“All art is political.”
“Art has always been political.”
“Art and politics are inseparable.”
These declarations are far from novel, but they have become more frequent in recent years, amplified against the backdrop of a presidential election and a politically polarized nation. There appears to be a general cultural acceptance today that art and politics are star-crossed lovers, destined for an inevitable and inseparable marriage.
Art and Politics in Today’s Culture
When political campaign yard signs became optional in the escapist video game Animal Crossing, many pundits within the video game community gave an indifferent shrug, with one podcaster from IGN concluding, “I mean, all art is political.”
Pop star Taylor Swift has dominated the news cycles with her much-publicized “political awakening.” Her hit song “You Need to Calm Down” was used to rally listeners to sign a political petition, and her acceptance speech for the MTV Video of the Year award was an overtly political sermon. Friend and fellow popstar Demi Lovato has followed in her footsteps, recently releasing the politically charged song “Commander in Chief.” The cover art for the song fittingly depicts Lovato wearing a mask with the word “vote” on it.
The fusion of art and politics extends beyond art itself and now includes the artist as well. Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt was recently slammed on Twitter for not attending Voters Assemble: The Cast of The Avengers Unite for Democracy, a political fundraiser featuring many other stars from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When castmate Mark Ruffalo (a relentlessly political Twitter presence) defended Pratt by saying, “He is just not overtly political,” one social media warrior quickly responded, “Being non-political is no longer an option.”
Perhaps the clearest encapsulation of society’s view on the relationship between art and politics comes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the immensely popular Broadway play Hamilton. In a recent article in The Atlantic about the role of the artist in today’s culture, he begins by saying, “All art is political,” and ends with, “It’s all political.”
Separation of Art and Politics
If a slogan is repeated enough times and for long enough, eventually it will become unquestionably accepted as truth. “All art is political” is catchy, but it’s also nonsense and patently untrue—not to mention harmful.
The gymnastics required to make the “all art is political” declaration work requires one of two things: shrinking the boundaries of “art” to include only overtly political art or broadening the boundaries of “politics” to the point where essentially any aspect of human life is somehow political.
The “All art is political” cliché is built on a conflation of ideas and backwards thinking. It is true that throughout most of human history, art has been used for political purposes, but that does not imply that every work of art is political. Humanity is political, but clearly not everything we do is actively political—eating a hamburger, playing a board game, going for a hike, etc.
The most obvious case against the inevitable politicizing of art is children. Art is created in its purest and most unadulterated form by children, the ones most blissfully sheltered from politics. The earliest art—such as the many captivating pre-historic cave-paintings—served a wide range of purposes. Some was used as a form of history preservation or storytelling; much was created in the name of religious worship, and some seems to have served no purpose beyond simple aesthetic satisfaction.
I attended a creativity seminar with a local graffiti artist as the featured speaker. A Q&A followed his presentation on the topic of “artistic wonder.” The artist was peppered with questions about art as a tool for social justice and the importance of art in political activism. Eventually, he simply responded, “I think there’s a time and place for all of that. But, honestly, most of my art was done because I thought it looked cool and was visually interesting.”
Truth and Experience
The modern expectation that art is inseparably political stems not from history or fact but merely from a politically obsessed culture that now forces all aspects of human life into a political box. The political takeover of the arts not only tarnishes and limits the power and freedom of creative experience, but it also damages and hinders the human experience as a whole.
Not all art is political. Not all art should be political. The essential pillars of art are truth and experience. Good art tells the truth about the human experience—in full, not just in part—and offers a vehicle for a more visceral experience of that truth. Propaganda, on the other hand, fails to tell the truth and, by being slavishly tied to preaching a certain ideology, rarely offers an enjoyable or provocative experience.
The power of great art is that it broadens our perspective and experience of the world. Art keeps us grounded in our full humanity. It offers a healthy perspective that there is far more to life than our present and immediate circumstances, struggles, or concerns. The importance of this wider perspective is a biblical concept:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
In the New Testament, when the apostle Paul sought to describe the proper mindset of a Christian, he wrote:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
In other words, the Christian mind should occupy itself with the appreciation of everything good, true, and beautiful in God’s wonderful creation.
Politics is an important part of life, but it still just one room in the sprawling mansion of human existence and possibility. There was a time when art enticed us out of that room, exciting us with the endless possibilities and unknown discoveries. As a society, we’re slowly losing this experience, and we are the worse for it.