11/15/2010 03:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Santiago Sierra and the Art World Politics of Rejection

It's always a little awkward when you try to give someone an award and they reject it, citing their objections to the "insane war" you are conducting in alliance with a "criminal empire." Well, let's face it: all rejection is a little awkward.

Last Monday, Madrid-born conceptual artist Santiago Sierra refused the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas, an accolade and 30,000 Euro cash prize that the Spanish government has previously awarded to artists such as Juan Muñoz in a gesture of what this time around appears to be massively misguided good intent.

In a letter addressed to Spain's minister of cultural affairs (and conveniently made available to us non-cultural ministers of Spain on his website), Sierra calls himself a "serious artist," and reminds us that "serious artists" don't just go around allowing themselves to be "exploited by a country...with a contempt for its mandate to work for the common good," a country which is "committed to dismantling the welfare state for the benefit of minority interest," "freely gives public money to private banks," and otherwise allows corruption to run rampant, creating wide and institutionalized inhumanity.

It's hard to imagine, given these parameters, a country from which Sierra would accept an award. And, with this in mind, even harder not to conclude that Spain virtually volunteered itself to go like a lamb to the slaughter. Conflating notions of artistic gesture and political protest, Sierra's work has pretty much been sending Spain this same rejection letter since, like, 1999, in so many words. The artist has paid Chechen refugees minimum wage to remain hidden inside cardboard boxes in a gallery for long stretches (2000), Iraqi immigrants to stand docile while he sprays them with insulation foam (2004), prostitutes [whom he paid in heroin] for the privilege of publicly tattooing their backs (2000), and African immigrants to dye their hair blonde (2001). Sierra uses money to buy people and subject them to degradation and abuse at so low a price that the audience is forced to wonder if endemic government failure hasn't flat-out subsidized the transaction, let alone created the conditions for its occurrence. Taking a page from the terrorist strategy book, Sierra makes a gratuitous show of ethical violence in order to mirror and expose its proliferation in what we might call "society." And the show goes on because of, as Sierra says in his letter, "the freedom... art has given me... which I am not willing to resign."

But if art has allowed Sierra to behave like a terrorist, it has also required him to develop a sufficiently tender PR slant. In 2000, Sierra paid 20 Mexicans to masturbate in front of the camera. He later said, "Nobody said no and for me that was very painful... When I made this piece, I would go to bed crying." How this makes him different from anyone else watching 20 Mexicans masturbate on video is unclear, but at the very least his language demonstrates how he has had to rhetorically navigate (and perhaps avoid) the implications of his own repeated assault on human dignity -- that is, by holding fast to his own existential victimhood, and thereby a deeper solidarity he shares with the abused and disenfranchised he features in his work.

Needless to say, rhetorical solidarity quickly breaks down under the weight of 30,000 Euros. The only thing worse than degrading humans in the name of exposing injustice would be to actually get paid for it by those you are meant to be indicting. If Sierra was to stand behind his artistic practice, the money was never really even on the table. But whether or not Sierra had a choice, Spain most certainly did. Cultural Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde did not have to invite PETA to the slaughterhouse. The jury could have presented the award to Antonio Lopez Garcia, or Manolo Valdes, or any other Spanish artist who is -- well -- nice back. The real accolade, then, ought to go to Spain, for so bravely offering themselves up to the church of art. By endorsing the type of scathingly political work that Sierra makes, and taking the very real risk that they were asking to be made a scapegoat, Spain has proven its commitment to a culture of free speech, progressive intellectualism, and critical discourse. Perhaps the most potent endorsement Spain could offer Sierra was not the money, but rather the opportunity to publicly, officially, and mercilessly turn them down. Whether or not they could have guessed that Sierra would reject the honor, Spain seems to have thrown its weight behind "serious" art -- allowing Sierra to do so in stride -- and, for better or for worse, renewed its subscription to all of the abuse that comes with it.