Art, Politics and Disenchantment

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In mediæval Europe they burnt witches, unaware that witches don’t exist. In modern Cape Town there are people burning ‘white art’, which doesn’t exist either.

Yet it doesn’t take iconoclasts to deal in the unreal. In the U.K. we’ve had ‘ethnic minority arts’, ‘multi-ethnic arts’ and even Britain’s ‘non-British arts’ conjured up in what Colin Rhodes calls ‘a separate category and public-funding structure that seemed to define the role of the black artist from outside’. If the state abandons the arts to private patronage, it’s philistine; if it promotes ideals of the sublime and the beautiful it’s indulging elitism. So it shuffles its feet and welds aesthetics to social policy.

Of course art has long been commissioned to serve political ends, from statuary of ancient empires to perhaps the strangest job advert of the 2015 general election, which sought something called ‘Liberal Democrat Artwork’. Politics can consign art to the flames, but Augustus saved the Aeneid when its author wanted it burnt.

Yet somewhere on the way to modern times, instead of simply serving a faction or a cause, art became white or ethnic or indigenous (sorry, Indigenous), gendered or bourgeois or otherwise sodden with half-hidden social currents. Keen to appreciate art for art’s sake? You can find postcolonial theorists who’ll tell you the very notion is Eurocentric.

So that’s art for you. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams; but beware if you dream of faraway realms, lest you lapse into cultural appropriation.

It’s not social criticism of art that’s disappointing. (Debates about cultural appropriation went on fairly soberly before Twitter discovered the term, and they address themselves to those looking to purchase ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art as well as to the Aborigine.) It’s social criticism in lieu of art criticism: attitudes towards ‘white art’ or ‘ethnic art’, which make as much sense as an attitude towards ‘winged things’ from birds to moths to aeroplanes.

When this kind of attitude turns into political action, it smothers the artistry in art: never mind the painting, all you see is how it’s framed. Beauty itself becomes controversial: subjective and not easily focus-grouped. One think tank has actually published a defence of beauty in policy and planning, out of concern that it’s slipping out of sight.

After all, art can be dangerous. Suppose you did look properly at that painting; and suppose you felt transported with a glimpse into the artist’s vision, in a moment of transcendence beyond time and place and skin. Highly inconvenient, for certain political interests.

So art and the political animal get along uneasily—with one perversely illustrative exception. Emigrating from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid ‘searched for an American secular religion on par with Marxism, and found it in the pseudo-science of public opinion polling.’ Armed with rigorous survey data, they created artworks exemplary of what the public said it most and least wanted. Which is why there exists a song featuring a classically trained soprano rapping about being a cowboy. Who says pollsters have no use?

Robert Seddon

Robert Seddon is an Honorary Research Fellow of Durham University's Department of Philosophy, with interests in ethics and its intersection with culture and heritage.