Politicized Art: Blog Post #1

Hi all,


To review, I am looking at politicized art movements from the past and how the lessons we take from their organization and ideological framework can help us predict the future of politicized art. In particular, I am looking at the Third Cinema movement that came out of Argentina.

To begin, I wanted to focus on the ideological aspects of political art. A major strand of thought running through the Third Cinema manifesto is that of neocolonial attempts to “depoliticize” art. I found this unsatisfying, however, since it seems that if “depoliticized art” is the goal of individuals of a certain ideological persuasion, then that in and of itself is political. Art that attempts to make no statement would simply function in service to the status quo, therefore being political in its own way. In other words, it appeared to me that all art was political, even if it didn’t claim to be.

However, these initial personal intuitions were wholly insufficient justification. I therefore began my attempts to lay ideological groundwork for the rest of the paper with two major questions: one, is all art, as I suspected, political; and two, how does one define “political art”? After all, if I am to write about political art, it would help to have a working definition.

But the conversation around defining art and identifying its properties is complex. To explain all the reasoning I employ and synthesize from various philosophers of art to reach these conclusions would be far too lengthy to go into here, though I am happy to answer any questions about my reasoning and will outline it in my final paper. I do, however, want to share my conclusions, points to consider moving forward, and the articles I found most enlightening for this section.


For the time being, I am mostly convinced that, from an ontological perspective, we should use primarily descriptive definitions. I derive this from the fact that the purpose of words is to communicate meaning, and therefore a definition should reflect the way people in reality use the word to communicate. This does not preclude normative suggestions to alter definitions, however, but they must be focused on improving usefulness of the word. An interesting strand for later on this is a philosopher, R. Stecker, quoted in Annelies Monseré’s “Boarderline Cases and the Project of Defining Art” as promoting “a ‘rational reconstruction’ of the concept of art by striving for a reflective equilibrium between our categorisation judgments or intuitions and the proposed definition of art” (Monseré 472). He, in plainer words, thinks “that most proposed definitions of art are not intended to be fully descriptive…” (Monseré 472).

I started off with the impulse to develop a definition of art from reason alone, but attempts to do so were inevitable circular. While I might intuitively value this type of philosophy, and while I certainly wanted to sound fancy with a definition along the lines of “X is art if and only if…”, I realized quickly that empirics were absolutely necessary.

The definition of art that I will therefore suggest is one that presents several attributes we commonly ascribe to objects we call art, and describes objects as more or less artlike, but which can never be categorized as fully art or not art. What does this mean for my initial questions about political art? Since many of these commonly ascribed attributes logically extend to politicization, things that are most likely to be called “art” are likely politicized. The clearest example of this is the attribute “meaning is potentially derived from thing x,” an attribute I am willing to defend placing on the list. If people derive meaning from thing x, it means they are using thinking processes and coming to conclusions that either support or challenge various viewpoints, mindsets, etc. While this is not overtly political in the sense many of us first think, it does mean thing x is politicized insofar as it interacts with the worldviews that contribute directly to political understanding.


I additionally have three major thoughts for moving forward:

(1) With regards to art history as a whole, I must consider the predominant understanding of what art was at the time and situate any activist or political art within that context to understand its politicization. Though this might sound rather obvious in retrospect, consider that if there is some a priori way to discern what art is, or if there is something “out there” that *is* art, or if intrinsic properties define art, then the context matters much less. It is also crucial with regards to (2).

(2) I now have a theory that much political art is so not because of its content, but because of its relationship to the artworld of its day and its definitions of art. I would like to pay attention to this moving forward, because I can certainly see a world in which an artwork’s contents is the only thing that politicizes it, but in that case, perhaps there is a rebellion against the normative definition of art or normative parameters set up for “good art”. I think by partaking in (1) this becomes very easy. I have a feeling art which is progressive or activist in nature tries to expand the definition, even if not every piece of art that attempts to expand the definition is explicitly activist/political (though implicitly I would argue it is), while conservative art would likely stay within the bounds of the established definition. It is unclear to me how reactionary art would fit, but likely would be activist in the sense that it would ascribe or value aspects of the art definition that are not in fashion at the moment of the work’s creation.

(3) It has become increasingly apparent that the conflict over defining art is inherently political. This is because tied up in our conception of art is value. In other words, because we find the title “art” to denote value and therefore meaning in society, it becomes a sought after title and the ability to get one’s work classified as art and even more so the ability to classify things as art oneself confers power. It therefore follows that if power is being conferred in the process of defining art, the process becomes political.


I would like to end on the three articles I found most useful to my research in this section:

  1. Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld”: a fantastic introduction to aesthetics, easy to read, gave me significant food for thought about the evolution of definitions, and introduced a proto-institutional definition of art that is central to many of the subsequent pieces I read.
  2. Annelies Monseré’s “Borderline Cases and the Project of Defining Art”: Gave me the terms in which to verbalize my thoughts, particularly the distinction between normative and descriptive definitions. Further, her critique of many art philosophers as giving normative, prescriptive definitions with “recommendatory consequences” when they purport to be giving descriptive definitions resonated with me.
  3. James O. Young’s “Defining art responsibly”: Young exemplifies someone who understands and uses effectively the difference between a descriptive and normative definition without ever mentioning it by name. I appreciate this, even if I don’t agree with him.


So ultimately, is all art political? It would depend, it seems, on how you define “art.”

I apologize for the long update, but I hope something peaked your interest!


  1. esrenshaw says:

    Hi Lydia!

    Your project sounds so cool! As soon as I read the part about Argentine Third Cinema I was excited! I took HISP 281, Intro to Hispanic Studies last semester and we discussed it in class. We spent a long time learning about the political and historical context surrounding Third Cinema, but did not go very far into the philosophy of art and art history with the topic. Will you return to more of the historical content in your paper?

    Your piece on the definition(s) of art was thought-provoking. I think that art is inherently political, whether it is upholding or deconstructing the establishment. It took me a while to understand part 2, but I really like how you posit that art can be political within the art community for going against its contemporary styles. (Your wording is clearly better). This thought makes me reflect on politics besides the national government kind, and I appreciate how this seems to expand the definition. All the definitions and expert opinions you share about the nature of art here are great, and I can tell how much research has been put into it.

    As someone who has not thought much about art, or been formally taught about it, I was hooked in and able to understand. Great work! I am excited to read more.

  2. Hi!

    Sorry for the late response, I didn’t figure out how this feature worked until recently! Hopefully my subsequent posts helped out a bit with some of your questions, but I am always happy to talk about this some more!

    I also first encountered Third Cinema in HISP 281, and I became fascinated. My paper does compare the movement to other parts of art history, but mostly focuses on subsequent artworks and the ways elements of Third Cinema show up in these subsequent movements/works. Though less history-focused (and more theory focused) than I initially thought it would be, these comparisons are a big part of my paper.

    I truly appreciate your kind comments, and I hope you enjoy these last few days of summer!