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.