Mark Vallen - October 2004

In June of 2004 the New York Foundation for the Arts conducted an online poll concerning people's attitudes regarding "political art". Of the 3000 or so individuals who responded, around 69% voted that "political art is boring", 4% thought "politics should be kept out of art", and 27% appreciated "political art".

But what is "political art" and who defines it?

Surely the great works of Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera, and Käthe Kollwitz are masterpieces of subjective commentary and observation on the state of the world. Are those works boring? Should the artists have restricted themselves to painting non-controversial subjects and left political concerns to the politicians? Would humanity be richer if that had been the case?

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the Vatican, was the process free of politics? When Europe's 19th century classical artists created exotic "orientalist" paintings of Arabs during a period of intense Western colonization of the region, were those images free of a political viewpoint? When Nelson Rockefeller referred to modern abstract expressionism as "free enterprise painting", was he not offering a political definition of art?

History provides abundant examples of how social relations impact art. Traditionally the church, state, and wealthy patrons have funded the arts in order to increase their political power and prestige. Clearly that paradigm is overloaded with political relationships. But today it is largely market forces that determine the success or failure of art, and who among us will declare capitalism's various mechanisms to be free of politics? Since labor and commerce are realms understood to be political spheres, then art, which is inextricably bound to those fields, is automatically part of a political process.

Content or message notwithstanding, artists manipulate and transform raw materials into art. The fact that those supplies are created from the toil of others makes for a political construct. Who makes your art materials, how much are they paid, and under what conditions do they work? Seen in such a context, can any work of art truly be above politics?

Artists do not create in a vacuum, they are indisputably coupled to the society and times in which they work. It may well be that an artist can realize aesthetic triumphs while ignoring society, but willful unconcern regarding social matters is also a political position.

But what about the transcendent qualities of art, doesn't that universality place the arts soaring above the corrupt world of politics and the vulgar materialism of society? Doesn't the spirituality of art keep it free from the constraints of avarice? Doesn't the mystical aspect of art place it above earthly and mundane concerns? Yes and no. Art will always strive to be free of society's manacles, and it will forever serve as a conduit to humanity's higher self, but the questions posed here imply an intrinsic relationship between art and material reality. It is an ironclad fact that an artist must eat and pay rent, and so it is also an irreducible fact that we are bound to political arrangements.

Essay by Mark Vallen © All rights reserved.

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