“The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” (Toni Morrison)
If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?“ (Ai Weiwei)
“The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” (Robert Rauschenberg)
“…I considered any art pointless if it did not put itself at the disposal of political struggle… my art was to be a gun and a sword.” (George Grosz)
“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet – or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” (Pablo Picasso)
“Today we say all art is political. But I'd say all art has to do with ethics, which, after all, really comes to the same thing. It's a matter of attitudes.” (Ingmar Bergman)
“I don't think artists can avoid being political. Artists are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. When we stop singing, it's a sure sign of repressive times ahead.” (Theresa Bayer)
Recently a couple of friends were visiting for Presidents Day weekend. It was a wonderful time. They came specifically to see the musical “Chess”. It was a fantastic show, and a powerful political statement; one that was very well received by the audience too.
Besides catching the show, we walked around the city, visited a couple museums, shopped a little, and ate out a lot. It was interesting having a friend from the 1980’s visit, while seeing a musical we were both introduced to in the 1980s and looking at us now. I loved observing the ways in which each of us has grown and changed, and the ways in which we haven’t: those parts of each of us that are constant throughout our lives, no matter what happens around us.
Another thing that was on my mind as we walked was the mass shooting at a Florida High School that killed 17 students. That friend from the 1980s and I met at Kent State University, where we both attended college. For those of you not familiar with its history, anti-war protests in 1970 escalated due to the US expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia. As a result of the protests, the Republican governor at the time, called for the Ohio National Guard to occupy campus, which resulted in armed soldiers murdering 4 students and injuring 9 others.
The fact that we had attended a university with such a history, while here, in this present moment, having the White House state that the mass shooting was a “reprieve” from the bad press they had been getting recently, really made me think. I began to wonder about the students that were now speaking out, and how they were beginning to get smeared by the far-right media and republicans. I wondered if they would become discouraged or more motivated. I’m overjoyed that it was the latter.
I’m sure some of those students are, and will mature into fine artists, and I wonder how that will affect and shape their work. I know there are some of the surviving students that are becoming politically active. It will be interesting to see how this shapes their lives and career paths.
Today there is some fantastic art being made and a great deal of it is political. In fact, it seems like most of the art is overtly political now. Artists really stepped up after the 2016 election and have been working like crazy ever since. We needed to then, and we continue to do so now.
It was only a few years ago, while doing an interview, the interviewer paused the recording to tell me that I was getting too political. Today that sounds strange, given the current reality we find ourselves in, but then it really took me aback. Mostly because I didn’t think I was consciously being political at all.
I still have a hard time getting my head around that idea, since our art, and the act of creating it, is how we process the world around us. That’s probably why most non-artists think we are all a little different. I remember seeing a great exhibit at the Smithsonian called “Hide and Seek”. It featured LGBT+ artists from all periods of time and how that experience of being LGBT+ influenced the artists work. I know it has influenced mine and I found myself connecting with the work of these artists in a way that I wouldn’t with someone who was not LGBT+, at least not in the same way. I can’t explain it in words, other than feeling the connection, as if we had a common language.
This all makes sense if you think about it. There’s an old saying, “Whether or not you care about politics, politics cares about you”. To use LGBT+ people as an example: I was born prior to Stonewall, not much before; still, I knew there was something different about me for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Stonewall on the news. Growing up at that time, and on some level knowing that because of the sodomy laws that were still on the books long after I came out, the very fact that I existed was an illegal act. If that doesn’t make you realize that you need to care about politics, I don’t know what will.
This idea of politics affecting art was reinforced when I went to college. It was at Kent State that my piano instructor suggested that when beginning to play a new work, that I should read and research what was going on politically, as well as what was going on in other disciplines, (science, physics, dance, visual arts) around the time the piece was composed. By doing so, I would have a context to more fully understand the work, and this, in turn, would help with interpretation.
My art is political, and I suspect yours is too, whether you realize it consciously or not. If you are in an authoritarian regime, an oppressed minority group, or are one of the privileged, politics affects your art and therefore your art is political. How could it not be? It’s all connected. But, it is much more valuable because art is the only thing that survives long after nations and cultures fade to dust. So get out there and create, be political, and tell your story.