Art is Not Inherently Political!


My revised caricature of Trump.

A lot of people, and I mean really a lot of people, including my graduate school art instructors, firmly believe that art is a vehicle for political and social change, and that is its primary and highest purpose. Further, and this should be obvious, the politics in question must themselves have a “progressive” agenda, and the makers of the art must have the appropriate DNA to produce the art in question. Well, the true believers in this view of art might not accept the last sentence as is, since it’s obviously critical of their position, but it’s pretty damned accurate.

I was the TA for an Intro to Photography class in grad school. All students had to come up with an issue to make photography about. See what I’m talking about? Only the issue was seen as important, and then art was just a way of getting across one’s point. This would be as opposed to learning the basics of photography, or some standard rudimentary projects before going off in ones desired direction. Your direction is only allowed to be political art of protest.

Art is not inherently political or in the service of politics. That is just a self-justifying excuse for seeing everything through a convenient, and narrow, rhetorical and ideological lens. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with art when it does go political (three of my all-time favorite songs are rabidly political), but rather that it doesn’t have to be political at all, nor does the DNA of the person who created it matter for shit.

One of the problems with seeing all art as political is that when there are no obvious politics, we must then impose them, and usually that’s not going to be a good thing, especially if the artist is a “dead white male” [no dead white male ever created anything]. They believe that if you are “not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”, in which case your art is part of the problem, in which case it is about upholding the patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy, and everything else wrong with the world. Even if you are against all those things, and they make you puke, and you fashion purely lyrical abstract paintings because you love pattern and color, you are still unconsciously upholding the systems of oppression, and so on. There are stock phrases that can be spewed with invective to answer any claim of innocence of evil in ostensibly non-political art.

A simple reason art is not primarily about politics is that if you happen to be a “marginalized person” and you make art about a specific cause [this was the most legitimate approach in my grad school], once that cause is rectified, then what do you do? Ah, yes, you find another cause. There’s always another cause. But let’s just say things are pretty good for once in some idyllic future. Let’s admit that some things have gotten better over the centuries, such as slavery being outlawed in the developed world, and its going to get better in similar ways. Would there then be no need for art? I rather think life would be really boring in some future utopia without art. Instead, I think art might be a new focus for more and more people, as they’d have time enough to get into it, even if they had nothing overt to fight against in their art.

The other reason art isn’t synonymous with politics is that, for most of us who became interested in art at an early age, it wasn’t because we were looking for a medium in which to get out our message of empowerment of marginalized persons, or to fight residual colonialism. It was because we liked drawing, or looking at pictures. We enjoyed the aesthetics, and the manipulation of medium. This is like how children might gravitate to music, not because they want to have a melody in which to couch their anti-capitalist screed, but rather because they like tunes.

Art has been largely taken away from artists, and handed to theoreticians, rich buyers, critics, and now political ideologues and pseudo-revolutionaries. At this point I can only suggest that art is for artists, too, and for people who like art for its essential qualities.

I could go into more depth, but I got a piece to work on.


Consciousness Collectors from Mars!, in progress. Should be done today,

~ Ends.




4 thoughts on “Art is Not Inherently Political!

    1. Thanks for commenting. It’s great to know when someone enjoys something I’ve written. I just wanted to get that post off my chest, but not dwell on it too much, because, I’ve had an overdose of politics this season, and need a good, long break from it. đŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  1. >One of the problems with seeing all art as political
    We’ve had this discussion before, you and I, and as you know, I had a different experience of art school/s, one that fortunately took in a multitude of attitudes towards art. The first I went to had a fixation on sketchbooks. The second one, one of the major institutions in London, had no discernable house-style, but its cohorts (c.1999-2001) were focused on how to produce things that might get into galleries and get them some profile. There was a manufacturing bent to this – painting and video dominated – and there were growing debates over how to overcome the danger of too much art about art concerns. The situation was fluid. If there was any theory, it was half-read at best. There was name-dropping rather than exposition. But I suspect that the leaning towards political art you experienced occurs in different places and at different times. Not that there isn’t an orthodoxy in which politics of difference determines a lot of arts funding. But if you’re looking for people who see all art as political then you’ll find them. The same could be said about looking for people who see all art as art about art. I notice from magazine shelves just how many galleries are filled with craft-based work that explores form and material. There’s little said about it, but it’s ubiquitous.
    If there’s one kind of politics that artists confront, it is this: someone buying art needs to have a lot of spare cash to do so. Anyone selling to them, at some level, accepts this. There is an in-built inequality to any art that doesn’t sit unsold in the corners of studios. I know that’s not the kind of politics you’re talking about. But I guess there’s different kinds of politics like there’s different kinds of art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jeff:

      Fortunately I studied art in 5 different colleges – 2 community colleges, and 3 state colleges. Of those, only UCLA seemed to have a healthy plurality of approaches and attitudes, though the general drift was along with the stronger current of art trends at the time. While there were drawing and paintings classes, they seemed antiquated, even to me. It’s wasn’t the medium, but just that the teachers had a more traditional/conventional approach to art. That didn’t have to be the case, it just was. But, overall, there was a pretty good balance and I think my time at UCLA was very productive.

      My grad school was the super niche political agenda art school. Apparently it was ahead of its time because all the identity politics people are spewing now, like it’s some revolutionary new thing, I learned in spades two decades ago.

      The overarching political view still exists and is very healthy. Take a gander a Hyperallergic, including the comments section and moderation thereof. I was banned for disagreeing that Cindy Sherman is a deplorable racist, though my argument was presented very academically and politely. In the end. I held a different position, and was essentially excommunicated for being a non-believer.

      Recently, since I’m a subscriber (because they ARE useful in letting me know what’s going on in the art world), there was a plethora of articles and editorials against Trump, and urging protests on his inauguration. If one steps back a bit, this is as appropriate for an art magazine as it is for a music magazine. But whereas in music it would seem overly partisan, grandstanding, and the editor taking the bully pulpit, in art it is considered “radical” and necessary.

      The far left in America, and perhaps elsewhere has become a bit of a belief system, where if you don’t subscribe to it’s simplified version of reality, you are OUT.

      I’m almost grateful for the alt-right, who I find about equally annoying, in that the two sides can square off and attack one another until they figure out that the the real problem isn’t ordinary people and their prejudices, but rather the super powers, and super powerful, who are orchestrating much of this for their own personal gain.

      As for art dealers and selling. I find that irrelevant to actual art. It’s something “artists” have to deal with, but it’s not conducive to the quest of art.


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