Art vs. Culture

Pablo Picasso once defined the artist as “A political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.”
Throughout history, Politics has influenced many different types of culture. This has happened in literature, like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which contained themes of omnipresent government surveillance. Or in music, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, whose career was shaped by Stalin’s demands to compose music of a positive nature to inspire patriotism for Russia. But the influence of politics on artwork itself is perhaps the most relevant of all forms in 2016.
All around the world today, we can see examples of it. In the midst of the US election debates, art is one way that people are showing their support for their favourite candidates. Los Angeles was recently the first of four US cities to host ‘The Art of a Political Revolution’, a touring art exhibition displaying works that took influence from the political landscape and showed support for democrat candidate Bernie Sanders. Featuring artworks alongside music, a livestream address from the candidate himself and the opportunity to buy artwork with proceeds going towards the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, it is a perfect modern example of how the political situation can inspire art.
From painted to spray painted artwork, when talking about art to make a statement, it’s difficult to ignore the work of Banksy, the reclusive street artist who sees himself as a graffiti artist and political activist in equal measures. Although his identity has never been revealed due to graffiti’s illegal status, he has been a highly active figure ever since the early 90s, when he started off as part of the Bristol underground scene. His first known large wall mural, The Mild Mild West, was painted in 1997 covering a solicitors’ office advert, depicting riot police having a Molotov cocktail thrown at them by a teddy bear. Over the years, his work has come with a variety of messages, challenging capitalism, war, or the establishment. Last year was a particularly big year for the artist, who alongside making big news stories with the launch of his spoof temporary art project Dismaland, perhaps most topically made The Son of a Migrant from Syria. This was painted around the Calais jungle, where migrants live before attempting to enter the UK, and depicted Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a travelling migrant, a reference to the successful software entrepreneur’s family history of being the son of a Syrian migrant to the United States.
But despite its primary association with left-wing politics, artwork has also been used to promote the other end of the spectrum. Art that promotes the UK Conservative Party has been prominent over the years, be that 2008 posters inspired by socialist artwork, displaying slogans such as ‘Labour – wasting your money since 1997’ or a 1929 poster depicting taxmen around a house and reading ‘Socialism would mean inspectors all round. If you want to call your soul your own, vote Conservative’, going further back in history.
History, indeed, has shown that some of the most influential artworks have been inspired by political situations. Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, responding to news of Germany’s aerial bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town in the Basque country that faced one of the first bombings by the Luftwaffe. With its greyscale colour scheme and depiction of screaming faces, the painter’s expression against the Spanish Civil War and World War II grew to become one of the most famous artworks of the 20th century, as much due to its reflection on the political landscape as anything else.
A similar topic was covered even earlier in Francisco Goya’s early 19th century The Disasters of War. This was a series of 82 pieces of art that showed the painter’s disapproval at events of the time. There were three sections to the prints. The first 47 works focused on incidents from the Peninsular War and subsequent consequences. 48 to 64 were about the Madrid famine in 1811-1812 throughout the Dos De Mayo Uprising, where French troops occupied Madrid. Whereas the final paintings were a protest against the Bourbon Restoration, where the monarchy rejected the Spanish Constitution and opposed reforms. They were published 35 years after the artist’s death, which many believe was due to fear for Goya’s political safety had they been published at the time of their painting. Much like Guernica, The Disasters of War uses a bleak colour scheme and was meant to be as much of a nudge towards attention of the political figures of the time as it was an expression of the artist’s feelings.
But just as the political situation can inspire art, it can also hinder it. Last June saw Israeli artists of all kinds petitioning against government measures that they believed were anti-democratic and against freedom of expression. This was hot on the heels of Education Minister Naftali Bennett withdrawing funding to allow schoolchildren to see the play A Parallel Of Time due to its depiction of a murderer and terrorist. She said: “The Government doesn’t have to support culture. The artists will not dictate to me.” She faced opposition from Israeli curator Roy Brand, who argued that art does not belong to any political party, so should not be taken as sympathising with one view or another.
There are certainly reasons for and against linking art and politics. Throughout history, many different views have been represented in artwork and to suggest that you can only appreciate artwork that fits your own perception of the world rather underestimates the power of it.
At the very least, it’s certainly understandable from an artist’s point of view why they are so often combined. Art is something that is very personal to its creator, so it’s natural that something that people feel as passionately about as politics, much like religion, is likely to be reflected in it. Some may argue that politics in art can be a problem because artwork with a message you disagree with can be rather alienating. But on the other hand, great art is about taking some people outside of their comfort zones.
Here in Cardiff, we have recently seen ‘Cardiff Without Culture?’ protests against arts cuts by the council. These protests bring out the biggest point of all; when art can live or die based on political decisions, maybe artwork itself is one of the best ways of getting the message across.