Saturday 15 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Art is political”. “Not always; sometimes I just want to see something beautiful”. The previous verbal exchange was part of the final episode of Master of Photography, a recent series that was broadcast on Sky Arts. On the “arts as politics” side was Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer who has found fame for designing controversial advertising campaigns. On the “arts as aesthetics” corner was Simon Frederick, a British artist who has blurred the boundaries between photography and contemporary art.

To me they were both right, although they were both coming at the truth (their truth, more likely) from distorted angles. All art has an implicit political trait. Notice the small “p” in that sentence. This is not party-dependent art, but the type that is open to and encourages (mis) interpretation. So, on this I agree with Oliviero.

When in 2014, the artist Gillian Wearing unveiled her statue of two single mothers and their children in Birmingham she caused a bit of an uproar. Well, I say, a bit; in reality it was mainly The Daily Mail that complained about the absence of fathers in the piece. The rightwing tabloid could not conceive of contemporary art as a medium through which we could attempt to explain modern Britain. That the artwork was a fine sample of well-crafted aesthetics was also lost on the newspaper.

That is why I think that Simon is also right. In terms of conception and production, the artist is only accountable to her/himself. Whether the work is beautiful or not, is a point to be made by the public. Appreciation is the third stage of the creative process and one that does not rely on the author’s initial intention. The contestants on Master of Photography came from all corners of Europe (it was a Europe-wide competition) and they were set challenging tasks every week. Watching the programme made me fine-tune my “politics vs art” sixth sense even more. There were photographers with a very clear and obvious political agenda and this sadly came across as manipulative in their submissions. By contrast, one of my favourite photographs was one in which one of the artists placed herself in the frame, in the middle of a vast, desolate and human-free landscape. The way I interpreted it was as a statement on loneliness. A second reading made me think of man’s eternal smallness in the presence of nature’s magnitude.

Artistically compelling, but political, too?

When we talk about political art, we tend to think of the in-your-face type. The kind that leaves no one in any doubt as to what its intentions are. Yet, even overt political activism must have, in my opinion, an aesthetic side. I look at Picasso’s Dove of Peace and I like it for the beautiful work of art it is. Its significance is a bonus. Equally, I seek out and watch Ken Loach’s films as unsurpassable, artistically-articulated politically-charged discourses on the human condition. Failure to achieve this balance renders the artwork kitsch, in my opinion. There is plenty of art of this kind in former and current socialist regimes, including Cuba.

Likewise, the “art for art’s sake” mantra is a portmanteau vehicle for all kinds of excess and indulgences. The irony is that movements that have tried to walk away from politics (party-politics in this instance) as far as possible have ended up making political statements, whether intentional or not. The Dadaists, the impressionists, the post-modernists; they all have tried to break from the mould by making the artist and their work the central piece of their manifesto. But that small “p” politics keeps sneaking back in.

What I think Oliviero should have said is: All art is political, but not always explicit. To which Simon should have answered: Indeed, I sometimes just want to see something beautiful, even if it’s political.

© 2016

Image taken from Oliviero Toscani’s website.

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 19th October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. No arguments from here.
    Both of their statements were true, but incomplete. Which sometimes is a lie.

  2. Can all be subjective to ones tastes, but doesn't make it any less art.

  3. Unfortunately, not all art is even considered art. Which in itself is a political issue. Or maybe that's just a societal issue? (are they the same?) At any rate it makes me frustrated and sad when people make judgements about what is/isn't. It's kind of like saying, if it doesn't have an intellectual/compelling/deep thought provoking impetus then it is a waste of time. I've never understood why simply beautiful isn't enough. Why it's disdained as being irrelevant? (smells like a clique to me) But then, I never was "in".

  4. Art is poignantly political, I think, because it will forever be impossible to create a definition of it to suit everyone. I read somewhere when I was a college boy that art, in the classical Greek sense, is "the creation of beauty." That has been a good enough definition for me ever since.

    And, since beauty, logically, is in the eye of the beholder, that means you and I and the blind guy down the street each has an equally valid concept of what is art and what is not.

    In another sense, I have a notion that whichever artist has the most influential consortium with the best marketing scheme has the truest notion of what passes for art on the modern landscape.

    Once again, very thought provoking, CiL .... and neat music ....

  5. What a great echo of the early feminist mantra 'the personal is political' - everything - art, literature, science, sport - has a political and social context and relevance. If we close our minds to that, and keep them in little boxes, we fail to see that they all have so much more to say about who we are and why. (Science? Really? But if malaria was prevalent in America, wouldn't there be a cure by now? ...)

  6. Hi ACIL - I'm learning to be more appreciative ... I'm not sure I read too much into artist's work ... but I do so enjoy learning - and art is something I need to start looking at more ... fascinating post - thanks for writing it up ... cheers Hilary

  7. Put me down as an ignoramus. I love art but never want to identify it with political opinion. I prefer simply to enjoy the beauty of art.

  8. don´t think you can say art is this or that. Art is HUMAN. And is everything human IMO. Then again, it can be used in different ways.

  9. El arte se interpreta según con que ojos se mire, hay que sentirlo en cada uno de nosotros de lo contrario no lo podemos apreciar tal como nos lo muestra el artista.
    Una buena semana.

  10. I agree about what you think should have been said. I think that art (or nearly all) is somehow reflective of the artist's thinking and worldview. The art should make us think while also pleasing our senses. In art I'm not looking for a lecture or any in my face statement telling me how I should believe.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  11. So interesting! I think a lot of art is political.

  12. I like my art to be political but subtly so,

  13. Your posts always make me think. I think an overdose of politics can suck the art right out of a project and it--whatever it may be--turns into a lecture. But if present with honesty and skill, the art can move hearts and minds.

  14. Coming from Lady Fi's blog, and saw your name -wow, that has been so long ago. By now, I'm 2 blogs further, so I'll give you my url.
    Interesting thought process! I guess it depends where the boundaries of "political" lie.I don't know if the flowers I paint are political. My religious ones may be, I would describe them more as historical or contemporary. Enfim, interesting:):)
    This is my present blog

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