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22/08/2017 Essay by artist Mark Vallen - Why all art is political

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WHY ALL ART IS POLITICAL


Mark Vallen - October 2004
www.art-for-a-change.com
In June of 2004 the New York Foundation for the Arts conducted an
online poll concerning people's attitudes regarding "political art". Of the
3000 or so individuals who responded, around 69% voted that
"political art is boring", 4% thought "politics should be kept out of art",
and 27% appreciated "political art".

But what is "political art" and who defines it?

Surely the great works of Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera, and Kthe Kollwitz
are masterpieces of subjective commentary and observation on the
state of the world. Are those works boring? Should the artists have
restricted themselves to painting non-controversial subjects and left
political concerns to the politicians? Would humanity be richer if that
had been the case?

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the Vatican,
was the process free of politics? When Europe's 19th century classical
artists created exotic "orientalist" paintings of Arabs during a period of
intense Western colonization of the region, were those images free of a
political viewpoint? When Nelson Rockefeller referred to modern
abstract expressionism as "free enterprise painting", was he not
offering a political definition of art?

History provides abundant examples of how social relations impact art.


Traditionally the church, state, and wealthy patrons have funded the
arts in order to increase their political power and prestige. Clearly that
paradigm is overloaded with political relationships. But today it is
largely market forces that determine the success or failure of art, and
who among us will declare capitalism's various mechanisms to be free
of politics? Since labor and commerce are realms understood to be
political spheres, then art, which is inextricably bound to those fields,
is automatically part of a political process.

Content or message notwithstanding, artists manipulate and transform


raw materials into art. The fact that those supplies are created from
the toil of others makes for a political construct. Who makes your art
materials, how much are they paid, and under what conditions do they
work? Seen in such a context, can any work of art truly be above
politics?

Artists do not create in a vacuum, they are indisputably coupled to the


society and times in which they work. It may well be that an artist can
realize aesthetic triumphs while ignoring society, but willful unconcern
regarding social matters is also a political position.

But what about the transcendent qualities of art, doesn't that


universality place the arts soaring above the corrupt world of politics
and the vulgar materialism of society? Doesn't the spirituality of art
keep it free from the constraints of avarice? Doesn't the mystical
aspect of art place it above earthly and mundane concerns? Yes and
no. Art will always strive to be free of society's manacles, and it will
forever serve as a conduit to humanity's higher self, but the questions
posed here imply an intrinsic relationship between art and material

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22/08/2017 Essay by artist Mark Vallen - Why all art is political

reality. It is an ironclad fact that an artist must eat and pay rent, and
so it is also an irreducible fact that we are bound to political
arrangements.

Essay by Mark Vallen All rights reserved.


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