If there’s any popular conception about art that’s inherently false, it’s the notion that art is a pure form of human expression. It’s easy, even tempting to think of art as unaffected by the vagaries of the world around us, the distilled product of an artists’ creative vision. It’s a romantic idea, made even more potent by stories of reclusive or mysterious creators people love to talk about. But nothing could be further from the truth. Especially when you consider the relationship between art and politics.
Just as vast and nebulous a term like ‘art’ is, politics is about much more than the people who rule us. Nearly all of human history in one way or another has boiled down to a struggle for power. From kings and queens fighting over countries and continents, to trade and commerce, to even socio-political movements that would change society as we knew it, our past has been mired in conflict between different people who wanted different things. And art, among other things, is how we made sense of it all.
More than anything, art is a chaotic ensemble of borrowed ideas, cultural influences and human desires. It never has—and never can—exist in a vacuum. It represents how we see ourselves as a species, and perhaps more crucially, who we wish to be. Much of our history is recorded in our art, and going back to look at it often makes for an uncomfortable journey. But it can also be incredibly compelling, a literal snapshot of the world as it was in that particular time. In that sense, art even proves to be instructive, a way for us to reflect on our past choices and see how we might do things differently this time.
Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?
In the mid-20th century, the world of American art was in the midst of a small Renaissance. Artistic expression had shed the self-imposed restrictions of the past centuries and become increasingly accepting of fresh, unconventional art styles.
It’s in this climate of seemingly endless possibility that a new political art movement was brewing in urban New York. In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art conducted a survey of painting and sculpture which, among its 169 surveyed artists, featured only 13 women. It was a detail that went entirely unnoticed by everyone. All except for a group of female artists and art-world professionals who had long been victims of a creative landscape that habitually downplayed or erased women’s contributions to art. This anonymous group called themselves the Guerrilla Girls, and over the next several years, they campaigned throughout the city of New York to be recognised alongside their male peers.
Their most enduring and impactful work came in 1989, in the form of a poster featuring a reproduction of La Grande Odalisque, an 1814 painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres of a nude woman. By concealing her face with a gorilla mask—the Guerrilla Girls’ signature disguise—they asked of the viewer in bold letters: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
The Guerrilla Girls had conducted a survey of their own where they’d visited the 19th and 20th century galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What they found was simultaneously startling and bleak. Of all the artworks in the modern galleries, only around 5% were created by women. On the other hand, 85% of the nudes in those same galleries were female.
This sparked a renewal of the movement as their findings brought to light an issue no one had even considered before. When the Public Art Fund of New York City rejected the inflammatory poster, the group rented advertising space on the city’s public buses. Prominently displayed to the public, these posters caught the attention of people including activists, all over New York.
History has no lack for instances of radicals using powerful art as a tool for rebellion. In 1960, Alberto Korda captured what is considered one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. Guerrillero Heroico, a photo of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, is perhaps the most immediately recognisable, visually striking image of Communist and Marxist ideology that has far outstripped its original purpose. When Korda took the photo, he was captivated by Che’s expression, what he described as a look of “absolute implacability,” of firm stoicism.
In the decades that followed Che’s death in 1967, his Marxist ideals and condemnation of the Soviet Union and Imperialism alike took his fame to unprecedented levels. The May 1968 issue of Time magazine spoke about his legend that had given “rise to a cult of almost religious hero worship among radical intellectuals, workers and students.” Korda, who chose not to copyright his photograph, helped circulate it around the world, in the hopes that Che’s image would invoke his revolutionary ideals among those who viewed it.
The stylized poster artwork created by Jim Fitzpatrick in 1968 did even more to imprint Che’s legend in the popular imagination. He became much more than just the figurehead of Communist-Marxist ideology. To this day he’s remembered as the quintessential revolutionary, fighting against the establishment. Che’s image is the image of rebellion.
The power of symbols transcends language, historical context or even truth. They become an identity unto themselves, a way for people to see themselves in the art they consume, united in a common spirit. The relationship between art and politics takes over communal identities. It starts to become the very thing people stand by or associate themselves with. A most reprehensible consequence of this, however, is when these very symbols are used to divide communities as a means to political ends. As well-suited as art is to spread a simple message among the public, it’s equally well-suited to defining stark political boundaries between them.
The Propaganda Machine
For centuries, art—in its countless forms—has been one of, if not the most useful tools for ruling powers to corral the masses into a particular political mindset. Art has a certain dramatic, emotional weight that few other kinds of media have, making it a particularly effective method of communicating broad concepts without the burden of nuance. By appealing to human sentiment and circumventing critical reasoning, art and political ambition make for a potent, often disastrous concoction.
In the Second World War, political propaganda was rampant throughout countries on both sides of the conflict. Nazi Germany was rife with propaganda centered around the exclusion of Jews from society, to paint them as a greedy and unscrupulous race that needed to be purged from their lands.
The government took to films, music and radio broadcasts to spread anti-Semitic messages to the public. Posters and artworks glorified Hitler and the Nazi army, urging young men to join the army, while denigrating Allied soldiers as beasts and savages.
The British and American propaganda engines ran on a steady diet of anti- Nazi, anti-Fascist messages. Hollywood really capitalised on the propaganda bandwagon, with big-budget war dramas extolling the virtues of America and their unwavering opposition to the oppressive fascist forces of Nazi Germany. Young men were encouraged to enlist in the war by appealing to their love for their homeland, their manhood, their Christian faith, and the glory they could bring for their people. It was an incredibly effective campaign. All told, the US and UK alone sent nearly 17 million soldiers to fight for their countries, while Germany recruited 10 million troops, an eighth of its population in 1939.
But political art is hardly limited to wartime propaganda campaigns. In truth, art has been such a ubiquitous political tool in history as to become woven into the very culture of civilizations.
In Ancient India, kings were believed to be anointed by the gods, given a divine edict to wear the crown and rule over their subjects. To show obeisance, the kings would build great temples in honor of their deity, which would become centers of worship and learning for thousands of people in his kingdom.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, kings and emperors had great marble statues and temples built to commemorate their gods and celebrate military achievements. Many even commissioned sculptures and busts of themselves to adorn their great palaces.
Centuries later, in Medieval Europe, the Church would commission paintings, frescoes, and statues of holy figures to adorn the king’s palace, cathedrals and mausoleums. The art was always created in the Pope’s name, with no mention of the artists involved in their creation.
Many of these works of art exist today, preserved in museums or their original locations, studied as historical artifacts. But their true purpose was as subliminal propaganda: there was no higher power than God, and it was only the most powerful among us—kings, emperors, Popes and holy men—who could commune with the divine forces or seek to influence them. And it was in these grand displays of wealth and devotion that they sought to deny their subjects access to those lofty positions they occupied. They were chosen by a higher power and given sole responsibility over their lands and subjects. Naturally this couldn’t be questioned, because who would dare question the word of God?
The fruits of human creativity are an incredibly malleable medium. They’ve been fashioned into adornments for the egos of those in power, into barriers to keep out those who weren’t, and weapons for new emerging forces of change. The relationship between art and politics starts to look more like a contest of who can most effectively represent their cause in their artworks.
An Imagined Reality
Art is one of the oldest pursuits of mankind — it even predates agriculture and settlement. It exists for reasons even we sometimes don’t fully understand. Perhaps our minds are too active for our hands to remain idle. In that sense, art is quite possibly the most quintessentially human activity. The first humans outlived our evolutionary cousins and managed to thrive because of our cooperative nature, our ability to work as a group. Art is how we share in collective imagination, as far back as cave paintings, and as recent as art galleries and Pinterest.
Works of art are easily spread, easily shared, and doesn’t always need to be understood to be appreciated. It didn’t take us long to understand the fact that art could be used for more prosaic purposes. It’s usually far less about who has the better message, and much more about who has the most effective way of sending it. But though this is true, it doesn’t really explain what makes art so enduring.
Art is the closest thing to the physical manifestation of an imagined reality: what perhaps was, what should be, and what could be. It’s not that we necessarily believe the world would be better that way…but what if it was? In examining artists we see ourselves, but in observing art, we see who we wish to be.