Artistic Spotlight: Political Art

The global political current is fraught with head spinning actions leading to mass confusion and a rising level of severe tension. Brexit and the recent British election, the fight for French leadership, the Trump presidency followed by a frenzied onslaught of unprecedented actions by the new administration, rising tensions across Europe, all promote, and provoke, a sense of political instability. As tensions rise so does the perception of a reckless and unhinged approach to domestic and global affairs, providing artistic creatives an endless array of material.

Art is Political

Art, sometimes in your face, sometimes subtle, is a prominent conduit for political messages. Utilising it as a tool for political engagement is nothing new. And its absence can be just as powerful.

One of the loudest statements in the last year came with the news of Christo walking away from Over The River, an artistic project spanning the nearly six miles of fabric panels suspended high above the Arkansas River in Colorado, as a direct protest to Mr. Trump, his policies and actions. This isn't just walking away from a half-painted canvas. This is an all-out defiant stand in which he publicly and brazenly refused to do anything that would benefit the 'new landlord' of the federal lands designated as the location for the project. "I use my own money, and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free. And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can't do a project that benefits this landlord," Christo told the New York Times. Albeit not unheard of, the abrupt end to a high-profile art installation to oppose the establishment is not the usual conduit for using art as the propellant of a politcal message. And yet the message was effective.

From sociopolitical and propaganda to protest and satire, the role of politics in art spans every age and culture. Conceptual and street artists use public space to make political statements. The act of taking control of the context and distribution of their art while creating a political message lends a rawness to both the art and the message. With artistic representations of hunger, war, consumerism, population, subjugation and human rights, the very nature exposes the work thereby making the political point difficult to ignore. Once seen, there is no mistaking it. It's in your face. It's in your head. Message received.

As much as politics influences the creation of art, providing a path to secure its rise in popularity and in turn financial value, we can't deny the influence art has on shaping the minds of its viewers. The very public in-your-face imagery is difficult to dismiss - always in front of you, never allowing you the mental space to stop thinking or questioning, challenging our intellect, shaping our minds and moulding our beliefs.

Confrontational Conceptualism

Politicising art is more than creating for a subject matter, it's about the process and others involved in its making. In 2010, Ai Weiwei facilitated the creation of millions of tiny ceramic seed husks to frame his creative intent to import a specific message. 'Sunflower Seeds' filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with one million sunflower seed husks, handcrafted in porcelain and hand painted by thousands of skilled Chinese workers. Layered with emotional connections and memories of hardships, hunger and cultural revolution, the collocation of the piece and Chinese society also reflects the relationship between China and western society's consumerism.

For over 10 years Weiwei has continually been in the international spotlight and under the microscope of his government. Always a human rights activist, his political creativity extends to film, literature and social media. Although previously produced artworks were controversial, his political activism found a stage in 2005 when he began blogging on social and political issues. And in 2008, he extended his voice to film when documenting the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake which led to opening a citizen's investigation into the number of student deaths related to poorly constructed school buildings. This outspoken activism has led to confrontations with Chinese authorities resulting in his blog being shut down and art exhibits denied. It has also had him placed under house arrest, beaten and imprisoned - a clear sign no one is immune to governmental backlash no matter how in favour you are with the masses.

Harassment, confrontations and prison time is sometimes par for the course when influencing the masses, and very good reasons for keeping a low profile.

Art is not Peace but War
[Image by Lord Jim (CC BY 4.0)]

There are Rats Among us

Keeping a low profile, in having a concealed identity , enshrines a sense of mystique around an artist perpetuating the 'game' of discovering any tagged works of art. It also enables them to avoid confrontation with authority. For nearly 10 years, Blek le Rat eluded such confrontation until 1991 when he was arrested and his identity revealed.

Blek le Rat, one of the first graffiti artists in Paris and the originator of stencil graffiti art, made his debut on the streets of Paris with stenciled paintings of rats. Why rats? Besides being the only wild living animals in cities,"rats are rebels, they're smart, they know how to get around" he says. An 'rat' is an unmistakable anagram for 'art', something the Godfather of Street Art particularly likes.

Despite the political tones permeating the artist's work, it does not represent either the left or the right. Instead, by expressing his own thoughts, desires and observations, he brings a topical awareness, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. His stencil of David wearing a Kalashnikov rifle was not a statement of support for either Israel or Palestine but rather that he didn't want war between the two states at all

From rats to life-size human figures speaking out at the risk of losing their lives, Blek's political undertones and movement to democratise art influenced and paved the way for many street artists including the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey.

Following the Tag

For two decades the godfather of street art was leaving his tag on the worldl before Banksy came onto the scene. But once on the scent, Banksy's work elevated graffiti art to a new level helping to legitimise it as a valid art-form.

Unlike his predecessor, Xavier Prou (Blek le Rat), Banksy's anonymity remains intact. Although some claim to have unmasked the man after a bit of detective owrk, a series of events and a dash of good luck, other maintain these ahve been illusory sightings and connections, nothing more than contrived marketing ploys to promote the artist's work and amplify his notoriety. Either way, there is no disputing his consistent evasion of the public allure of the artist's work as a provocative outcry for change whereby he points out the inhumanity we've become complacent with and throws it in our face.

Banksy revels in his ability to make us uneasy, entangling a sense of humour with social conscience, disturbing images (Bomb Hugger) and sometimes gentle character. His ubiquitous work, political statements and elusive nature exacerbated his rise to stardom. Named as one of the world's top 100 most influential people in 2010 by Time Magazine, his anonymity protected by a paper bag with a painted face used as the image of him for the piece was accompanied by an article written by friend and fellow street artist, Shepard  Fairey. "[Banksy] has a gift: an ability to make almost anyone very uncomfortable. He doesn't ignore boundaries; he crosses over them to prove  their irrelevance." In Banksy's case, crossing over the boundaries is part of the message and art. Finding obscure objects and sometimes dangerous places to tag intensifies the point.

It Began with Obey

What started out as an in-joke with fellow students at the Rhode Island School of Art, today has landed Shepard Fairey an entourage of political protesters, human rights activists and environmentalists, and of course fine art fans and collectors appreciating his talent and recognising investment opportunities. From a joke intended to provoke thought, stimulate curiosity and inspire others to question their relationship with their surroundings, Obey Giant took on a life of its own and was interpreted to become more of a message to oppose and resist authority - a demonstrable symbiotic relationship between art and politics, both throwing their weight around in the minds of the open and exposed.

Shepard Fairey inspires us to insert ourselves into our world and then assert ourselves. To stand up for what we believe. Question authority. Don't just accept. Be the exception. He rose out of the skateboarding scene with Obey Giant and its anti-authority mantra, Question Everything. And he might have remained under the Obey cloak had it not been for the hope of one man.

A somewhat counterculture-turned-political-activist himself, Shepard Fairey was launched into the limelight of the political stage with the Obama Hope poster. His art was stamped with the sound of political outcries for humanity, equality and liberty as the world would see a resurgence in his popularity after each election. 

Look at Shepard Fairey sales around US presidential elections Nov 2008, 2012 and 2016. Is there a symbiotic relationship between US politics, art and Fairey's rise in popularity? We trimmed the outliers to focus on the central 80% of Shepard Fairey sales between October 2008-April 2017. Read more about applying trimming and other statistical techniques.

It Doesn't Start or End Here

The current global state of affairs has yet to reveal any effects of art or a particular artist. Although you may spot movement supporting an existing or revealing a new trend, it is without doubt keeping us on our toes, opposing, resisting and questioning. And from this will spawn a new generation, a new movement. One that will be kept with a close eye.

Over The River, what was to be Christo's final project, will now not be at all. The retraction of such a magnanimous work of art as a political statement, rather than the creation of new art, will remain palpable throughout the art community, just as the ubiquitous We The People gives rise to new hope, new resistance and a new focus to a nation while going relatively unnoticed by its government. 

Our relationship with art and its ability to communicate political messages doesn't start with Ai Weiwei or end with Shepard Fairey. It doesn't just show up on our doorstep  when an election hangs in the balance or we're exposed to grotesque displays of inhumanity. Art has forever been a vehicle of political, social and historical messages. We tell our story, express our beliefs and display our minds on canvas, wood, brick, steel. If we're not the creator, we absorb the images and respond, sometimes thoughtfully, purposefully, oftentimes unintentionally, unknowingly. Art makes us feel. When we want to hold on to that feeling, we seek to be around it more. And that's what makes art that rises out of opposition and resistance so seductive.