Art Into Politics

Aug 10, 20156 min read

New York University offers a course, Master of Arts in Arts Politics. "The politics that makes art. The politics that art makes.....Arts politics attends to both formal and informal political processes that bear on the production, dissemination, and reception of the arts. It integrates approaches from the humanities, social sciences, and the arts themselves. It studies governmental and policy processes and the institutional ecology and political economy of the arts. It employs perspectives that understand how to decode cultural meanings, how social movements are formed, and how to read the aesthetic dimension of contemporary politics. Through official patronage and censorship, celebration and loathing, affirmation and critique of prevailing values, art has long been imbricated and implicated in the political. Yet arts politics is never fixed; its historical and cross-cultural variations help us understand what possibilities exist for civically engaged artists working in the present."

Goldsmiths University in London also has a course MA in Art & Politics, "inspired by appeals to situate 'practice' in terms of a variety of contemporary discourses and the increased incorporation of politics and social agendas into art." There are many other universities around the world offering post graduate courses in arts politics.

There has always been art in politics and politics in art. Rulers and politicians have used artists and all art forms to convey their messages and to control and manage the thoughts of their people. Sometimes artists have also used their creative abilities to change the minds or to guide the people in power towards creating a better world.

We may never be able to discover when arts were not political. We have very little information about the pre-historic people who created the art works we have discovered in caves. Perhaps these paintings, and even the palm prints on the cave walls, had carried a message, and some of them could have been political inspired messages.

American philosopher and anarchist Crispin Sartwell wrote, "Every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical, yet excruciatingly dull." Throughout history there have been rulers who got their artists and engineers to build huge structures, believing them to be works of art, but posterity had seen them as just monuments of megalomania.

Some such constructions are still admired by people, as works of art, and just one example is the Taj Mahal. We also have the Sigiriya complex as our own tourist attraction and recognized as a world heritage site. But such sites also remind us of the pain and suffering of the poor helpless people who would have toiled for years and years, in such constructions. To build the Taj Mahal 20,000 people had shed their sweat, tears and blood for 22 years.

We have also to accept that most arts from our ancient past, which survive till date, were either initiated by those who engaged in politics, or the artists were supported by them, even if the creative works were non-political. Many creative art works too had been destroyed, and sometimes the artists tortured and murdered by those in power, simply because they dared to speak out against tyranny.

A short poem or a few brush strokes could be more effective than a thousand words. That is why very often political leaders use creative writers to write their speeches or their messages. An artist doing a portrait or a sculptor carving a block of stone into a human figure could provide a completely different person. This is not a new development. Claudius was shown as Jupiter, or Alexander riding bucephalus are examples from the past. In ancient times, visual propaganda played a more important role to win the minds of the illiterate. In India, the symbols used by Devanampiya Piyadassi (better known as Asoka), the Chakra and the Sarnath Lion capital, were selected for the new nation. These are examples of the survival of political art.

Political leaders used art as personal adornment to enhance their status, which could be the origin of gold ornaments, crowns and thrones and very expensive clothes had to be created by artists for them. We have the story of the emperor's new clothes. Once money replaced the role of bartering, the leaders stamped their own faces on the coins, which continues till today, in most countries in the new coins and notes. Thus we could also say that some artists and some politician s were interdependent. Their success or failure could depend on their own specialized skills and ideas.

George Orwell, in 'Why I Write' (1946) said, "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art", and in 'Politics and the English Language', "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics'. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia."

In Britain Prof. Bernard Crick established The Orwell Prize "for the work which comes closest to George Orwell's ambition 'to make political writing into an art'." Seismopolite is a Norwegian-English quarterly "which investigates the possibility of artists and art scenes worldwide to reflect and influence their local political situation. Recently it carried an article by Prof. Sabine Grosser, 'At the Turn of the Centuries: Art and Politics in Sri Lanka' writing about two artists of the new generation, Chandragupta Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe.

"Literature is political, because we are all political animals", says Oliver Senior, but this is a topic for another day.

← Back to blog
© Daya Dissanayake 2022 Contact