Nearly every time I speak about art to adults, at least one individual in the group makes this comment. Notably, not so much from kids. If I tell kids that Hudson River School painters wanted to preserve the environment but they also edited out indigenous people, kids are like, yas bitch, let me go draw a picture that helps to both advocate for the natural environment and tells the story of the people who have continuously inhabited our continent for a thousand years. (Some) adults want to go in depth and learn more about an artwork, and then throw this line at you when they find out that the artist was making commentary about living as a queer person in 18th century France.
Typically, this comes into play when an individual has tension with an aspect of the social history of an object. They disagree with the way an artist lived or something about how art historians contextualize the time period the object was created in. For example, a landscape painting set in Brazil that depicts sugarcane fields will prompt a conversation about slavery – that might get “too political” for some.
Certainly, it isn’t the only way to appreciate artwork. We are living in an unprecedently politically charged era, and indeed, it is hard to escape and artists are very political these days. It’s right to be skeptical about projecting current frameworks onto objects that aren’t involved. There are many different approaches to an object and a broad swath of people are far more interested in materials and technique. The technical history and human hand are not less important than the social history and context. Both deserve attention. And while we could make a case for most art objects that there is a social or “political” aspect to the story of their creation, it’s true that sometimes art really is just about observing the natural world, celebrating materials, self-expression, or an innocuous transaction. For example, in 1939 Dole commissioned Georgia O’Keeffe to come to Hawaii and paint pineapples for advertisements. There are ways to read this politically (for instance, none of the plants O’Keeffe painted, including pineapples, are actually native to Hawaii.) But at the end of the day, she was an accomplished artist who participated in a transactional obligation to create advertisements and who was interesting in observing and capturing brand-new surroundings.
But to think of art as an apolitical realm is to miss the point of art…completely. Would Communist regimes have punished non-representational artists as decadent and commissioned figurative propaganda pieces if art didn’t have political power? Would murals memorializing murdered community members spring up in the aftermath of their deaths? Remember when we talking about how dragging pieces of conquered civilizations back were the precursors to museums? And how sculptures enforce public opinion? While art can be innocuous, it more often is not.
We could come up with a top ten greatest hits or thousands of purposely politically-charged artworks. You know it when you see it. Or do you? As diversity has become more important in the art world (finally), the trends of the art world for especially the past 30 years have been marked with a political and activist bent. This is often what people want to ignore in favor of pretty things that “stand on their own” without lengthy curatorial intervention to tell us what the artist mean for the work to say. But are seemingly benign works from bygone eras really apolitical?
Women artists were arguably always making political work just by the nature of making work. No women were allowed to vote prior to 1920, when white women were granted the right under the 19th amendment. But women didn’t lack political opinions prior to 1920. What other ways did women have to participate in the political goings-on of the country? Some women were able to access fine art training through family connections. Women painters of Early America created allegorical and observational scenes that provided commentary on issues of the day.
Most women did not have the connections or the freedom in colonial or early America to access fine art training or materials. But most women did have access to the supplies and quilting to make quilts. Quilt patterns were imbued with meanings, sometimes secretly from men, who would not have participated in quilting circles, nor the accompanying conversation among the women. For example, the Whig Rose pattern expressed an allegiance to the now-defunct Whig Party. Later, the pattern was altered to include a black center in the flower, and the pattern was referred to as the Radical Rose. The Radical Rose pattern expressed sympathy with the abolitionist movement.
Impressionism tends to be the type of painting that the apolitical find solace in. Impressionism is a great foil to them, because when people denounce making art “political,” usually what is really being said is that they do not wish to talk about current events. The Impressionists were radical in their time. They refused to exist within the establishment and sought to give power to the people rather than the state. In the 1870’s in France, there was only one way to exhibit work as a living artist; by following guidelines and appealing to the tastes of the jury that selected artwork to hang in the Salon. This meant that free thinking and experimentation was a kiss of death to one’s career. The State decided what was “good” art, and Paris was the center of the art world at this time – so the Salon determined what was “good” art for the world. Without the Impressionists breaking from the Salon, the art world would still be painting to appease the taste of Jack Donaghy.
Some of the loveliest and seemingly most passive Impressionist works are the most political of all. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt are frequently trotted out for Mother’s Day as bucolic expressions of love and caring. But what is more political than being a mother? Women, in the 1870’s, the 1970’s and as I’m sure will be the case in the 2070’s, are constantly judged and on display. Morisot and Cassatt (whom should not be conflated as I am doing here, but were very different women and artists) used the support of the other Impressionists to record and create women in their paintings who were not allegories and not displayed for the male gaze.
Color Field painting, also known as the “my kid could do that,” was championed as devoid of any extraneous connection to previous art movements. Color Field painting is characterized by large, broad swaths of color without tonal variation. Some artists hide their brushstrokes for a mirror-glaze-esque surface, some create raw compositions where colors bleed into one another, but generally it is devoid of movement and gesture. Color Field painting is cool, but oh boy some of the artists got a little carried away with themselves. They sought to create a “mythic” artwork that connected with the “primordial.”
We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful…The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who looks at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.Barnett Newman https://www.theartstory.org/movement/color-field-painting/
If when you hear white men talking about “connecting with the primordial,” your bs and cultural appropriate senses start tingling, you’re completely right! Color Field painting (and gestural Abstract Expressionism, as well) were heralded as devoid of “associations with outmoded images.” Famed art critic Clement Greenberg lauded this era of formalism, which, for my non-art fans, means that art is judged only on the merits of it’s form – how the artist deploys color, shape, line, space – without the messiness of pedestrian interpretation. But the artists were interested in “the primordial,” so the work isn’t devoid of meaning. The secret about Abstract Expressionist artists is that while they did work to free painting even further from rigid standards, much like the Impressionists before them, they found their sources in things that were not traditionally respected as art, such as geometric forms in Native American art.
Sources of inspiration can certainly be political, even if the artwork itself is not. Sometimes, an artwork has no intention of being political, but contemporary context renders it as such. Because of the aforementioned experience with young people, I was unprepared for pushback about being “too political” from a couple of college students whose class I spoke to about quilting recently. One student pushed back on the idea that his quilter aunt would give a shit whether or not we thought of quilts as art. Another thought that it was good to acknowledge the sources of Modernism, but not at the expense of Modern art standing on its aesthetic merits. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgement for textiles or other traditionally women’s work objects as fine art does not bother our quilting aunties, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have ramifications for other women artists. It seems noble to honor the intention of the maker, but intentions aren’t everything when they result in action that affects others. Like, your “friend” isn’t intending to be racist but their joke still negatively affects people. That’s what a lot of Modernist painters were like.
The artworks and artists called out here are lacking in diversity by design. BIPOC artists, conversely, are often read as overly political, while white artists are more often able to “let the work speak for itself,” whatever that means. For example, a favorite Native American artist of mine works with blankets. While I reserve the right as a person who talks about art to read between the lines and assign meaning outside of artists’ intentions to things, I try not to burden BIPOC artists with the history of their entire race when I can help it. Another well-respected art historian published an essay about how this artist is making commentary on smallpox blankets, because, you know, blankets + Native American person. This artist is living, highly educated and wildly intelligent…and doesn’t want to make art about smallpox. BIPOC artists are entrenched in making political art to raise awareness of inequity and history and I typically try to listen to them. This is a double standard, yes, but so is arresting a person of color but not a white person for doing the same thing, so.
Just as artworks are often not politically neutral, neither is the display of artwork in a museum gallery immune to political considerations. Nor for that matter is concocting an exhibition program for the year all about aesthetics or people-pleasing either. Regardless of what the message is, every thing you see in a museum was carefully chosen to hang exactly in the spot in which it lives to deliver a specific narrative. The folks who put together permanent and rotating art exhibitions in museums are art historians…aka we are looking for historical threads to unite artwork across generations and across geography. If you’re looking for a neutral presentation of pretty pictures, a museum probably ain’t it. More on that for a future post.
If you want to enjoy art without political overtones, might I suggest George W. Bush’s dogs?