Probably the most well known artist-cum-dissident of the current climate, Ai Weiwei, proposed that “if somebody questions reality, truth, facts; [it] always becomes a political act.” His exploits certainly tread the thorny ground where art and politics collide, but does art really have to have an agenda?
I was often flummoxed by this query myself until I came to the understanding that not only must every action of any individual within a society be political by default, but also that the spectrum of connotation emitted by an artwork knows no bounds and is defined, ultimately, by the dialogue between the work itself and the spectator.
Canopy to colloquy
When Aristotle concluded that "man, by nature, is a political animal”, he hit two nails on their proverbial heads. Like the rest of the great apes (you’re more closely related to a chimpanzee than to a gorilla), we too are social creatures, the concept of sociality running straight to the core of what being human is all about. Social, by definition, implies society and, consequently, social politics. The freedom (and equally the prohibition) of individuals to express themselves through any means by which influence is cast into the societal cauldron must, then, be political. It’s hard to imagine art being exempt from this rule.
The biggest white cube of all, setting the context within which we experience any and all art, is that of the present informed by the past – the complex mosaic of influence. In the grand scheme of things, what art “is” changes all the time depending on social context. Having squelched down a long digestive tract of “-isms” over the years, art is now understood as the way in which an artist responds to reality.
That reality at present – contemporary society – is, at least as I experience it, an ocean of charged signs and symbols: a blur of lead-by-the-hand consumption, systemic repression and foregone conclusions. Using semiotics – the science of symbols and how they are perceived – to interpret how these icons influence our subconscious minds, it’s relatively easy to observe the point at which intention (and often a lack of it) might get lost in translation, potentially conjuring up or muddling agenda. To break it down:
A “thumbs up” might mean “good” to the majority of us, but in an underwater context, it means “let’s go up”; the symbol for “good” is, instead, a circle made with the thumb and forefinger. In this case, the frame of reference completely deranges our base perception of a sign.
Through this process of interpretation (at the behest of the context and the individual under its influence – though often anchored to some degree by the title of a work), art, even seemingly at its most simple and reduced or exclusively aesthetic, has the ability to elicit boundless conclusions in each of us. It provides the artist with a means to relate social commentary in a profound (and often extremely subtle) way, and it opens the floor for debate, philosophy, critique and inspiration.
Hemlock or paddock?
I more or less began with a Greek and I‘ll end with one, too: Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, some time prior to drinking a bowl of poison by order of the state for questioning too much of what was going on around him. The magic of this scenario was that Socrates did so gladly – he preferred to die rather than line up with the sheep and be told what to think.
Art provides us with one of the few remaining playgrounds for intellectual skirmish, a place where spoon-feeding is actively repressed and where disagreement can (and does) lead to lengthy, passionate discourse – a rare occurrence in an age desperately lacking an “unlike” button…
So should art be political? All things considered, it might not have a choice in the matter, but a more important question to be asking – in the context of an increasingly censored, commodified, and corporate-led world – might be whether we can really afford for it not to be.