BY George Pendle in Opinion | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Power Play

When so much art is trumpeted as being ‘political’ why do so few artists enter politics?

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 06 JUN 08

‘Are you involved in politics now? Leave that to the writers and to the ugly girls.’ 
Albert Camus, Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, (Jonas, or The Artist at Work), 1957

The home page of Fiber Artists for Obama welcomes ‘all Barack Obama supporters who quilt, sew, craft, crochet, knit or otherwise express themselves thru the fiber arts’. One of the many groups that can currently be found under the aegis of ‘Artists for Obama’, this is the latest attempt to attract artistic support for a political campaign. Traditionally such attempts have not been particularly successful. While musicians and actors are happy to endorse a presidential candidate, contemporary artists are generally notable by their absence from the political fray. So far the best-known name to be coaxed onto Obama’s artist pages is Shepard Fairey, who is responsible for the ‘OBEY Giant’ campaign, which saw the monochrome portrait of the wrestler Andre the Giant spread unstoppably around the world. The picture’s omnipresence, not to mention its obscurity, was a remarkably successful example of propaganda without a point. Now, however, Fairey has harnessed his skills to a different but no less strident imperative – ‘change’. Incorporating Obama’s much-used tagline into his work, he has produced a series of Federal Art Project-style prints that portray the candidate in the colours of the American flag. Yet why is the final image somewhat uncomfortable? Is it the unfortunate lexical similarity between ‘OBEY’ and ‘Obama’? Is it the recognition that political propaganda can be just as unappetizing when it is for the underdog as when it is for the overlord? Or is there something profoundly unnatural about an artist’s unabashed involvement with politics?

It is 40 years since the fabled May demonstrations in Paris, the student sit-in at New York’s Columbia University, the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City and the brutal quashing of the Prague Spring by the Soviet Union. But while artists are quite happy to reference and romanticize these events in their work, it is hard to find an artist who has actually been driven to enter politics because of them. Why is it that, when so much art is trumpeted as being ‘political’, so few artists are interested in engaging directly in politics? Other creative fields have always contributed to the political ranks. Benjamin Disraeli was a popular novelist before he was Prime Minister of Great Britain, Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a renowned composer before he became Prime Minister of Poland, Thomas Jefferson an admired architect before becoming President of the USA. And it is not just in the distant past: the novelist Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York in 1969, and the Brazilian singer–songwriter Gilberto Gil has been his country’s culture minister since 2003. In India being a Bollywood star is a well-established stepping-stone to public office. Yet the visual arts have provided fewer politicians of national standing than either wrestling (which can boast Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Governor of Minnesota) or pornography (Ilona ‘La Cicciolina’ Staller, parliamentary representative for Lazio). Are artists too unruly a breed to be trusted with the flame of civic authority? Or is it that they are aware that the gross egotism of art production could cause untold trouble if given free rein? The precedent of Adolf Hitler – twice refused entry to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna – may have permanently discouraged artists from seeking positions of power, not simply because of ethical concerns but because of the scale of his political (and aesthetic) successes. As Frederic Spotts states in his book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2003): ‘His dream was to create a culture state in which Germans were to listen to music he liked, attend operas he loved, see paintings and sculptures he collected, and admire the buildings he constructed.’ What artist today could possibly succeed in such a multi-disciplinary task?

In 1978 the dissident playwright and future President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Power of the Powerless’, in which he stated that artists’ desire to live ‘within the truth’ would forever thrust them into an involvement in politics. In 2006 Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, who was arrested for ‘insulting’ the Turkish government, seemed to refute this dictum. He declared that artists are inherently bad politicians because they are unable to acquiesce in public opinion. ‘Art and citizenship are not necessarily compatible. Good citizens do not make good artists most of the time. Bad citizens produce good artists; artists tend to be egoists and are more successful when they care only about their art and ignore the other citizens.’

Yet these two seemingly opposite viewpoints are perhaps more similar than one would think. In Albert Camus’ short story ‘Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail’ (Jonas, or The Artist at Work, 1957) a young painter becomes the subject of vast popular and critical acclaim. His studio overflows with visitors, and demands on his time begin to pile up. The more life intrudes upon his work, however, the less accomplished he becomes, and in an attempt to recapture his former brilliance he builds a dark loft in his house and locks himself in it. When he eventually falls ill after months of seclusion, a friend climbs up into the loft to see what he has been working on. The only sign of any work is a blank canvas with one word scrawled in its middle. However, the friend cannot tell whether it reads ‘solitaire’ or ‘solidaire’.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.