics?
I do slightly. I think my perspective on it is [that], after 9/11, [there] was an absolutely disastrous response. Obama’s election in 2008—it was just a fundamental shift away from after 9/11 into something much more hopeful and optimistic and encouraging. So I was trying to make an optimistic show about the power of human beings to put it back together again and not wallow in destruction, which is what George Bush did. People in Britain are quite anti-American, really, but they will never be able to vote for a black head of state. So that is amazing. It’s just so amazing that he was elected. The show is about a positive message about hope and how art can be part of the story.
Right, but there is that element of humor and satire to the creation of an “Art Party,” which is something that runs throughout your work. Why is the combination of humor and politics so important to you?
It’s two things: One is that politics is so important, but also that politics is so stupid. I always think that people should get involved and think about these issues very seriously, because if you don’t get involved in it, you don’t have any power in it. I also think the hubris that the political world has to embrace in order to gain power is something that should be ridiculed.
A piece in the current show reads “The Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is Much More Important than the British Prime Minister.” What was the inspiration behind this piece?
The people who are in control of culture—they’re incredibly important people [and] much more important than some of these politicians. But I don’t really like the current British politicians. I’m not a big fan of the current prime minister.
There is definitely a reactionary tone to the work in this show. This type of text-based, humorous, politically-minded work is having a moment in New York. I’m thinking especially of William Powhida’s show at Postmasters right now, where he writes an open letter to the art world. Do you think art is a viable agent for social change?
Art is really, really powerful, and it is really a viable space for social change. The art world is kind of one part of that, like museum culture might be or magazines. I don’t think the commercial art world that lives in Chelsea is the whole of the art world at all. [The art world is] all of the people who teach art in schools and all of the people who enjoy images, which is all of us, really. That is really powerful and can be an agent for social change, and I believe that very profoundly.
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