Political art: Does it bring us together or tear us apart?

Winifred Hewitt-Wright and Rashida Campbell-Allen debate whether or not political art is capable of causing real change. 

multiple writers
24th February 2020
I, like many of us, laughed with triumph at Banksy’s art stunt in October of last year, a piece of art, which after selling for £1.04 million, shredded itself for the whole auction house to see. However, as admirable as this anti-capitalist statement was, this statement and his other protest graffiti around Europe, remain just that, statements. Temporary. Emblems. A moment in history for the future generations to not think so badly of us.

Because of this, political art can only divide us. It is created and received within a historical narrative. We see art in rooms of high-ceilings with ornate furnishings, or flashy modern open spaces with glass windows, and while this is the very pretentiousness Banksy made a statement against, it is still received in a time where art can only encourage thinking, never action. Since the birth of neo-liberal ideals, political art has become not a protest at all, but something to make us contemplate, wonder and question. Political art now invites the slowness that only the privileged can access. There is no desperation in it. In fact, if an emotional reaction in a gallery was not wholly disguised, it would be perceived as embarrassing. If a pin dropped in that room, it would be perceived as embarrassing. And thus, our thoughts and feelings remain in our heads, we note them down into our phones, or write them down in a tweet if we find them especially emotion-inducing, and, perhaps we speak about how ‘inspiring’ that exhibition was for a while, but it did not change us, it did not change anything. It was a statement. A moment in history for the future generations to not think so badly of us: for creating it, for seeing it, for thinking about it at all. Because we pat ourselves on the back for being ‘cultural today’.

Political art now invites the slowness that only the privileged can access. There is no desperation in it

Individualism is the death of collectivism and community, and thus, political art and protest. Individualism stunts the urgency and immediacy of anger and injustice. Individualism can only encourage a process of depersonalisation.
What explains this well is an extract from Adam Curtis’ documentary, HyperNormalisation: ‘“I could not identify with the political movements any longer. All the manic activity in the streets. In trying to join them, I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy.” – Patti Smith, 1970s, New York. What she was describing was the rise of a new, powerful individualism that could not fit with the idea of collective political action. Instead, Patti Smith and many others became a new kind of individual radical, who watched the decaying city with a cool detachment. Instead, radicals across America turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society. They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside the new radicalism should try and change what was inside people’s heads, and the way to do this was through self-expression, not collective action.’

Winifred Hewitt-Wright

The influence of art in society today is undeniable. From posters and images used by political organisations such as the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s, to the postmodern feminist work of the Guerilla Girls, to viral photographs such as that of Alan Kurdi in 2015, art has provoked conversations around international political injustice.

Art acts as a vehicle for social change because it is a projection of current political and cultural climates. As a universal language of communication, art can reach and influence an immeasurable amount of demographics. Meanings and symbolisms embedded in artworks are indefinite and open-ended, often left to the audience’s. Art opens the platform for interpretation and often paves the way for a more democratic space with great conversation both in private and public spaces.

Of course the very nature of art is subjective and personal - what is art to one person is meaningless to another. The arts can be described as an imaginative reworking of the world and a product of collective action, therefore art is often used with the intention to enlighten and provoke social change and in this context, the arts can be used to exploit and push boundaries politically.

As long as art can trigger and gain a reaction from a majority, they can pressure political powers

As American sociologist Howard Becker noted ‘all art is a collective identity that shares characteristics with social movements’ hence why social movements have an interesting dynamic with art worlds. Artists often have a social responsibility, to create art on behalf of social and political purpose due to modern mass circulation. It is common for many pieces now to have a canon of change and revelation, thus turning the personal aesthetic and impression of art into a political and social affair. Such art often challenges and illuminates the overlooked, so new and fresh outlooks and perspectives can be shared.

Though some may say that art is not enough to cause political change, as it is often does not reach the levels where change and reformation is put into real action. Given today’s social media saturated society, people are taking change and activism into their own hands. Therefore, as long as art can trigger and gain a reaction from a majority, they can pressure political powers to respond and act appropriately, thus art can indeed provoke political change from the bottom up.

The intersection of art and activism is clear but it is important to remember that yes, art can create social political change, but only on a micro level, directly affecting local communities or spaces. Along with critical engagement with politics, change requires the direction and collaboration with politicians in order to take place. Art alone may not change the world but it does change people’s conversations, perspectives and behaviour - which is a political triumph in itself.

Rashida Campbell-Allen

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