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.
11 replies on “Art is Not Inherently Political!”
I agree with you, and I really enjoyed your post.
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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. 🙂
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>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.
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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.
It was refreshing to read your expose or “political art.” Thank you.
Thomas Wolfe said in one of his novels (paraphrased): “There are one thousand artists in New York City, and each one is a law unto himself.”
There is only one reason to be, or attempt to be, an artist. It is to create a world of which one is the absolute ruler. No one can tell him/her what to do. Others may like or dislike what the artist makes as they see fit. But, while sometimes their words may be helpful, beyond that they are of no concern to the artist/creator.
All criticism or discussion, approving or otherwise, is simply taking advantage of artists’ creativity to blab, by people who otherwise have little or nothing to offer.
As for selling art, gallery operators are merely salesmen. While some of them have real feeling for quality in art, ultimately they all operate from the same baseline: It it’s saleable, it’s good art. They promote what they think they can sell. Aspiring artists should remember this and never be discouraged by the rejection of an art peddler.
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I probably wouldn’t express it as “absolute ruler” myself because of the negative connotations of that. The way I put it is, or the way I have put it recently, is that the proverbial “canvas” is the one place where an artist can be in control of his or her own universe, this coming from a veteran of many years of temp jobs and other jobs where others “managed” me, and we not necessarily my intellectual superiors, nor as educated, old, traveled, experienced, and so on. Truly, it really is the canvas where visual artists can be themselves and not be absolutely ruled over. Though this is only on the side of delivery, once the artist has created a work, the world can make whatever they want of it, shit on it, or even adore it, depending on individual tastes, openness, curiosity, and so on.
And you are probably right about galleries. It’s what I’m hearing. I’m sure there are some galleries that are in it because they love the art. I’d open a gallery if I could, and had the time to still do my own stuff.
As for politics in art, well, this has just got worse and worse even since I wrote this article. There is more censorship, and people are seeking punitive measures against artists whose images they project their own interpretation on, and then justify punishing the artist based on their subjective, erroneous interpretations. The art world has become all about politics. Have a look at Hyperallergic or even ArtNet News. I follow both of those and get my daily dose of predictable, one-sided, postmodern/critical theory/feminism/identity politics articles. So, the crazy thing about political art is that the art is completely irrelevant, or horrible, if and only if it espouses the incorrect political opinion, or is seen as having done so. For many people right now the role of art is to further a radical left political agenda, full stop. And THAT is NOT what I got to art for. I can get indoctrinated anywhere, and insisting that art serve a political cause, or else, is a tyranny over art that I find anathema. I also rather think it completely misses the point of art. Sure, people can and are welcome to use art as a political platform. Some of my favorite songs are rabidly political, oddly enough. But, to insist that art MUST be political, and MUST conform to what is now very conventional political thought is crippling, boring, reductionist, and anti-art, IMHO.
I like to take a longer view and consider that, beyond so-called “fine art,” there are many valid uses for the visual phenomenon that goes by the name of “art”: advertising art, interior design, fabric and clothing design, industrial design, architecture, and many others, including political propaganda. Art commissars who dictate that all art must be political could just a well insist that all artists engage in dress design.
In his book ‘On Art and Connoisseurship’ the brilliant art historian and connoisseur Max J. Friedlander states that “One should look at works of art without any intention of deriving knowledge.” The art commentariat is subject to fads ranging from art-for-art’s-sake to art-for-politics’-sake, the latter being the flavor of the day,
I believe that the best course for the artist is to rise above the chattering class and find fulfillment in making one’s art, whatever it is. Art made by a true artist will find its audience, and the audience will consist of people who can see as well as look. Please excuse one more quote from Mr. Friedlander: ” . . . it is in the nature of art to speak ambiguously, like an oracle.”
And finally (really) something taught me long ago by a beloved music teacher: “Those who can, do. Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, criticize.”
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Could be that visual art is ambiguous, at least when one attempts to filter it through the rational intellect and convert it into language. I tend to think ambiguity is a good thing, but wouldn’t rob visual art of the power of being specific if it wants or needs to be. Often when we speak about art we are talking about our own personal relationship to it. One of the reasons you won’t see me writing a manifesto or joining this or that group is just that I wouldn’t expect anyone else to have the same relation to art as I do, though sometimes there can be overlap.
As for your teacher’s quote, I think there are plenty of people who can do art, teach, and be critics. I’m one of them. Teaching is a necessity for really a lot of artists, and if you have ideas in your head and are able to articulate them, then you can write criticism. I surely would not give extra points to an artist who was incapable of teaching or making criticism, as if THAT made them the real deal. But, I suppose some people might be great at art AND math, whereas I suck at math. Different people have different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. But, if you are an artist and you have gone through grad school you will have had to make art, teach as an assistant, and write criticism or at least some solid papers to some degree.
Some of my more famous art teachers were really shitty teachers though, and then some were quite good. All depends on an individuals aptitudes, I’d think.
Another great thing one can do through art is to ask all sorts of exciting questions: What is perception, what is reality, what is behind the reality we see, what is hidden, what is beauty, and so forth.
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And yet, merely asking a question offers next to nothing unless it provides something of an answer. We would not appreciate cuisine that asked, “What is delicious” if it didn’t put anything on the plate to eat. And if the questions are merely meant to be pondered in the intellect, than the visual language is reduced to an inert object as a conversation piece. So, I wonder if asking questions really is much of an achievement in art, or whether it’s a cop-out on a pedestal. I rather think one must offer something that is satisfactory rather than being perpetually trapped in the starting gate talking about what to do.
Dear Mr. Wayne,
Thank you for your thoughts on art and politics having to bisect for the art to be considered “real” art. I had to do many searches to find anything in support of this belief. I was not surprised or discouraged, but that’s because I have placed the majority of what I value in my poetry and music on how much it satisfies my personal intentions and very little on how it is received outside of that.
I cannot devote my productive hours to something as vague and ambiguous as politics if I wish to express my art for the present and posterity. My work is what I refer to as essentially neo-romantic for the sake of giving a person an idea of what they are in for should they choose to engage it. I’ve no issue with what anyone makes the focus or intention of their art. It’s supposed to be an act of practicing the freedom of expression, not deciding what is right and what is not as right.
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