We began by discussing the basic question What is a Political Artist? A difficult question that underlies most debate about Art and Politics, but which is rarely addressed head on.
'Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'
Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
'Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it'
My suggestion was that a political artist is one who
- Is to some extent unhappy with the status quo
- Wants to change some aspects of the world
- Attempts to do this through their art
- Intends that his or her intentions are legible in the work
- Controls, wherever possible, the context of presentation
- So that these intentions are apparent
Others pointed out that political work may simply depict reality. This might be done in such a way that it implies that change is needed when the work is presented in a particular context. Or it may simply be that the artist is content with aspects of the social world that he or she portrays, celebrates, or alludes to.
Here's an example of an overtly political work of art - the artist, Mark Wallinger's, intentions are expressed towards the end of the video:
We also discussed the case of Giorgio Morandi as an example of an artist who, although he had strong political opinions (he was a fascist), seemed to have no political aspect to his art - he obsessively painted objects such as bottles on a shelf while Europe was in turmoil around him. For more about Morandi follow this link to information about a Tate exhibition. John Berger (in The Shape of a Pocket) has writen of Morandi:
'Today it is hard to imagine an art less political and more intrinsically opposed to fascism (because totally opposed to any form of demagogy) than Morandi's'
This is somewhat contradictory, as was pointed out in our discussion: to be opposed to fascism is in an important sense to be political. But Berger's point is that the man's politics and art seem in opposition. Yet, the choice of objects that Morandi depicted may not have been as arbitrary as they appear and that in context they had political significance: for more on this suggestion that Morandi's art had a political dimension read this article about Morandi from the Washington Times
In the Tate Modern collection we visited 'Architecture and Power' and discussed some of the ways in which a variety of artists used modernist architecture (sometimes unfairly) as a metaphor for political oppression.