STORMING THE BARRICADES ... WITH A PAINTBRUSH
The problem with political art is that it usually doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, writes John Armstrong
FOR a very long time, indeed since the 1830s in France, political art has been charged with the task of raising consciousness. Its presiding fear is that we are complacent; the task of art, as a political instrument, is to shake us from our slumbers and rouse us to indignation and action. Hence the continuing prestige of works that shock and disturb, a status that depends on the conviction that we’re not shocked or disturbed enough.
There may have been a time when the shock value of art was useful, when religious mores, etiquette, lack of education and the hieratic possession of knowledge denied people the ability to think outside very carefully delineated boundaries to the detriment of their comfort, happiness and freedom. But this legacy of political activism is, today, a burden. For while we have many problems, they are not problems of complacency.
A more classical view of art, one particularly espoused by magisterial 19th- century German writer Johann Goethe, sees our problem as quite the opposite, as hysteria rather than somnolence. The political goal of art then would be to calm us down, to invite us to a balanced and poised condition from which we can take clear- sighted action. In Goethe’s eyes, clamour, sloganeering, partisanship and point- scoring are the curses of political life. Art should not add to the confusion.
Our desire to use art politically is part of the fallout of a profound malaise: we are very uncertain these days what the core purposes of art are or should be. What do we want from an encounter with a work of art?
Political art, a subspecies of message- driven art, seems exciting because it offers us a take- home line, a sound bite in visual form. And we think that’s good only because we have come to expect so very little from art: something, it would seem, is better than nothing.
Political art is a marriage, a wedding of two of humanity’s most serious and persistent activities. But what kind of a marriage is this? What do art and politics offer each other? Can they talk interestingly to one another or are they just engaged in competitive sledging? It is clear what politics offers art. Politics is the arena of collective deliberation and action. We may become enraged with politicians whose principles or priorities we object to, but that only emphasises that politics isn’t an arena of indifference; it is a place of passion and urgency.
Whenever we worry that art perhaps isn’t so important in the wider scheme of things, that perhaps it is just a form of entertainment, just eye candy, political art comes to the rescue. How can you say art isn’t important when it’s about such weighty issues?
Take Pablo Picasso’s Guernica . It may be venerated as an anti- war picture, and whenever there’s a war on this can sound relevant and invite applause. But no one in mainstream Western politics thinks it’s a good thing to bomb cities, so why do we need Picasso to send us such
an obvious message? Ironically, the historical questions the painting raises are much more awkward. It can suggest, in the mind of the beholder, the following: if the Nazis were prepared to do that, what was it going to take to stop them? It’s not that the picture is pro- war but, since it shows us so terrifyingly what can happen, it raises a moral conundrum to which the slogan ‘‘ war is evil’’ is not much of an answer. The lesson of Guernica , we may say, was better understood by Winston Churchill than by Neville Chamberlain. With the easy knowledge of hindsight, we may wish the US had invaded Germany in 1936 and averted the horrors of World War II.
But we’re talking about the picture only in terms of its most blatant message and Picasso didn’t need to be the artist he was to make that point. The horrors of war are often shown much more compellingly by photographs that acquire their potency not from artistry but from their lack of it: the expertly snapped photojournalist’s record, the amateur’s cry for witness.
Similarly, in looking at contemporary art that is blunt and loud in its sloganeering, we are often paralysed in our reactions because we want to acknowledge the justice of the artist’s cause. Out of loyalty to the issue, we want to believe the painting must be doing something about it. But honesty would compel us to admit it is not. Investigative journalism or nonfiction books resulting from scrupulous and exhaustive research do that much better.
So what makes Guernica so impressive as an instance of political art? Can we gain from it any insight into what great political art may be?
There’s something universal in the screaming woman, who, to be blunt, Picasso didn’t have to wait for the Luftwaffe in order to encounter. What is so deeply terrifying about the picture is that something totally normal — that people hurt and hate one another, and cause each other to scream with pain, despair and rage — is here shown on a cosmic scale, partly the effect of the sheer size of the work.
Great political art shows us ourselves: our destructive capacities, our worst moments, writ large and armed with the power of the state. It’s as if, wanting to fling a plate in anger, one were suddenly handed a pile of bombs. If we needed a picture to tell us the historical truth that it was wrong to bomb a particular city, we would indeed be in a morally desperate state.
Today, one could imagine an artist hating, say, mindless consumerism and wanting to make a work that says mindless consumerism is horrible. But what’s difficult isn’t spotting the flaw in other people’s behaviour; we’re all good at that. We also have a powerful instinct to tell ourselves reassuring stories about the sources of evil in the world. So then what?
I’d love to see political art that shows us how hard it is to govern well, that is sympathetic to what Harold Macmillan described as the ‘‘ horrors of office’’. He was burdened all his life by the trade- offs he made with Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II. But while the result was catastrophic — prisoners of war were sent to their deaths in Stalin’s camps — it’s not easy to say what one would have done in his place, faced with the same decision and the same pressures. Nor would it be easy to render them in art.
Looking further back in art history, one of the greatest 19th- century works of political art is Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. At first sight this looks like an icon of rebellion: our hearts fired by the ideal of liberty, we mount the barricades against the forces of oppression. It plays up to the libidinal side of revolt, the obscure but powerful hope that revolution is the way to better sex ( among other desirable ends). It was painted in 1830.
Delacroix wrote a journal — he was one of the most literary of the great painters — that contains despairing remarks about the politics of the day. He encountered the political class at close quarters at fashionable dinner parties and received lavish state patronage from the start of his career.
‘‘ Monarchy, democracy; what does it matter?’’ This was the big constitutional question of the day, but Delacroix thought it trivial. He was obsessed with the capacity individual people had to make a hell of their own lives and was astounded by the conviction others seemed to have that, if only the order of the state were different, all would be well in all aspects of life.
Liberty Leading the People is a heroic picture but it isn’t the heroism of practical success. Delacroix certainly isn’t ridiculing the violent impulse for abstract freedom. The essence of the picture is its classical ambition, its timelessness. Delacroix isn’t trying to assert the justice of the revolution; he knew the revolution of 1830 was farcical from the point of view of abstract liberty and the little it accomplished ( at the cost of 2000 dead) was a transfer of power from one middleclass faction to another.
In terms of real political objectives, the work is obviously empty. What are they going to do when they get over the barricade? If they gain power, will they use it well? What does the abstract ideal of liberty mean in day- to- day terms? The picture has nothing to tell us about any of this. Rather, Delacroix gives permanent expression to a longing, one that, even in the picture, has no home in the world. It’s a picture of what we want, not of what we can have.
The politicisation of art, the drive to praise works on political grounds or to see works as carriers of political messages, is connected to a profound problem in human nature.
Matthew Arnold, the most interesting Victorian literary critic, often spoke about what he called ‘‘ our taste for bathos’’. He means that we have a tendency to want to pull things down to earth, to see the lesser thing when presented with the great.
Michelangelo’s great Florentine sculpture David , which stood for centuries in the central piazza, can be given a political meaning. It stands for the pride of Florence, its David to the Goliath of Rome. But this interpretation indicates our taste for bathos. We turn an object with a large and profound but necessarily vague meaning into an assertion of something ridiculous. What’s the competitive self- assertion of a Renaissance city to me? The universal significance of the work is its power to humble and inspire. David embodies fearless, intense devotion to a noble and just cause; we do not easily qualify as his companions. Michelangelo was incredibly severe in his judgments of people and created works of art that expressed the most ambitious striving for perfec- tion. Such striving is radically different from local civic pride.
When we have the taste for bathos, we trivialise art in our own eyes. Political art, unfortunately, quite often plays to this tendency. If we really don’t see the point of art ( we don’t go for the Picasso etchings or Delacroix history pictures, for example), we’re deeply relieved to find famous works that tell us something we already know all about: the badness of war, the goodness of liberty. That we are really climbing down, giving up on the greater potential of art’s message, is disguised because, of course, war and liberty are important matters.
Today, political art risks being what moralising art was for the 19th century: a reason for thinking that art is important because it is on the side of what is taken to be good. That doesn’t begin to touch the ways in which art can be important to us. Art matters because it meets our private spiritual needs; it communicates with our secret selves ( often so much finer than our public personas). Political art can describe what is wrong, it can exhort us to action, but it doesn’t go where political problems now lie. These problems have to do with the practical business of balancing conflicting interests, of managing unquantifiable risks and retaining public support while doing so.
Our difficulties are much more connected to uncertainty about how to achieve in reality the results that most people know, in the abstract, they want to achieve.
The appeal of shock therapy art was connected to irresponsibility. Such works aim at challenging the status quo but don’t need to explain how to put things right.
That is the desperate issue of our times, but art has not been in that conversation for some time. That seems to me a great loss. John Armstrong is a philosopher at the University of Melbourne. His books include The Secret Power of Beauty and Love, Life, Goethe.
Over the top: Eugene Delacroix’s heroic Liberty Leading the People is about what we long for rather than what we can have