The arts and politics  

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"All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war" --Walter Benjamin

Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial of Le Charivari
Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial of Le Charivari

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Political art includes anything from anarcho-punk to culture jamming, from political literature to social realism, from political cinema to protest art. The term artivist come to mind. Think the The Raft of the Medusa, the Notre-Dame Affair and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

It is the opposite of aestheticism and art for art's sake.


Artistic revolution and cultural/political revolutions

The role of fine art has been to simultaneously express values of the current culture while also offering criticism, balance, or alternatives to any such values that are proving no longer useful. So as times change, art changes. If changes were abrupt they were deemed revolutions. The best artists have predated society's changes due not to any prescenience, but because sensitive perceptivity is part of their 'talent' of seeing.

Artists have had to 'see' issues clearly in order to satisfy their current clients, yet not offend potential patrons. For example, paintings glorified aristocracy in the early 1600s when leadership was needed to nationalize small political groupings, but later as leadership became oppressive, satirization increased and subjects were less concerned with leaders and more with more common plights of mankind.

Examples of revoutionary art in conjunction with cultural/political movements:

Artistic revolution of style

But not all artistic revolutions were political. Revolutions of style have also abruptly changed the art of a culture. For example, when the careful, even tedious, art techniques of French neo-classicism became oppressive to artists living in more exuberant times, a stylistic revolution known as "Impressionism" vitalized brush strokes and color. Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir burst onto the French culture, effecting a revolution with a style that has become commonplace today.

An artistic revolution can be begun by a single artist, but unless that artist gains some understanding, he becomes an iconoclast. The first Abstract Expressionists were considered madmen to give up their brushes and rely on the sheer force of energy to leave an image, but then the import of atomic bombs, all atomic energy, became realized, and art found no better way of expressing its power. Jackson Pollock is the artist best known for starting that revolution.

Marx and ideology

Marxist art theory

During the mid-20th century art historians embraced social history by using critical approaches. The goal is to show how art interacts with power structures in society. One critical approach that art historians used was Marxism. Marxist art history attempted to show how art was tied to specific classes, how images contain information about the economy, and how images can make the status quo seem natural (ideology). Well-know Marxist art theorists include Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Arnold Hauser, and T.J. Clark.


Situationist International

The Situationist International (SI), a small group of international political and artistic agitators with roots in Marxism, Lettrism and the early 20th-century European artistic and political avant-gardes formed in 1957, aspired to major social and political transformations; before disbanding in 1972 and splitting into a number of different groups, including the Situationist Bauhaus, the Antinational, and the Second Situationist International, the first SI became active in Europe through the 1960s and elsewhere throughout the world and was characterized by an anti-capitalist and surrealist perspective on aesthetics and politics, according to Italian art historian Francesco Poli. In the works of the situationists, Italian scholar Mirella Bandini observes, there is no separation between art and politics; the two confront each other in revolutionary terms .

Historically, revolutionary ideas have emerged first among artists and intellectuals. That's why a precise mechanism to defuse the role of artists and intellectuals is to relegate them into specialized, compartmentalized disciplines, in order to impose unnatural dichotomies as the "separation of art from politics". Once artistic-intellectual works are separated from current events and from a comprehensive critique of society, they are sterilized and can be safely integrated into the official culture and the public discourse, where they can add new flavours to old dominant ideas and play the role of a gear wheel in the mechanism of the society of the spectacle.

Poster art

"Not content with claiming leftwing music", posters for the Conservative Party in the UK recycled iconic art styles of "socialist revolution" to communicate its political message in 2008.


Czech sculptor David Černý's Entropa, a sculpture commissioned to mark the Czech presidency of the European Union Council during the first semester of 2009, illustrates how art can come into conflict with politics, creating various kinds of controversy in the process, both intentionally and unintentionally. Entropa attracted controversy both for its stereotyped depictions of the various EU member states and for having been a creation of Černý and two friends rather than, as Černý purported, a collaboration of 27 artists from each of the member states.

Russian aesthetics

According to Esti Sheinberg, a lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh, in her book Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich, in "the traditional Russian perception of the arts", an "interrelationship between artistic technique and ideological content is the main aesthetic criterion" (ix; cf. Blois).

Classical music

Ludwig van Beethoven did not use the original title "Ode to Freedom" of Friedrich Schiller's lyric, known in English as "Ode to Joy" (1785), in setting it to music in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony (1824), which "Napoleonic censors had forced the poet to change to 'Ode to Joy'." After the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9 November 1989, that Christmas Day, when Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven's Ninth at the site of the former East GermanWest German border in Berlin, a concert telecast nationally in the United States, he substituted Freedom for Joy to reflect his own "personal message".

Folk and protest music

In February 1952, the United States Customs Service seized the passport of Paul Robeson, preventing him from leaving the United States to travel to the Fourth Canadian Convention of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, in Vancouver, Canada; but, after "The convention heard Robeson sing over the telephone", the union organized "a concert on the US-Canadian border". According to the account of the "Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration": "Robeson sang and spoke for 45 minutes. He introduced his first song stating 'I stand here today under great stress because I dare, as do you—all of you, to fight for peace and for a decent life for all men, women and children' … [and, accompanied by Lawrence Brown on piano,] proceeded to sing spirituals, folk songs, labour songs, and a passionate version of Old Man River, written for him in the [1920s], slowly enunciating 'show a little grit and you land in jail', underlining the fact that his government had turned the entire country into a prison for Robeson and many others."

In the 1960s the songs of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and others protested further racism, war, and the military-industrial complex, continuing an American artistic tradition of political protest founded during its colonial era.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The arts and politics" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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