The arts have always been a medium where people can freely express their talent and individuality without conforming to any structured guideline. While there are different art variations, all artists are free to put their own flair to it in as much as they want. We often think of the arts when we see artworks and intricate art pieces often displayed in museums and galleries but music and the performing arts are other forms of arts as well.
Despite the freedom of the artist to express his/her artistic craft, its diversity is influenced by his/her culture, religion, environment, upbringing, etc. Even with music and the performing arts, you can easily identify the performer’s ethnicity among others during a performance. While arts should be a neutral territory, we often hear about political issues affecting the arts nowadays. Does this really make sense or is the arts also an expression of the current political climate at any given time?
The protests started almost immediately after the presidential election. An artist named Annette Lemieux emailed the Whitney Museum and asked that her installation Left Right Left Right — a series of life-size photographs of raised fists turned into protest signs — be turned upside down. The artist Jonathan Horowitz and some friends started an Instagram feed called @dear_ivanka, attempting to directly appeal to the soon-to-be First Daughter and shame her into pushing her father away from the Bannonite brink. The artist Richard Prince refunded her money for a piece that she bought, then put out a statement that was intended to de-authenticate it.
Sam Durant’s light-box sculpture, which read END WHITE SUPREMACY, was hoisted onto the façade of Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea (where it first appeared in the remarkably different context of Obama’s election in 2008), and another edition of it was set up by the gallery Blum & Poe to greet visitors at the Miami Beach Convention Center for Art Basel the first weekend of December, where the usual luxury-brand-fueled jet-set bacchanal seemed a bit muted and anxious and Nadya Tolokonnikova, founder of Pussy Riot, delivered a lecture by the pool at the Nautilus hotel on the dangers of authoritarianism.
Tension is high these days and everyone seems to be getting on each other’s nerves. Even ordinary citizens talk about political issues in their day-to-day. The favorite platforms are social media, of course. No wonder the arts aren’t spared as well in the pursuit of political activism.
“You can’t separate art from politics,” says Gael García Bernal. “Art doesn’t happen in isolation. Every movie or piece of art takes a political stance.”
He laughs. “And when it doesn’t take a political stance, that’s a political stance, too.”
Remember the Oscars? Before that business with the envelope? Remember when Meryl Streep went to town with her Trump-bashing acceptance speech for the Cecil B DeMille Award at the Golden Globes? “Overrated” Meryl, always a tough act to follow, ensured that the Academy Awards would comparatively reticent on presidential matters.
And then Gael Garcia Bernal – star of the incoming Pixar film Coco – took to the stage to present the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film: “As a Mexican, as a Latin-American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that separates us.”
We should not be surprised. The actor has previously railed against the current US President for his outrageous characterisation of Mexicans as “rapists and drug-dealers”, and has long been a politicised and civic-minded chap. Aged 14, he was teaching Mexico’s indigenous Huichol people to read. Aged 15, he demonstrated during the Chiapas uprising.
Ambiguity is supposedly the essential quality of the arts but with the growing globalization and the role of technology especially social media in connecting people calls for the arts that are useful and can be used in artistic activism. That in itself is actually a contrast of the very essence of the arts as an artistic expression.
However, let us also remember that artists are likewise humans with human emotions. They may be dedicated to their craft but we can’t take out of the equation their feelings that can get intertwined with their works of art. They get affected by events in their surroundings and it reflects in their work. So, with all the conflict and instability in the world nowadays, we can definitely see more political expression in artworks, art pieces and artistic performances the world over.