The art world is filled with bad ideas that are repeated like scripture, and accepted as truisms. Most of them presume to make sweeping statements about all art, and establish a hierarchy with their chosen art at the pinnacle. I’ve dismantled a bunch of the worst of these ideas in lengthy articles, but here I’ll nail it down in brief, and create a graphic for each. New additions will be added at the top in new posts. Stay tuned.
#2. All Art IS Political
All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo. ~ Toni Morrison
[NOTE: I’m a big fan of Morrison’s novels, but not this quote.]
Toni Morrison is just one of armies of people who have made this same claim. It’s everywhere, especially these days. Whenever anyone says “all art” we already know there’s an enormous problem: someone is trying to circumscribe art and lord themselves over art with a single definition. True, Morrison starts off with “all good art”, but then includes the rest when asserting even art that tries hard to not be political says “we love the status quo”. Elsewhere she’s said, “that’s what an artists is — a politician”. Ah, so the child who picks up a brush is instantly a politician. I see. For other quotes one can choose from over 37,000 hits on Google for the exact phrase “all art is political”, that’s how ingrained this idea is.
I remember when people used to say “all art is sexual”, or to quote Picasso, “sex and art are the same thing”. I thought that was bonkers when I heard it, and a bit pervy, but, alas, all has changed, and now all art is political. What we really see here is just that all art (and everything else) can be sexualized, or politicized, or seen through whichever narrow lens serves someone’s personal interests (Freudianism, Marxism, Feminism, religion, pure aesthetics…).
if you really pressed people who say all art is political, they’d probably admit that all fashion, cuisine, sports, horticulture, and everything else is political. They just see everything through a political lens. It’s their problem, not art’s. On top of this, it makes art into the rope in a tug-O-war between always opposing forces, and advocating for one side or another.
“All art is political” is the rallying cry of artists who make overtly political art, and it asserts that their art is the most important, that all art must play by their rules, and all art must serve their political agenda. This gets tied in with other overly simplistic notions, such as “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”, and that’s how obviously non-political art gets looped in as political, as automatically part of the problem, or as Morrison put it, the status quo.
What does one do in the case of minimalism, where there’s no content at all to politicize (ex, a stack of bricks by Carl Andre)?
You politicize the act of creating minimalist art itself. But then, there’s no difference in your criticism between individual works, because you only have one blanket criticism which you attribute to all of minimalism.
The idea that all art is political comes bundled with a virus: all art is judged on its political merit in terms of a particular political agenda. Every artist is a cadre, and all art must serve the cause. The revolutionaries are the new critics, political allegiance their criterion, and the artists that don’t join ranks are the enemy who must be defeated.
The person who only sees politics when looking at art can’t see the art for what it actually offers, and places art in a subordinate role to politics as merely a vehicle or prop for whatever (always “progressive”) political cause. Art which promotes the proper agenda is exalted, but any art, no matter how good, which takes a different political position, including none at all, is reviled. Here, art has no intrinsic merit of its own.
Sorry, zealots, but you don’t get to enlist all of art into your political revolution. A lot of art is AWOL, a conscientious objector, a celebration of pure beauty, about nature, religion, spirituality, exploring the imagination, or even dreaming in an opium trance… “All art is political” is such a grotesque exaggeration, that it might be more accurate to argue the opposite extreme, such as that all the best art succeeds irrespective of whatever political content. And if I had to choose one overstatement, it would definitely be the latter. The artist is an artist, and not a politician.
See also: Art is Not Inherently Political!
#1. Making money is the highest form of art
We have Andy Warhol to thank for this nasty little gem.
“Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.” ~
To accept this you need to buy into two things. One is that making money is a form of art-making, and two is that it’s the most advanced level of art. Both are stinkers.
The hippies were closer to the truth than was Warhol. I can illustrate how ridiculous and insulting his idea is by changing one word: “good business is the best music“. Now, the sentiment doesn’t even make sense. Making money has nothing to do with music, and it has nothing to do with art, either.
Even if we are going to try to say that anything and everything is art, than why would business make better art than science, or saving lives, or landing on the moon? If making money is a form of art in the broadest sense of the word, it’s closer to the worst art.
In the same way you aren’t a musician if you don’t make some form of music, you aren’t an artist if you don’t make something creative that can at least be looked at. If making money is great art, so is making war.
Saying business is the best form of art is a bit it like saying greed is the most noble self-sacrifice. It’s shocking us with stupidity and hoping we mistake the shock for novelty and don’t question the stupidity.
[Extras. A meme, and a digital collage on the topic by yours truly.]
To be continued…
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11 replies on “Abominable Ideas About Art #2: All Art is Political”
I’m pretty sure that the stack of bricks by Carl Andre is a statement about the natural superiority of the masculine over the feminine. All those rigid straight likes and brutal heavy squares. But seriously, I have to agree with your thesis that art is not necessarily political. It reminds me of an Amish craftsman who built cabinet for an English (a non-Amish person). He had decorated the cabinet with a series of figures and shapes. He was asked, “But what does it mean?” He replied, “it’s just for pretty.”
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Yeah, Bob, you pretty much nailed how a certain brand of feminist would interpret Carl Andre’s “sculptures”. Myself, I can’t stand Andre. I mean, how many arrangements of floor tiles on the floor can one look at without thinking a) I could have made the next ten after seeing the first one, and b) where’s the coffee shop.
I might have kept my post on “All Art is Political!” more brief, because it can be countered in a sentence.: Some at is political, but all art and everything else can be seen through the lens of politics (thought that’s not a very good idea).
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Old post, but one more comment won’t hurt. Or will it? 😜
If all art is sexual and political, does that mean all politicians are trying to screw their constituents? Just my opnion, but politicians have, for the part, raised constituent screwing to new levels recently, but there’s nothing artful about it.
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And screwing themselves over as well. There have been some rather darkly comical instances of that recently.
I don’t know about minimalist art, although I think my abstract paintings are part of a social commentary I’m trying to make, but I think that all paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, fashion statements, films and animations are political.
I think that all art is social commentary and therefore political.
Did you read my article before commenting? I don’t want to have to repeat myself. So, I’ll just quote my article:
“Sorry, zealots, but you don’t get to enlist all of art into your political revolution. A lot of art is AWOL, a conscientious objector, a celebration of pure beauty, about nature, religion, spirituality, exploring the imagination, or even dreaming in an opium trance… “All art is political” is such a grotesque exaggeration, that it might be more accurate to argue the opposite extreme, such as that all the best art succeeds irrespective of whatever political content. And if I had to choose one overstatement, it would definitely be the latter. The artist is an artist, and not a politician.”
Comment by “Alex S.” deleted by moderator because of racist content and hate speech.
Comment by “Sasha Alexandria Slade” (a.k.a. Alex S) deleted by moderator because of racist content and hate speech.
While I do support free speech, I don’t allow flagrant racist rhetoric, expressions of hatred, and attempts to foster racial discord, distrust, suspicion, and animosity on my blog. Please take your racial antipathy and provocation somewhere else where you can doubtlessly find people interested in engaging in that kind of toxic discourse. This particularly applies to people using (multiple) fake names and fake email addresses, pretending to be whomever, etc.
As my readers know, I don’t tolerate white supremacy (“The Sad Racist Specter of Richard Spencer”: https://artofericwayne.com/2016/11/23/the-sad-racist-specter-of-richard-spencer/), but neither do I countenance fashionably radical belief systems which seek to sew discord and pour gasoline on racial division, and have their own easy targets and scapegoats. Sorry, ideologues of both stripes, but you will have to square off somewhere else. I want nothing to do with your racism, race war, or the noxious and antiquated essentialism and biological determinism you both traffic in.
I disdain the notion that all artistic creations are, on whatever layer of subtlety or self-awareness, somehow trying to critique, analyze, deconstruct or promote some line of sociopolitical thinking or other. Maybe when a guy plays chords on a piano and sings along about how he misses home, JUST MAYBE, he’s only playing piano and singing about how he misses home? Though I’m sure some demented individual out there would like to try and explode such a concept into a convoluted web of subtle political statements.
Perhaps I really am the fool, and “home” is secretly a euphemism for the 19th century confederate South? So subtle a reference, nobody – not even the musician – even noticed it was one!
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You nailed it. When I was in grad school, anything I made had to be somehow sinister because of my biology. Painting itself became synonymous with colonialism, sexism, and a white male hegemony and structure of oppression. Any painting I made would be “dead white male [oppressor art] on arrival”. Any content simply must be sexist/racist/phobic, because of my DNA, and it would just take enough unraveling to inevitably reveal the innately morally heinous content which would make the art not only bad, but something that shouldn’t exist. It’s a difficult environment to work in if you are in the unprotected class. So, you’re analogy is perfect. If someone makes a song about missing home, then “home” will need to be interrogated, and definitely, it’s going to be “white America”. Those is a default track of analysis, and white likely the first and only one that will be applied.