Do you hear that? That sound. The sound of commentators compressing the universe of art onto a 1996 USB. Once it was a whisper. Now it’s growing louder. Somebody gave it a megaphone and a million Twitter followers. And what does it say now that it has the audience’s attention? “Art is always political—by definition, you see.”
“By definition.” Is this true? The marriage of arts and politics does have its own Wikipedia page. A sure enough sign that the proclamation deserves at least the minimum of internet detective snooping. A few smacks on the keyboard, a quick click on “I’m feeling lucky,” and what do I find? A small list of names as recognizable as “Oprah” who have decided art is invariably political:
- Toni Morrison
- Ai Weiwei
- Pablo Picasso
Who says intelligent people can’t say stupid things?
“Art is always political” is bullshit (in the sense of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s “bullshit.”) It’s a statement in which both parties would be happier after the divorce. Nonsense for Goodreads quotes. Nonsense that has chained the perception of art to a maze, as the minotaur. It declares that when the hurricane of politics fails to evaporate artists must have an umbrella for their mayor, congressman, president; typically in the shape of a middle finger—or a metaphor for one. Copy and paste ad nauseum.
The origin story of “art is always political” isn’t as certain as knowing Star Wars movies will be released until the day I die (of old age). But history always offers clues.
It’s no secret that 20th Century theories couldn’t stop themselves from objectifying the world. How else could they believe they had arrived at eternal Truth? That meant reifying even the qualia of my individual experience: sacrificing the ineffable for the easy. As part of that plan, theory put art under the knife to fit in a bow-tied box labeled with a crayon. “Cut off all that excess! This must conform to count!” Make it softer on the eyes.
Therein lies what “art is always political,” says: that artworks are just highway markers leading to some intellectual statement, some neatly cataloged epiphany: propaganda with an agenda.
It’s a dangerous sentiment balancing on stilts made of yarn. Best served as spittle from the mouth of a pundit on Fox & Friends than any commentary about aesthetic appreciation. “Well, you see, Rivera’s Marxist tendencies…” It proposes that appreciating a poem is nothing more than marking your book with arrows pointing to references to The Decline of the West.
Talk about decline.
“Art is always political” ignores the fundamental experience of encountering any artwork: the evolving dialogue that escapes a definition buzzing around the word “is.” In reality, nobody (who’s human, at least) studiously sorts through symbols—unconsciously or consciously—to analyze a song, a poem, a painting, a building on their first encounter. Paintings aren’t hung in a lab. Political ripples aren’t automatically plucked. That’s not art speaking. That’s tarring and feathering the Pietà.
In reference to Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” A quote taken out of context so often nobody knows the context; that being Eliot’s preference for a childlike naivete. The less gravity I shove down artwork’s throat, the farther I can jump.
Hearing Debussy’s Claude de Lune or Biggie Smalls’ Everyday Struggle brings me into direct contact with my immediate experience, with the totality of my being. Now. Dasein. My cumulative reality. Something the political only shares a sliver of. Only the four windows of my sedan are privy to my pencil neck miming lyrics in traffic. Great art is the presence of Buddha: absorption in the entirety of the magic circle that is the game called life.
In Art as Experience philosopher John Dewey writes:
“In art as an experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection.”
A living example might help.
While imported from China sometime in the 6th Century A.D., Japanese gardening quickly nurtured its own identity. An identity infused with intent. Every stone, shrub, lantern, and pagoda is organized and imbued like a four-dimensional textbook of Eastern tradition. The inspiration isn’t necessary for appreciation. What is important is the design: the harmonizing of material that invites the visitor to dissolve in the experience, to live with presence as part of a narrative that begins and ends with an entrance.
If only the visitor allows herself to inhabit.
Nevermind that the origin of Japanese gardening was for Kyoto bourgeois, hungry for nature like Brooklyn hipsters going West. The point is the immediacy that exists for me. You. I. The potpourri that emanates through our senses and fuses with our being.
Yeats’ poem The Second Coming is not just an allegory for a Europe of ashes. It is the capturing of expression in a Poké Ball to be summoned whenever I wish to inhabit a bookended moment revitalized with each reading—including every shower recital I’ve proudly made with the windows flung open. An ominous slouching expression for sure.
To return to the point: let’s understand the ludicrousness of any judge who sentences us to wear glasses to see the world as they do. To proclaim, “art is always political” is a gross oversimplification, forcing a meaning from outside within. Something that really says “art is always political [so long as it agrees with my politics].”
But life can’t be reduced to one modality. Life is everything. And we bring everything with us to art: to the polychromatic panels of Moebius or the prophets of Khalil Gibran or a ballet rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
If “art is always political” why is no one arguing capitalism’s flaws in the comments section of Charles Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat? Because they’re too busy listening. Focused. Being absorbed. Peter Sloterdijk writes, “Reality begins where the state and it’s terminology end.” Art snaps us back to reality after our fabrications have stretched us thin. Real art is for the real world. And if we’re really listening, we transform along with that world.
“But, but, but… Everything in society is political! Ya know Aristotle said…”
To believe I am a mere political animal belittles what it means to be human. Unfortunately, pursuing this line of thought is inappropriate in a post like this (that’s what comments sections are for). A one sentence, blog-fitting, retort is that an all-encompassing definition is not a useful definition at all; that a proper definition of “political” doesn’t treat the political like gut flora: it’s not always with us.
Whenever I hear proponents of politic’s pervasiveness I can’t help but also hear a hunger for tyrannical thinking, that one size fits all path to understanding. Because the infamous statement is a snake in the garden offering one answer. Such a simple choice, you see? It enables the slimy, hacking, spewing Leviathan to become a faulty cheat for experience. Type in “something for nothing,” at the main menu and act like you earned it.
I’m not arguing that art can’t inspire political sentiments upon reflection. Of course it can. Many artists wouldn’t have a job otherwise. The key word is “reflection.” Reflection is not part of the immediacy of art; it is an afterthought, an integration with the self as the work dips behind time’s horizon. Something I bring to the potluck; not what’s waiting on the table. The important takeaway is that reflection does not necessarily lead to the political.
“Art is always political” only exists because politics as a subject has become an ocean of still water bursting with mosquitoes. No wonder intellects have tried to force the world of politics on art. We can’t help but itch. But that doesn’t mean art must itch too. It doesn’t have to. The choice is always individual. Those who say otherwise are dragging the mosquito to Van Gogh and commanding, “Now, suck!”
To be fair, no, I have not given an adequate definition of “art,” or some regurgitation of a critical theory. Time is short and I prefer not to waste it. I only wished to subtract a single frame from an infinitude of possibility. To prevent “art is always political” from becoming a garbage guardian of tradition.
See this as a long post-it note with, “Never subject yourself to a critic or an aesthetic theory, to tell you what to feel or how to think,” written in all uppercase and stapled to the fridge. (I’m pleased with the irony.)
Are there answers that are more correct? Yes. Criticism comes in degree, e.g. the “art for art’s sake camp” is barren cynical crap. The latter is the loose end of the spectrum while “art is always political” is the slip knot at the other. A remnant of 20th century growing pains too busy writing grandiloquent prescriptions for society’s woes; ignoring actuality for what’s easily codified. Afterall, master narratives are only masters of stillborn stars. Their flashlights shine darkness on the day.
Civilizations are measured by the art they produce. They resonate across time as doors to experience or a vision of one. But withering times are more interested in stamping art as synonyms for their theory rather than art itself. All returns to farce. I refuse to the play the game, and choose to value the totality of experience brought to bear on art over any single shortcut.
I choose to live in a world in which art is [Not] always political—“by definition, you see.”
This article originally appeared at Plurality Press, who never managed to published it in complete form or pay for the article as agreed. Thank you, PP.