Art is like food. It’s that simple, folks. It’s either delicious or it isn’t. No amount of politicizing food will make it taste better. It doesn’t matter what the chef’s politics are, either. That is a separate issue altogether.
These days everything is backwards, and I sometimes suspect that might be very deliberate. OK, I’m pretty sure it is. Everything is politicized, even math. We are told endlessly that “all art is political”, which merely means that the person articulating that position his or herself sees all art through that narrow lens. I’ve always rebelled against subordinating art to political agendas.
We watched a Hitchcock movie in my photography class when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and then were given a feminist essay deconstructing it. Even at the time I found it claustrophobic and missing the point of the film, the nature of film, and the meaning of art. Sure, the author might have had a few salient points, but she’d butchered everything else. On the other end of the spectrum, in my British Literature class, the professor foisted his strongly conservative interpretations of Dickens, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot on us, which we were expected to regurgitate verbatim on the midterm. When I gave my own answers to his questions on the exam, instead of merely parroting his position, he failed me [fortunately I was able to drop his class]. Similarly, in an 18th Century Literature class, the instructor’s criticism of my paper on Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas was that it was “misguided”, though he had to admit it was very well written and argued. I had a similar mark-down, though having to concede the quality of my arguments, in a Shakespeare class.
In my New Genre class I was criticized for being “locked in the rectangle” because I was a painter. In my painting class I was snubbed by the teacher for making figurative art instead of abstraction. Each class I entered had a hidden agenda and belief system. Grad school was the worst because all the ideology was on one extreme side of the spectrum, and not only was all art political, it had better be, and it had to support a radical left agenda. Worse still, in order to do so, you had to be the right person, which I was not, based on my physiognomy. Absolute prejudice practiced with extreme bias all in the name of art! But it is not really for art, it’s against it. When you throw a leash around art and demand it follow certain rules, or only go in one direction, you are a tyrant over art.
None of this is to say that you can’t make political art. Even Black Sabbath’s best song — War Pigs — is political. It just means that the politics aren’t what make the art great. Politics may be the motivation behind it, just as religion inspired so much art, but all that really matters is what the artist does with it. War Pigs is anti-war, but it’s the heavy guitar riffs that make it great. That’s where the magic is: the alchemy and artistry.
This is even more obvious in a purely instrumental song. Take “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group. There’s a classic riff in there at the 30 second mark. It’s not just the notes, obviously, but the particular sound of the instruments playing them:
In today’s mindset about art, we’d spend all our time analyzing the cover, and wouldn’t bother listening to the music at all, or if we did, just enough to come up with some sort of sentence or two that would seemingly connect it to our foregone conclusions.
Since I’m using heavy metal as an illustration, consider that the members of Iron Maiden agree that Number of the Beast was their best album, and they’ve cut 13 albums since then.
Was is the politics that made that their best work? Obviously not. It was probably just because it was their fist album with a new lineup, and so it was fresh and hadn’t yet become a routine. The freshness is evident in the music, while later albums become formulaic. Even in high school I found their follow-up, “Piece of Mind”, not interesting or appealing enough to sustain my interest. I was more into prog anyway. Only the best metal made the cut. You can use any music for your examples.
Beauty has become a bad word in art, which is the stunning example for today of everything being backwards. It’s completely unfashionable to talk about it. Hell, it’s anathema in the art world. All is politics, and politics is all. We must first know the race and gender of the artist, otherwise we won’t know how to interpret the work. This is so dumb that it’s startling. Instead of a picture being worth a (mere) thousand words, we don’t even know how to look at a picture without first hammering it into a pigeon hole with a handful of necessary categorical words.
I was pleasantly shocked to discover I had my art history mixed up — it’s been decades since my survey of art history courses — and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was completed 17 years before da Vinci started his Mona Lisa. More startling still, Jan Van Eyck died  before da Vinci was even born (in 1452].
This may not be weird to you if you managed to get your art history timeline down correctly. I’m sure I had it right in the past. I aced my art history classes. But somewhere along the line, works by Botticelli and Van Eyck came to seem newer to me than da Vinci’s work. It’s hard to be as impressed with da Vinci’s use of modeling and perspective if one has taken a good look at the work of Van Eyck.
Consider the above works by Van Eyck are NOT sculptures, but 3D illusionistic paintings of non-existing ones. The point of this digression is that art history has the very strong tendency to prioritize certain works based on a given narrative of art, and consequently places too much importance on some art and artists, and too little on others. Van Eyck’s innovations, especially for his time, outstrip those of da Vinci as regards complexity of visual representation of physical reality. Art history subjugates thousands of great art works to one, narrow, linear history: a narrative crafted in linguistics.
People roll with the narrative. Duchamp’s Fountain becomes one of the most seminal artistic achievements of the 20th century because of an idea of importance we ascribe to it in a chronological story we impose on art. The Fountain, were it food, would be not just not for human consumption, but inedible. It is a prop intended to attack art, but itself has little or no artistic content. We are brainwashed to believe that no artistic content is the best artistic content. An empty plate becomes the most delicious cuisine. When thinking about art becomes more important than looking at it, art is reduced to a prop, in which case art that never aspired to be more than a prop becomes the best art.
Why is everything backwards? Quite simple. Politics strives to ensnare and enlist us as subordinates in someone else’s quest for power and control. Because of this it undermines that which would make us stronger, more independent, more free, and robs us of our potential, our faith in ourselves, and our true freedom. This goes against the kernel of our nature, hence is backwards.
4 days ago I decided to stop imbibing the news. I’d already mostly stopped writing about politics, but this was a much bigger step. I’ll write about this later, but the immediate result is that I am free of it. It no longer has a hold on me, and my life isn’t directed by it’s self-serving course. Politics sells you a superior purpose that you must serve, ultimately in the selfish self-interest of whatever ruling party, class, or elite. Your own purpose is sacrificed for the greater good of their excess luxury. There’s always a pyramid scheme that wants us to throw all our energy into serving it.
Oh, but we must join the revolution. Screw your revolution, cadre. I’m not a grunt on the front lines of your war: expendable cannon-fodder rushing into the roaring slaughter for your glory. I am my own revolution! Artists sacrifice a lot, but the one thing we have is our own voice. I’m not going to voluntarily sing revolutionary songs in your choir. Thanks, anyways. You’re not my boss, Plucky! Find someone else to give a suicide mission to in order to advance your avaricious goals. The leaders of revolutions seek to secure for themselves unchecked power, influence, and reward, above the law of the commoners, and equal to that of pharaohs.
Hint, if you want me to follow your revolution, it can’t be the kind that Genesis captured so well in the lyrics to their 1970 song, The Knife:
Some of you are going to die –Genesis, The Knife, 1970.
Martyrs of course to the freedom that I shall provide
And that is a great song, and a political one. Makes my same point over a half century ago, because politics keeps chasing its own tail. As I said, I’ve nothing against making art with a political message, but that is not what makes the song float or not. Stagnation is a better song on this same album, and contains one of my favorite poetic lyrics, which are much less overtly political, if at all:
And will I wait for everGenesis, Stagnation, 1970
beside the silent mirror
And fish for bitter minnows
amongst the weeds and slimy
Even in high school I preferred the poetry of Stagnation over the political message of The Knife. It was more subtle, imaginative, evocative and weird. If you don’t already believe that some classic rock is high art, have a listen to Stagnation. The keyboards coming in at 1:40 haunted me in my youth:
Back to the revolution. If your revolution puts you or its leader in a hierarchy above me [the individual], go take candy away from some other baby, or go back to the drawing board. Sacrifice yourself first if their needs to be human sacrifice.
OK, that was a lot of hyperbole. Of course not all revolutions are selfish, and some are necessary. We tend to err, in the art world, on worshiping anything that is “radical” or “revolutionary”, in which case my corrective needed to have extra verve. The point is that art need not serve any political cause, for or against, and is no better for doing so. Now back to my hyperbolic excesses.
When art is subordinated to this or that political movement, the church, the state, or whatever agenda, it is made a slave and reduced to producing props and propaganda. If whichever authority demands art serve its agenda, or censors art that doesn’t or that challenges it, that authority is not about individual freedom. They would restrict the movement of your imagination in your own consciousness if they could. You will not imagine that! They would drive a stake in the ground and leash your imagination to it.
Along with beauty, quality is now the enemy of contemporary art and art-theory. Outsource the production to paid artisans or hired underlings! Again, it’s all backwards. That’s the freedom of the artist: to create something with his or her imagination, and make it appealing and convincing using beauty and skill. You are your own definer of reality. To attain those skills demands you have a certain amount of self-control, motivation, and dedication. To understand beauty and be able to produce it requires sensitivity, knowledge, and immersing oneself in art and culture. Great art is not created by inferior people. We should judge the artists by the art, and not the other way around, just as we judge athletes by their performance, not how they voted on the latest ballet. This doesn’t mean a great artist can’t be an asshole, but it does mean that asshole put in the time, made sacrifices, and learned to express his or her asshole self.
To judge art by the biology of the artist is about as backwards and clueless as you can get when it comes to understanding art. It’s like judging the songs of birds by their plumage. And yet now it is mandatory to frame art in terms of the facts about the artist’s physical attributes at birth. In order to understand the content of their mind, we must ignore the expression of their mind, and instead defer to such things as the entirely mute message of their pigment. We shall judge the quality of your thought by the shape of your toenails. Brilliant!
Style, era, and especially politics are all of secondary importance. What makes art good is the quality with which it is produced, the beauty of it, and we might say how it transcends the medium in question. Note that “transcendence” is also a forbidden word in the art vocabulary of today.
To say art needs to be political is to say it needs to be shackled, and to judge art by its politics is to punish it as a prisoner. Art needs to be free, and anything else is authoritarian, criminal bullshit.
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