Art and PoliticsShare
Crispin Sartwell reflects on the role of aesthetics in the creation and realization of political systems and ideologies.
Art and politics as arenas of human endeavor display various familiar intersections. Long about 1991, you couldn’t enter a gallery or go to a dance performance without receiving a slightly aestheticized lecture on AIDS or racism, and indeed the theory was bruited that all art is political, and all art criticism political analysis. From the other end, running for office or running the government involves a host of aesthetic activities, prosecuted with varying degrees of effectiveness, and Shepard Fairey’s Obama-Hope poster captured something of the essence of Obama’s intervention in American politics, both its potential to inspire and the sneaking suspicion that underneath was emptiness.
Indeed, every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical yet excruciatingly dull. Political power has shaped the discipline of art history to an incalculable extent, and the art that survives from eras past is whatever the authorities permitted to persist. The history of art is, hence, by and large the history of monuments and of artworks compatible with capitulation. One suspects that there were skeptics, atheists, and anarchists roaring through the medieval and renaissance period; their blasphemous paintings and poems (and indeed their blasphemous persons) were immolated. By contrast, when a political regime starts making aesthetic objects, it tries to make them eternal: under the aegis of taxation it stacks up massive blocks of heavy stone until tearing them down is just too much work.
I think, however, that the relation of aesthetics and politics is tighter than this might suggest, and the function of the arts as propaganda of domination or of resistance does not nearly exhaust the political significance of the arts.
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