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April 09, 2008

Political Art Is ... Forever?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't see all that much of it in person. But I do notice a fair amount of coverage regarding political art in some art magazines and books.

Political art is nothing new. An example I wrote about a while back was Picasso's "Guernica." And in the 19th century we find Manet's painting of the execution of Emperor Maximilian by the Mexicans and Goya's depictions of war. If politics is defined more broadly, art extolling existing regimes might be said to go back as far as the time of the early pharaohs: but that net is too wide for my purposes here.

Although some political art -- such as the Manet and Goyas just mentioned -- has staying power, most is probably doomed to oblivion. If I were an artist and painted something political, I'd do so knowing what I did was essentially disposable art. And for all I know, this is just what real political artists think.

The reason why politically-themed art has a short shelf-life is obvious. Time does march on and issues that were once blazing hot become paragraphs and footnotes in dry history books as decades pass and generations die off. If an artist really does want immortality by painting political themes, I advise him to include as many universal themes as he can along with the issue-driven stuff.

To illustrate this, below is a painting that has been in the Museum of Modern Art's collection for decades. If my fuzzy memory is correct, I saw it displayed in the early 1960s; I don't know if it's currently on a wall or in storage.

The Eternal City - by Peter Blume, 1934-37

According to the brief biography on MoMA's web site, this was Blume's only political painting.

As it happens, I know what the painting is about. Furthermore, I suppose that quite a few (most, even?) of this blog's readers also know. But what about your friends, co-workers and family? Especially high school and college age youths who only have a hazy idea when the Civil War was fought.

My gut feeling is that less than 10 percent of the American population can explain the political context of Blume's painting whereas well more than half might have when it was new. And in another 70 years? ...



posted by Donald at April 9, 2008


Two days without a post from the Blowhards!

Seems like an eternity.

I hate political art. Recently, I had the misfortune to hear a cut from Neil Young's new CD. It turned out to be a shrill condemnation of the Bush administration.

I like Young. Some of his stuff is classic, like "Heart of Gold."

When he ventures into political ranting he turns into a shrieking, hysterical spoiled brat. He become absolutely unlistenable.

60s rock musicians pioneered this braying about politics. Even John Fogerty, whose work I love, couldn't be restrained from making a jackass out of himself with an album of anti-Bush rants.

Musicians (and I speak from experience) are not the brightest sticks. I have less than zero interest in the political opinions of musicians. I wish that the 60s rockers would just shut up about their political views.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 12, 2008 11:14 AM

Ok, I'll 'fess up; I haven't the faintest idea what that painting is 'about'.

Posted by: David Fleck on April 12, 2008 12:07 PM

The one kind of political art that does seem to last is mythologizing strong leaders. Think David and Napoleon or Karsh and Churchill to name only a couple.

Posted by: Thursday on April 12, 2008 1:17 PM

Banksy is an intersting addition to the political artist pantheon. I think much of his stuff is broad enough (war, poverty, etc.) that it can hold up over time. And his stuff is exceedingly clever, although "clever" is usually a quality that doesn't have much of a shelf life. Anyway, check it out if you haven't already:

I agree that overtly political art, when viewed as simply art, almost never comes across as anything more than pamphleteering, but there are exceptions such as Guernica, although I realize many here wouldn't agree on that one.

Posted by: JV on April 12, 2008 1:57 PM

Sheer guesswork: Mussolini?

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on April 12, 2008 4:57 PM

The subject depicted in a given work of art, whether political or tied to a specific historical event, is irrelevant to the expressive quality that determines whether the art has any aesthetic value in the first place. A beautifully executed painting of some event long gone will still be appreciated for reasons having nothing to do with the topicality of the subject.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 12, 2008 11:31 PM

Okay, I'll fess up now: that green face on the jack-in-the-box is Mussolini. The rest of it is Surrealistic, so God knows what subconscious/juxtaposed stuff is scattered through the painting.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 13, 2008 12:33 AM

I'll take a guess, but that's all I can do. It does indeed refer to Mussolini, but the context is this: at various times in its history, Rome, the eternal city, was reduced to a near-wilderness, with a handful of shepherds, gypsies, peasants, or beggars living among its majestic ruins.

This painting is saying "it will happen again; Mussolini the jack-in-the-box will be just another bit of broken statuary sold off by peasants to tourists wandering through the rubble". But there might be some more specific referent in there.

Posted by: alias clio on April 13, 2008 9:42 AM

Art with a political subject matter has been created as long as art has been created. Perhaps the most common variations on the theme are the countless paintings and statues that commemorate leaders, both political and military, or military victories and defeats. From ancient Babylonian statues of Hammurabi, through Egyptian depictions of Nefertiti, on to battle scenes on the pottery of Greece and then to the Romans and Trajan's Column, this has been a regular part of art history. And on through the ages we can go.

In the modern era, given our proximity to the political topics of the works, our own political POV may either predispose us to either champion or reject particular art with a political bent. This brings us to Shouting Thomas who, for a musician, seems woefully ignorant of this timeless theme in music, especially in ballad songs that have dealt with political material for centuries. In music "protest", as well as celebratory, songs have a very long history (far from being the invention of nasty hippie leftist from the 1960s who ruined Woodstock for the rest of the populace). Just off the top of my head I think of "Parcel of Rogues" and the "Skye Boat Song" – Scottish songs from the era of the Jacobite Rebellion and the Scottish quest for independence from England. For other examples how about "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home", "Strange Fruit", or much of the collaborative material of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill?

As noted by Peter Winkler, these types of work remain of interest if their aesthetic qualities are sufficiently high. Artists worthy of the name create art, not merely propaganda. Unfortunately, there are plenty of artists NOT worthy of the name who do make propaganda that fails to rise to the level of art. We can assume that the bulk of this will disappear or be relegated to the deep recesses of storage sooner rather than later. Therefore, we are more aware of aesthetically deficient material from our own time in which the politics remain current enough that they have not yet been consigned to deep storage ... or the trash bin.

Posted by: Chris White on April 13, 2008 6:59 PM


Don't you think that the political works you mentioned have survived only because of their esthetic quality? Political works qua political works are dust, really. Aren't they?

Posted by: PatrickH on April 13, 2008 7:20 PM


The problem with the hippies wasn't that they "ruined Woodstock." The problem was that they confused what was only a teenage marketing fashion with a coherent political movement. To this day, Woodstock is filled with and continues to attract near psychotics who still cannot fathom that hippie was just a fashion statement contrived by advertising agencies and music business executives.

In fact, I think that Neil Young and John Fogerty are suffering from the same syndrome. You know, it's not such a great thing to be stuck forever being true to what you were when you were 18 years old... as both Young and Fogerty must be.

To reiterate... musicians aren't very bright. If they were, they wouldn't be musicians. Yes, I include myself. Fortunately, unlike most musicians I got an education and learned a marketable trade. The same is true for just about all artists. If they had any sense, they wouldn't be artists. The proof of this is that musicians and artists, for the past 150 years, have been almost uniformly dumbass Marxists.

The complaints that artists register as political activism are almost always projections of their hatred of the complete stupidity and viciousness of the arts business. You can't talk about what a shit pile the biz of the arts is if you want to work. So, you bitch about the society at large.

No, I don't think hippies "ruined Woodstock." The problem is that Woodstock didn't capitalize on its moment of fame to partner with Disney in the creation of a 60s theme park complete with restaurants, rides and music clubs. Woodstock attracted and continues to attract dopey artists and musicians who got confused into thinking that the malarkey of hippie-dom was something more than a teenage fashion statement. And therein lies the problem.

Teenage rebellion is a product of America's advertising agencies. Some people never figure out this odd contradiction.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 13, 2008 8:48 PM

There is something in us, well, in almost all of us, that resents and resists being goaded by the artist to feel something, especially when that something is noble indignation, and then do something with our indignation. That's why almost all didactic art fails. That said, when the power of design, composition, execution is supreme, political art can take on a second life long after the immediate call to arms has lost its urgency. I'm thinking of David's Oath Of The Horatii (sp?), Delacroix's Liberty Leading The People, even Washington Crossing The Delaware by, I think, Benjamin West. Great art
is irresistible; on the aesthetic, not the pragmatic plane.

P.S. Thanks Clio for expanding the meaning of Blume's picture. Mussolini as just an interlude in Rome's endless cycles of grandeur and ruin would have never occurred to me. Makes sense.

Posted by: ricpic on April 13, 2008 9:25 PM

Bad artists will give you their opinion.

Mediocre artists will tell you what they see.

Good artists will tell you their story.

Great artists will tell you someone else's story.

And I agree with Shouting Thomas completely that "youth culture" is a creation of Madison Ave. The purpose is to drive a wedge between the youngsters and their parents so that these kids will be shaped by the media rather than their families. Of course, the emphasis is on entertainment, luxury, moral relativism, and self, rather than work, thrift, religious tradition, and community. That's why our society is falling apart.

Posted by: BTM on April 13, 2008 10:26 PM

I think teenagers tend to rebel in general and Madison Ave. found a way to exploit this by giving them their own culture which is oppositional to adult values. Since the 60s, there are no longer attempts to fight it.

But what I found more interesting was the question of political art. I used to think political art was the devious modern invention of hippies, until I went to college and learned that Michelangelo's 'David' was made to commemorate kicking out the Medici. I agree with PatrickH: if the art has aesthetic quality, it will persist long after the specific referents have gone; that's why great art is called 'universal'.

Posted by: SFG on April 14, 2008 8:23 AM

Patrick – for the most part, I agree and that's what I tried to convey. I am predisposed to avoiding blanket absolutes and therefore assume that a few examples of art surviving due to its socio-political content rather than aesthetic quality might be found, although off hand I can't think of any.

ST – how is it that for you every 2Blowhards posting becomes about Woodstock as an example in microcosm of the stupidity and/or evil of hippie commies? And do you ever look back and realize how many over generalizations and exaggerations you toss into your rants? Here your first comment was filled with sheer nonsense about how "60s rock musicians pioneered this braying about politics." In the context of Donald's original post, I responded to your comment with examples of political songwriting from the 18th Century including one by that noted Marxist, Robert Burns ... this you ignore. Nope, you're back on your obsession with evil, stupid hippies. Get a grip.

I think both ST & BTM need to remember the role of demographics in both "youth culture" and the relationship between youth and advertising. Being a significant demographic bulge, we Boomers have been, and continue to be, a significant target market. In the 1960s Madison Ave. went after us as youth and sought to sell us as much of anything and everything as it could. Then it was music, love beads and jeans. As we grew older it became Toyotas and real estate; today we're bombarded by ads for Viagra and osteoporosis meds. Meanwhile, young folks are demographically the primary market for entertainment so fashion, movies and music is primarily targeted in their direction ... the Beatles give way to the Clash who give way to Beasty Boys and so on to Death Cab for Cutie.

I find it somewhat telling that nearly all of the hippie parents I know have very good relations with their kids, who are mostly smart, hard working, respectful young people. The kids I know of who've already been in rehabs or legal troubles, those who might be described as feral in certain ways, are virtually all the offspring of late or post-Boomer yuppies not hippies. That is the group most given to elevating "entertainment, luxury, moral relativism, and self" over "work, thrift, religious tradition, and community." The only caveat is regarding religious tradition, which may have given way in hippie households to more individual spiritual quests and concerns.

To return to the topic, the abstract painter Robert Motherwell's perhaps most significant series of works are the paintings titled "Elegy for the Spanish Republic." Excellent paintings, only the title has overt political content.

Posted by: Chris White on April 14, 2008 8:36 AM

Mr. Winkler et al:

The subject depicted in a given work of art, whether political or tied to a specific historical event, is irrelevant to the expressive quality that determines whether the art has any aesthetic value in the first place.

I think you guys are stuck in a late 20th century view of painting. In the art of Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence, the aesthetic quality you admire was generated under the pressure of making political statements. (In the case of Periclean Athens, the political pressure was to show that the brilliant, innovative, democratic, Persian-conquering Athens deserved to be hegemon of its empire; in the case of late 14th century Florence, it was the pressure to demonstrate that 'republican' Florence didn't have to truckle to 'tyrannical' Milan.) In the one case, the Greeks added enough realism to Archaic art to make Classicism, and in the other Case, the Florentines reverted to the aesthetic example of Republican Rome to suggest the heroic temper of their resistance to foreign domination.

But in both cases, the POLITICAL came before the AESTHETIC.

Just pointin' it out.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2008 9:29 AM

Hippie parents = smart, successful, hard-working, respectful, etc.

Yuppie parents = disrespectful, failure, drug-bag, lazy, etc.

Sure. That's exactly the opposite of what I see/saw. When I was in art school, the hippie kids were by far the most lazy of the group. Its hard to tell what their parents were, but the self-identified hippies were taking lots of drugs, goofing off, being disrespectful, etc. Its a part of the whole constant rebellion thing. Maybe if their parents were hippies and had no money to bail them out, they were different. I guess poverty makes you serious-minded.

Its easy to have good relationships with somebody when you let them do whatever they like and remain non-judgemental. Everybody likes unqualified support for whatever they do. To me, that's a non-issue.

However, constant rebellion undermines tradition and truth. It also undermines culture. So no wonder so many kids are lost and "searching" for answers. They don't know that almost all the same questions have been asked before, and they and their parents don't know what the answers are. Sounds like a big waste of time to me.

BTW, Madison Ave. youth culture goes back a lot farther than the 60's (at least the 20's, from what I can tell). Boomers are too focused on their own generation, which is soon to pass on.

Posted by: BTM on April 14, 2008 11:12 AM

BTM, please read more carefully. My comment was about the CHILDREN of hippie parents vs. those of yuppie parents. Most hippie parents are not prone to letting their kids do whatever they like or being non-judgemental except in those areas that are not particularly important in the large scheme of things (You want to dye your hair pink? Okay, cool. You stole that computer? Your choice is return it to the owner NOW or we're going to the police station together.") And if you think that the answers to the big questions ... the meaning of life, the existence of God, whether happiness is more important than money ... have been answered or are not worth asking you live on a very different plane of existence than the one I do.

FvB - in the context of Donald's post I'm not sure I follow your point. Donald seems to be discussing modern art that is political in a very different way than the art of the past, done for patrons whose political power needed to be given primary cosideration by the artists. Mr. Winkler and I are merely pointing out that the art of the past survives and is admired based on its aesthetic success, not its politcal content. Whether the political attributes or situation at the time of creation contributed to the asthetic innovations of the Renaissance or other eras seems to be a somewhat different issue.

Posted by: Chris White on April 14, 2008 4:34 PM


Yes, I do think the questions have all been asked and answered by many (some a lot better than others) over several thousands of years. Hippies are just too arrogant to listen. But by golly, they'll fall for the latest eco-fad or new age mumbo jumbo like lightning on the word of some questionable authority.

As far as hippie parents, believe what you like. But from what I've seen, they don't do as good a job as the more traditional parents.

Posted by: BIOH on April 14, 2008 9:55 PM

So, BIOH, what are the questions and answers? Let's tackle one of the big ones first, is there a God? What about the question of whether there are multiple Gods ... or no God? If there is a single God do all monotheistic religions worship the same God? If yes, does Judaism, Christianity or Islam have the clearer understanding of what God wants us to do? If Christianity is nearer to God's truth, is the Pope closer to expressing that truth than ministers of Protestantism?

Now, these scant few questions are but the tip of a very, very, very large iceberg of questions humans (including hippies) might ask and seek answers to. But then, you have the answers and hippies are just too arrogant to listen.

Another question is how did we get from political art to hippie parenting in fewer than two dozen comments?

Posted by: Chris White on April 15, 2008 8:58 AM

I guessed Mussolini, too. I hadn't heard of Blume, or at least I thought I hadn't, until I realized while searching around that I'd seen a copy of his "The Rock", which I think would also qualify as political. (In fact, I'm surprised it hasn't become more popular in recent years).

I'd had that image in my head from a board game of the early 1970s called "Masterpiece", which featured card-sized reproductions of various artworks. Blume's was definitely one of the odder ones, and stayed in my memory.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 15, 2008 11:41 AM

Mr. White:

You say:

Donald seems to be discussing modern art that is political in a very different way than the art of the past, done for patrons whose political power needed to be given primary cosideration by the artists. Mr. Winkler and I are merely pointing out that the art of the past survives and is admired based on its aesthetic success, not its politcal content.

Maybe I was unclear, but my points include:

(1) It is an very widespread mental error of the 20th century to disconnect art from the rest of the world, and to treats developments in the arts as though they are simply internal evolutions of formal problems. (In fact, 'formal' or stylistic shifts are usually sure-fire ways to see that a new, and significant, 'real-world' pressure has been brought to bear on the arts.) This erroneous idea about art has been popularized as the result of (a) the "professionalization" of both art and art criticism ("trust us, we experts know what we're doing"), and (b) of looking at art in museums, isolated against pristing white walls instead of situated in any meaningful context (you know, like, um, a Catholic Church). I would argue that art is essentially a reaction to developments in the "real" world, is in no significant way autonomous, and serves the agenda of the people who paid for it or will pay for it.

(2) Not to be too po-mo or anything, but I question whether there are 'objective' or 'independent' aesthetic standards that we can apply to the past. All of our aesthetic standards are to a greater or lesser degree (and mostly greater) culturally transmitted. Hence, saying the artistic quality of the Parthenon is why we still look at it ignores the fact that the aesthetic of the Parthenon, filtered through countless cultural pathways, has in part created the very aesthetic taste you use to judge it. Thus Mr. Winkler's comment advances a circular argument, a point which I think he is unaware of.

(3) I would argue that today's situation isn't really so different from the past as you think. There are still people who pay for works of art, and their tastes and intellectual agendas are known to artists, who need to eat. A very major, although not explicit, purpose of art schools today is to clue-in prospective artists to the tastes and the intellectual agendas of people who buy art, thus allowing them to join the game. It's the golden rule: him that has the gold sets the rules! And while there have been a number of modifications, the basic economic facts of art production haven't changed nearly as much as it looks like on the surface.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 15, 2008 1:47 PM

FvB – I really don't think we're very far apart in our views. Still, your first point contains within itself its own counterpoint. Art is indeed, as you say, a reaction to developments in the real world ... including the developments that have produced those pristine white walled museums and galleries of the past 150 years or so where objects are appreciated for their aesthetic appeal and formal attributes rather than (or sometimes in addition to or in spite of) whatever religious or socio-political content, meaning and impetus lay behind their making. Some art (the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco) cannot be separated from its original context ... although tour groups coming to see Michelangelo's art are not the same as parishioners going to Mass. And the collections of 16th Century nobles included objects plucked from their original context along, say, the Silk Road and brought back to be sold to said nobles for aesthetic (and commercial) reasons, exotic objects of beauty no longer connected to whatever context produced them, so this is hardly a new development.

Your second point, if I correctly follow you, is one that I agree with. Appreciation for a given aesthetic falls in and out of favor over time. There are moments when the classical/formal/Apollonian is the favored ideal and others when the expressive/intuitive/Dionysian is ascendant. Furthermore, each time the spiral passes through one or the other pole the current social structure, technology, etc. of the time will have its influence as well. The great (and even not so great) art of any period influences the culture in ways that influence future aesthetic judgments. I've often been taken to task in aesthetic debates here for noting that one may dislike modernism or abstraction or expressionism but that does not mean that these fail aesthetically in any 'objective' or 'independent' way. Aesthetics are always in flux and open to individual taste.

Today's most lucrative art market is the New Class and so the artists who are most financially successful at the moment are those whose art appeals to that group. One thing that appeals to that particular group seems to be the seal of approval of overly intellectual theorists spinning complex webs of meaning to explain works that might otherwise be deemed lacking aesthetic substance. In the past it might have been the Pope or wealthy merchants who were determining which art and artists were most highly sought and compensated. Twas ever thus as you say.

At the same time art is now (as it was in the past) being produced that might be out of favor (e.g. highly formal realism without conceptualist subject matter) but which may well be reassessed at some point in the future when the aesthetic again shifts in that direction. While the artist may not live long enough to benefit, the valuations will rise for that work at that time. Art that is recognized as serious and with aesthetic value, even if out of synch with the dominant taste of the moment, is often protected, preserved and admired (even if by a minority group of collectors or scholars) while art that is merely an attempt to capitalize on a moment with little real aesthetic substance may have a moment, but often fades into the background once the moment is past.

Posted by: Chris White on April 16, 2008 12:23 AM

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