Sunday, February 19, 2023

Is All Art Political?

Last week an artist friend said to me “All art is political”. I have heard the statement before and started to think about it. In order to asses the idea, we have to define “political”. In this country it has come to be confined to government but here is the broader definition: “Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, 'affairs of the cities') is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.”

I have written recently about murals. Clearly these images are statements, sometimes in protest and sometimes in celebration but as public art murals address a group that may be for or against the message of the artist.

Though we are taught that in this country there is separation between church and state we can see that that is blatantly untrue. The governing of a state cannot be separated from the religious views of its people that affect its leaders and lawmakers. Law mirrors society.

Cave paintings are generally interpreted as having symbolic or religious meaning to those who created and observed them. Some believe that they relate to Shamanic beliefs and practices. Then we have the religious works of art from the Middle Ages. They too are in celebration of the divine, but they also bolstered social control of the Church. In a publication “Retrospect Journal”, Shea Furguson writes, “During the Italian Renaissance, art was a deeply political endeavor, often blatantly so. In his work on painting in Renaissance Italy, scholar Michael Baxandall writes of the social relationships that gave context to the creation of artwork; on one side there was a painter who produced a piece, and on the other a commissioner who portrayed a vision and provided the funds necessary for its completion.” Later the dramatic religious imagery of the Baroque was a blatant tool of the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.

Master of the St. Lucy Legend, Madonna and Child with Angels,
Donor and his Patron Saint (1483), Los Angeles County Museum

It is more difficult to see but even landscapes of the 19th century have political implications. Romantic images of the American landscape from Thomas Cole, , to Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Edwin Church lured people westward to an ever-advancing frontier. You only see the beauty but not the reality of hardship, primitive lifestyle nor the massacres of the Native Americans. According to the abstract artist Julie Mehretu regarding the American frontier, “The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation all of the social dynamics that are a part of the narrative we don’t really talk about in regard to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment.”

Frederick Church, “Valley of the Santa Ysabel” (1875),
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

I had trouble getting my head around the political implications of abstract expressionism. Then I thought about what one of my art history professors said speaking of Willem De Kooning (1904-1987) and his work. “His women look like they have been shoved from a 3rdstory window.” This was said in the early sixties about the artist’s works from the 1950’s. Abstract Expressionism came in after the horrors of World War II when the world had been on fire. Think of the emotions that must have exploded into the works of artists at that time as they rejected the pre-existing rules and expectations of the art establishment.

William De Kooning “Woman on Bicycle”
(1952-53) Whitney Museum

Clyfford Still “1957-J No. 2” Clyfford Still Museum

You don’t have to accept what I have written but if you think about art throughout history the artists who have been remembered are those who have succeeded in conveying their beliefs and feelings to the observer. Isn’t that what politicization is all about.

No comments:

Post a Comment