Art, like all culture, is inherently political. Even the most banal, poorly composed still life sitting in your local gallery has a political dimension. The processes by which we define ‘art’ and its prestige are rooted in politics and political discussion, even the creation of a work of art in itself is a political act.
By creating a work of art, be it a painting, performance, or surrealist multi-media installation, the artist is reacting to their experiences, both personal and societal, attempting to communicate some part of that experience to an audience. It is, if anything the most fundamentally ‘political’ act.
Predating any form of written language or civilisation, visual art is the oldest form of communication humanity has so it stands to reason that its relationship with politics is a long and complicated one. So why does so little art seem political?
Despite their shared history, politics and art are seen as fundamentally separate in modern society and debate surrounding art is far more likely to centre on ideas of aesthetic and validity rather than the deeper ideas underpinning the work.
Viewed side by side, the spheres of politics and art in contemporary society share many traits: both are viewed by the general public to be the preserve of a wealthy elite, sheltered from hardship and ultimately out of touch. Similarly, the spheres of contemporary art and politics can both seem to be devoid of original thought and both face a crisis of engagement.
However, this need not be the case. The discourse surrounding contemporary art has advanced in more recent years. The rise in popularity of street artists’ such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey, marks a shift in what we consider art and how we view politics’ place within it.
Banksy’s work is obviously political, he targets the intolerant and oppressive, aiming to excite and engage people on the street, rather than professing to false intellectualism from the blank, white walls of a Chelsea private gallery. Yet, as with so much contemporary art, the aesthetic of artists like Banksy has been co-opted by those seeking profit, with many of his art works removed from their original walls and sold at auction.
Across the world, the streets have become a new home for artists that reject the stuffy, brand focused nature of the art world. In Haiti, citizens rebelled against the turmoil of the late twentieth century with elaborate, colour filled murals, utilising the traditions of Vodou art to target the oppressive military regimes they struggled under. In Brazil, French street artist JR worked with the inhabitants of Rio’s infamous Favelas to create beautiful portraits of everyday citizens on a gigantic scale, and there’s currently an 80 foot tall green butt plug causing outrage on the streets of Paris, so that’s something.
The role of the art gallery is in turmoil, no longer palaces of creative thought open to everyone, they serve to shelter art from the public, fetishing it, reinforcing the idea that art is something that only concerns a privileged few.
Artists have begun to realise this, as have those that run the galleries, and the debate surrounding how to increase engagement with the arts seems endless.
The boundaries between art and politics that were constructed over the twentieth century have begun to give and as the art world once again finds its political roots, engagement with it will, hopefully, increase.
For those of you in any doubt as to the political nature of art, look to history. From Franco to Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeni to Pope Innocent, the most brutal regimes have always cracked down on the arts, censoring books, destroying sculptures and fostering a culture which despises anything that challenges its morality.
The creation of new ideas threatens those who want to retain their power no matter what form it takes. Visual art is one of the most effective tools for the promotion of political thought; it speaks to something higher than reason, it appeals to our emotion, our fears and hopes, the essence of what so many have theorised makes us human. Simply put, to deny the role of politics in art is to strip it of its purpose.