Politics does not stop at the museum or gallery door, neither should it be dictated by commissions or commissioners. Diego Rivera said as much when he refused to remove an image of Vladimir Lenin in a mural he created in Rockefeller Center in 1932. The mural projected a hopeful future where humans reached across social class lines and used technology to benefit all humankind. It is a message that resonates loudly in the world of American politics today. Rivera’s mural, however, was chiseled from the wall in 1934 at the orders of the art patron and business tycoon John D. Rockefeller.
“I don’t think anyone can separate art from politics,” asserts contemporary Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei. “The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention,” he explains.*
Everyone, including artists, are enmeshed in the politics of economic and social injustice and environmental calamities. Artists can no more escape these realities than any other human being. Because all means of expression and communication evolve from relationships with others – family, community and wider national and global societies – personal creative expression is profoundly shaped by social forces. Thus an individual artist’s experience, as with all human experience, depends very significantly on class background, education and other social agency.
Freedom of expression has been an ongoing struggle throughout history. When discussing the history and demise of the Bauhaus School (1919-33), Artnet Magazine associate editor Ben Davis wrotes, “Art cannot afford to turn away from history.”** According to Davis, the idealistic and leftist leaders and teachers in the Bauhaus of Germany’s Wiemar Republic, failed to directly confront the historical circumstances and class divisions that the Nazis successfully exploited. When the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, it closed the Bauhaus. Hitler declared all modernist art “degenerate.”
Nazi denunciation of modernist art was a direct assault on intellectual and creative production, a pretext for cleansing culture of the questions, criticisms and visions art expresses. Purification of culture – we must remember – is the first step toward purification of blood. “The Nazis burnt Picassos, Dalís, Ernsts, Klees, Légers and Mirós years before they built Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Birkenau,” Yara Zgheib points out.***
Today, democratic culture is under direct attack in the United States and throughout much of the world. Though paintings, books or other works of art have not been publicly burned or destroyed in mass rallies, an assault on culture is nevertheless underway. “Alternative facts,” “fake news” and the nationalist appeals of the “alt-right” are part of the ongoing attack on the “liberal media.” And, as government relaxes regulation on media corporations, nationalist media is poised to extend its reach and influence. Already Sinclair, the largest broadcast media company, plans to expand its politically conservative programming beyond the quarter of the nation’s household it now reaches. Combined with the proliferation of right-wing social media and widespread reactionary radio talk-show hosts, nationalist and nativist voices are now engaged in an aggressive attempt to fashion headlines and gain ground in the daily news coverage.
The emergence of branding in national politics is another crucial concern for artists. The most abject form of advertising, branding seeks to establish loyalty among it followers. As such, it seeks to displace critical inquiry and scientific evidence, to undermine competing voices. Message repetition, subliminal messaging and soundbites are key tactics in both commercial and political branding strategy. Branding also carries connotations of marking for ownership, as commonly practiced in the livestock industry. It is, of course, a genuinely ominous development for democratic politics. When branding becomes political strategy, when symbols and words evoke political loyalty, the shadow of doubt engulfs all forms of criticism. Reality can be stood on its head. Social and moral chaos may ensue.
Artists in every media are quite familiar with the technical elements involved in eliciting human response – to color, to sound, to motion, to image, to words. We know the power of symbols. Because we work in these currencies, we have a social role and responsibility to keep a dynamic and critical culture alive.
If we do not elevate our criticism of socioeconomic inequalities and environmental deregulation at this moment of national and global existential crises, then a new culture with fewer critical voices may evolve very quickly.
Do not allow isolation, indifference, fear, lassitude or social class overwhelm our critical creative voices.
We must be politically conscious and remain engaged in the world. In words often attributed to the indefatigable philosopher, writer and activist Rosa Luxemburg, “The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening” ****
*(Liang Luo, The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China, University of Michigan Press, 2014, p. 226)