The paradox encountered by political artists is that the visual arts exhibit two seemingly contradictory modes simultaneously. The visual arts, uniquely among the various arts, can be both representational and sensorial. That is, a painting can be both the material thing painted and its content (which is inexactly called subject matter). The visual arts span a wide range between two extremes of “meaning.” One is literature, pure symbolic expression, the one art that possesses virtually no central, essential, informing sensorial quality. There is nothing tangible that is absolutely necessary to the content of a story. A book can be hand- or typewritten, it can be a cheap paperback or a lavish leather-bound volume. Its beauty and fineness of presentation do not alter its content, which still refers to the same things.
Not so the other arts. Music needs—is defined by—physical sound heard by someone. Dance requires a moving body. Music does not refer to some other thing, but refers to and presents only itself. Likewise, dance does not point to other things, but to the organization and presentation of itself. But the visual arts can be both representational or referential, as in literature, and sensuous, as in music.
It is this singular capacity to be both that ultimately works against the political purposes of art. How are we simultaneously to keep our attention on these two different modes of the work? The dilemma of all representational art is this: one mode has to be dominant over the other, and that mode is the sensuous, not the propositional.
Our experience has shown us that, when all is said and done, when time has passed, the formal properties and elements in a work of visual art dominate our appreciation and our aesthetic judgment of the work. We marvel at the consummate skill of Rubens, we are gripped by the dramatic lighting of Caravaggio, and we are perplexed at the vast talent of Bouguereau trivialized on salacious themes. The classical pleasure of delecto derives from the application of the paint, the richness of the marble, the suppleness of the dancer’s body, the timbre of the instrument, as much as it does from the represented subject.
There is a large body of analysis and criticism that argues forcefully against subject matter and the consequent captive sentiment in pictures, and for the formal and material properties of art. This is the position of formalist and Modernist criticism, and is largely a twentieth century idea. Oppositely, the greater part of preceding art theory and criticism placed a strong emphasis on subject matter. Diderot’s promotion of Greuze and similar moralizing painters in the eighteenth century, for example, rested on just this point. The moral tone of Neo-classicism, Romanticism, and Realism relied on the subject to provide the significant component of representation, that is, an action or event that was the work’s moral locus. Even Impressionism claimed to be more relevant than academic painting, and purposely chose as its subject matter la vie moderne.
Without a personal commitment to the particular issue, we view Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios with the same aloof interest as we do one of his Arabian horsemen or The Death of Sardanapalus. For me, in a similar way, I have little spontaneous response to the political agenda of Goya’s court paintings or The Fourth of May. (But I do feel a strong response to Saturn Devouring One of His Sons.) This suggests to me that certain representations provoke such a visceral response as to remove them from a the ambit of classical aesthetics. This happens in response to the referential subject matter, and only few such subjects and their treatment summon forth such strong reactions.
Inevitably all representations (which music, for example, is not) refer to the world of experience. In that world, our actions are guided by some set of moral or ethical principles. Our decisions are based on consequences. But in art, there is the contemplative sensorial element, there is the capacity to apprehend the works in themselves without recourse to the accuracy of the depictions. (This, in fact, is the conclusion Herbert Marcuse arrived at after seeing Picasso’s Guernica.) The timelessness of Shakespeare or Sophocles is said to come from the universality of their themes. (We need glosses to help explain the political references in their plays, but we need no interpretative notes to explicate Falstaff’s “What is honor” speech.)
The roots of political art
Every action and artifact has at least a minimal “political” component. This is particularly so of representations, because as such, they are intentionally edited and shaped by the artist or author to coincide with an end purpose. Art has always served a political purpose, originally by magnifying the ruler or deities and by honoring and sustaining the privileged class and its institutions. This occurred in a different social system—one of an artisan class or craft guild economically dependent on a patron class—and usually took the form of officially sanctioned and commissioned art (that is, most of the art that is studied in art history).
But there occurred a marked changed of attitude that began with the Protestant Reformation, gained a widespread support with the revolutions of the eighteenth century, and was hurried along by industrialized capitalism and mass communications.
That attitude exalted individualism and personal opinions and set the individual in an adversarial relationship with such authoritarian institutions as government and Church. By the end of the nineteenth century, the very decision to be an artist included the decision to be either an exiled avant garde artist or a traditional artist.
There are several roots of “political” art. One is found in the hierarchy of genres promulgated in the latter seventeenth century by the French Academy to rank the seriousness of works of art. At the top was history painting, so-called because the subjects portrayed moral action or events taken from classical literature or Biblical stories. The lesser genres included portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. In the French Academy’s formulation, such paintings were inferior because they were merely reportorial pictures without moral force or artistic imagination. In the eighteenth century, Diderot advanced the cause of moralizing art when he championed the bathetic portrayals of Greuze and others. Such pictorial exhorting reached its most exalted status in the French Revolution, when David’s Neo-classical civic lessons were annexed to the purposes of the Revolution.
The American and French Revolutions themselves are representative of another source for the “political” in art, that is, the decline of the aristocracy and rise of popular democracies and mass education. Liberal democratic government in Western industrial societies was premised upon the involvement of the great numbers of people previously unenfranchised. As education spread, social and political counselors and essayists promoted the merits of an informed electorate.
Implicit in the concept of an informed and educated electorate, and enhanced by the doctrine of a personal rather than authoritative interpretation of moral precepts, was the impetus to political activism By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marxist theory proposed that all of industrial capitalism would face an on-going proletarian revolution until the vindication of socialism. Social reformers of the last century, like Saint-Simon and Fournier, saw a restructuring of society along socialist lines and led by artists, engineers, and scientists. Romanticism, which theoretically was based on the same fundamentals as the democratic revolutions of America and France, placed a great emphasis on the concept of artistic genius and the uniqueness of artistic sensitivity. This was absorbed into the socialist proposals of the last centuries, and artists were thought to be possessed of a particular temperament or insight that made them especially well suited as social critics and managers. This attitude persisted into the twentieth century, propagated by artists and non-artists alike. There was a supposed special sensitivity to matters of the heart or human relations that artists possessed which other mortals do not have. It is this self-delusion of the artistic community about the nature of artistic sensitivity that has led artists to exile themselves from society and to critique it, and simultaneously to claim to be the visionaries who can right society’s wrongs.
Yet another source for the “political” component of art can be found in the development of the portable easel painting. Once the work of art (more accurately a painting) was liberated from its site and the meaning of its location, the messages of pictures became interchangeable commodities. This interchangeability allowed for the rise of the museum, the institution of meta-meaning, in which artworks qua art and artistic value existed in isolation from their cultural context. The museum in turn reciprocally created conditions that greatly magnified the independent value of the artist as maker, and thus elevated the value of the artist’s genius and sensitivity embodied in the work. And so, it is in a museum that Picasso’s Guernica is shown, not in the rubble of a Basque town.
Inevitably, it is in a culture and society that puts portable and interchangeable art on its sanctuary walls that the utter ineffectiveness and irrelevance of “political” art is demonstrated. The “political” in art is ineffective because consumer capitalism neutralizes its message. The museum or gallery is driven by cultural interests that themselves are driven by economic interests. We hear not infrequently of a museum’s refusal to part with, say, a section of an altarpiece in order that the whole altarpiece be restored intact, because of the museum’s claimed commitment to presenting a wide diversity of art to its constituency. The museum shows itself impervious to the original meaning and import of works of art. Because it is trivialized in the gallery, “political” art is ineffective, and because it is ineffective, it is irrelevant. What political good is something that does not work? Besides, who cares? The disseminators of propaganda or advertising care enough to carry through: the army will feed and clothe and pay the soldier it recruits, the store will sell the customer the product, and the church will take in and succor its lost souls. Will an artist who makes political art, such as Sue Coe, do as much?