The relationship between art and power, and consequently between art and politics and artists and the political, is longstanding. For centuries, those with capital and influence have (often literally) fed artists. In return, the expectation has been that the artists create work that furthers the ends of the power brokers. This system of exchange can feel cynical when expressed baldly, but the truth is more complex than the naked, undergirding mechanics of power.
The relationship predates America. Take Dante: deeply entrenched in Florentine politics, he also held minor political office, in the apothecaries’ guild, with the aim of furthering his literary prospects. He was implicated in financial scandals tied to the pope, and conceived the Divina Comedìa (1320) while in political exile from Florence.
The politics of his home town play a role in the poem: Dante missed no opportunity to skewer his enemies—among the many memorable punishments, the Florentine politician Filippo Argenti is torn apart by other wrathful souls. These moments of personal retribution enrich the work, foregrounding the human emotions and social foment that surrounded its creation.
Of course, Dante was not alone among Renaissance artists in having a strong personal stake in politics. Michelangelo created works to glorify the Medici (including two popes); Leonardo da Vinci served the Medici in Florence, the Sforza in Milan, and Cesare Borgia—who happened to be one of the inspirations for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Money and military power were tied to the church and therefore, inevitably, so were artists.
In more recent history, there is the theory that throughout the 1950s and 1960s the United States government used Abstract Expressionist art, with its embedded glorification of individual expression and personal liberty, as a symbolic counter to the rigidly aestheticized Soviet propaganda images of the Cold War. To understand how America has wielded the power of its art, and how that power has been structured, it is useful to think of terms of the “American experiment”, a nation conceived through collective thought.
The power of the nation’s art is connected to who has power in that country. The founding fathers began by imagining a political and social system that had never before existed. Yet, because the system was conceived by a group that was fairly homogenous in terms of class, gender, race and education, it necessarily privileged particular viewpoints to the exclusion of others.
If, philosophically, America is grounded in the hazy ideas of liberty and happiness, materially it depends upon organizing capital in the service of specific agendas. Like in all great empires, art and artists have been used explicitly and otherwise to serve national interests and extend national power. Equally, everyday visual images have also reinforced ideas about status (think of the ubiquitous Aunt Jemima syrup bottles in American kitchens, for example).
Nonetheless, various American groups have found artistic means of reclaiming their own power. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought about a shift in consciousness, with many artists responding by creating work with explicitly political ends. For many, like David Hammons, Noah Purifoy, Lorraine O’Grady, or Marie Johnson Calloway, this was a means of grappling with injustice, asserting the right to create one’s own history, and, more subtly, foregrounding their own perspective in reshaping a visual culture that excluded or diminished people of color.
Barkley L. Hendricks’ richly saturated, powerful portraits of black men and women were a direct visual corrective to a culture that oppressed and brutalized black bodies. His revolutionary gesture was having the audacity to simply share his own worldview: if others read it as politically radical to paint black people as dignified and beautiful, well, it was their own ideology that was broken—it wasn’t his problem.
Artists also began to critique their own microcosms, calling attention to the non-representation of black artists and women artists in the art world itself. There was a rash of activity following the Civil Rights movement. The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968; the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition picketed the Whitney’s famously catastrophic “Contemporary Black Artists in America” show in 1971 (the museum had reneged on an agreement with the BECC that the show would use the expertise of black art historians). By the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls were making posters such as Do Women Have To Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?”(1989).
These forms of institutional critique opened the doors for the highly sophisticated and nuanced visual critique of the system that followed, one that took on capitalist power and American nationhood as a mutually reinforcing dynamic. As brands’ aesthetic identities have come to saturate our lives, the critique has expanded to take on political and monetary systems, and the ways in which those systems have fed social constructions and hierarchies of race and gender.
For example, in Branded Head (2003), Hank Willis Thomas transformed the iconic Nike swoosh into a slave brand, while The Cotton Bowl, from his 2011 series “Strange Fruit”, suggests that little progress has been made. Adam Pendleton invented the concept of Black Dada, which he defines as “a way of talking about the future while talking about the past”. Torkwase Dyson has dedicated a series of black abstract paintings to “black interiority”, reclaiming traditions of abstraction and deploying them to deal with the physical spaces inhabited by black people, which are often absent from the mainstream narrative.
Now, art and politics seem to be merging. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Thomas, along with several other artists, appropriated the language of politics and big business by creating For Freedoms, “the first artist-run Super PAC” (political action committee). On the other side of the coin, the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, host of InfoWars, has called himself a “performance artist” in order to avoid any journalistic accountability. At a moment when the narrative of what America means appears increasingly fragmented, art and politics continue to feed each other in surprising, diverse, and complicated ways.