Politicized Art Update #2

Hi all!

I have been reading, since my last post, about two big things: theories on political art and case studies in political art, both historical and present-day.

Initially, I found much of the political art theory reading unsatisfying after my deep dive on defining art, because my conclusion was more or less that all art is currently political, even if being political is not a necessary or sufficient condition to define something as art. Thus, defending the proposition that art shouldbe political seemed unnecessary to me.

However, what I was missing was the distinction between art that is naturally political by virtue of it existing and art that is actively politically engaged, as well as the benefits of such actively engaged art over the former. Further, such theories help explain how politically engaged art functions and what is most useful under that. For example, Doris Sommer argues that art which invites experimentation and creativity, active interpretation, and active engagement with the world is preferable because it develops freedom, democracy through “admiration” of other “artist-citizens”, and actual sustainable change (Sommer 31). Art that merely puts an idea out into the world, even a controversial one, and ends its work there is less preferable.

As I’ve reviewed case studies, I have been attempting to examine on what axes they are political and which situations tend to be politicized in the same way. To be more concrete, although frequently interconnected, a work of art can be perfectly uncontroversial in the medium it uses, choosing a form that is squarely within an artistic tradition, but have a message that is incredibly controversial. On the other hand, some works involve an unconventional distribution or creation method that makes them actively political. The primary axes I have identified are: content (what is actually present in the work of art), message (what is interpreted from the work of art), medium (what is used to create the work of art), and distribution (by what method the work is viewed after its creation). Naturally, since the field thrives on creativity, these categories are murky and not necessarily able to be parsed out most the time. However, they are a useful starting point for me to organize my impressions and notice patterns.


A few tentative patterns I’ve been noticing:

First, art that critiques violence and human-produced tragedy/terror frequently uses content that is visually unsettling. This is done in some instances through abstraction that leaves the viewer unsettled and other times done through attempts to show reality as raw as possible. The abstraction, as one would expect, is more prevalent in a post-photography age, in which photographs can show brutal realities if that is the goal of the artist. However, there were still a few examples prior to the advent of the camera.
Second, anti-regime art is generally controversial because of the messaging, not necessarily other aspects. However, because the need to protest a regime or the status quo typically arises from oppression and state violence, anti-regime works frequently have striking content as well.

Third, activist art, which I will for now define as art that is not only actively political but strives to affect change immediately, has a democratized distribution system (which is fairly straightforward, clearly an activist would want to reach as many people as possible) and with that, because more established art forms and mediums are not as well suited for this distribution or are created by only one artist, the medium and method of production is frequently innovative as well.

Finally, in both of these readings, the notions of collaboration and democratized distribution methods repeatedly come up. Currently, such art in which collaboration is key and the distinction between artist/viewer is varying degrees of blurred seems to be increasingly popular, especially for activist art. Even if the role of collaboration is less, distribution methods for art are at least more democratic, and if collaboration is involved, the distribution is inherently democratized. Such collaboration and democratization are some of the key features of Third Cinema, and I think this pattern might be crucial for understanding where activist art is going.


For this section, the two most influential texts I read were:

Doris Sommer’s Work of Art in the World (case studies and theory)

Christian Viveros-Fauné’s Social Forms: A Short History of Political Art (for case studies)