What is Political Art?
In the present times of political and social unrest, the world has witnessed a swirl of activity amongst activists, publishers, curators, artists, and others. The intimate relationship between art and politics has been a time-honored tradition, with political activism being prevalent in the art world.
Perhaps, the most important part of art and politics is their historical course and liaison through different periods. However, what serves as the core of its political engagement is the aesthetic potential of art. Jacques Rancière theorizes and distinguishes the aesthetic regime from ethical and poetic regimes that previously defined art.
As explained by Plato, the ethical regime of images downgrades artworks to fickle, while in the poetic regime, beauty and imitation serve as the main purposes of artworks. However, as proposed by Rancière, the aesthetic regime breaks the barriers imposed by these two regimes between artistic practices and social and political spheres, thereby investing and engaging art with politics, society, and thought. Our present understanding of political art is defined by such an approach to arts and aesthetics.
The relationship between art and politics can be drawn out based on the following five points. These are (i) art as a manifestation of political injustice; (ii) art as the stanchion of the political community; (iii) art as a substitute for political engagement; (iv) art as a medium of escape from politics; (v) art in collusion with political oppression.
Art holds the power to manifest various features of contemporary life highlighting injustices or suggesting trends that legitimize resistance. As Hugo Ball claims, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” In recent years, we have witnessed this dimension being demonstrated by new art depicting the institutional racism and white supremacy of contemporary Europe and America, and the response of activists to such instances. Thus, art can be a stark portrayal of political injustice.
A classic example of this is the institutional murder of George Floyd that sparked a massive street art movement. Various murals with Floyd’s face were painted across different cities of the world. Art and politics have always been intertwined, even when slogans like l’art pour l’art were proclaimed. It is important to note that every artistic gesture is measured against the emancipatory potential it withholds. Art has never solely been an artist’s reflection, disengaged from the world. It was rather always laden with contextual meanings, subject to dialogues. Artistic practices today address various social issues ranging from environmental, racial, economic, and sexual.
Art has the power to bring people together in the form of events, gallery openings, and discussions. It is also imperative that artists and curators work towards creating and strengthening artistic communities around the world.
Along with chronicling injustice and building community, art also envisions new political ideas, priorities, and solutions. Art thus holds the potential to give birth to political alternatives, whether it is through adopting a new political approach that is grounded in effect, or setting out manifestos, or highlighting a particular policy issue such as indebtedness credited to student loans.
How art can serve as an escape from politics can be expressed in two different ways: viewing the art-making process as space apart from politics, or the artwork depicting topics other than politics. In both cases, art should be viewed at a distance from politics at regular intervals to preserve the fundamentals of the practice of art. Many people suggest that art holds the power to produce insights about the human experience, and it is this inherent quality of art that one should acknowledge and foster rather than the general theorizing that is prevalent in political discourse. However, it should not be assumed that art is apolitical.
The final way through which art and politics have been related is through a framework of collusion; with the claim that art is somewhat responsible for some of the political injustices, we witness today. The English documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in his film, Hyper-Nationalism argues that the retreat of artists from collective projects to individual projects in the 1970s is to blame for the incessant rise of aggressive neoliberalism to a considerable extent.
As seen above, art serves as a powerful political tool and should catalyze the formation of a new notion of universality, much diverse than the existing one.