Art and politics, I’m not sure if it’s a good mix. I used to think so. I used to make art that explored issues that were current in the media. War. Torture. Homelessness. The Climate Crisis. I have to admit that it was neither popular nor profitable at the time but things have changed and there’s a lot more of it around these days.
But now, I’m having doubts. Politics – is this what art is for?
I was reading a text by the late American environmental author Barry Lopez the other day so I thought I’d share some of it with you. He writes:
Whatever art might offer to human society – grace, elevation, joy, profundity, and timely warnings too – it is never the case that the artist’s primary obligation is to protest those political and environmental actions that degrade humanity. Many have agreed, in radically different ages, that the primary obligation of the artist is to resist the status quo, to provide an aesthetic objection to the coarseness of everyday life, and to exalt what we value.
Societies that are troubled by political, economic, and environmental injustice, however, can’t charge artists and writers with articulating the outrage that fuels their rebellion. Each person is responsible for discovering what it is they wish to resist, and how they shall object. Art, generally, should provoke an objection to mediocrity, and in all its forms, should empathise with human suffering – and inspire resistance.
There’s a lot of “shoulds” there. I agree with empathising with human suffering, though. Also, that art can bring “elevation, joy and profundity”. And I’ve no problem resisting the status quo in everyday life – but should that come into my art?
I’m not sure. There’s no doubt that the Climate Crisis is the most catastrophic crisis of this generation – but do I have to keep making art about it? What do you think?
I’ve written about this before on Scéalta Ealaíne – and I’m still wondering. I’m thinking about Claude Monet who painted his waterlilies in Giverny, while World War One was raging across the continent – and I believe now, that he made the right choice. In fact, by continuing to paint the beauty of nature, he was taking a stand against militarism and the slaughter of war.
We all know how terrible life can be, we have the mass media to tell us that (!) but I think maybe the artist’s task is to transcend the negativity and to strive to create images of Hope. Yes, I realise that my old paintings on this post mightn’t exactly inspire Hope but… and I realise that I’m currently working on 1400 charcoal drawings to commemorate the Irish Civil War (see below) but…
But I like the idea of images of hope. I also think that Lopez’s idea “to exalt what we value” is significant. Perhaps it’s that I make art to draw attention to that which might otherwise be overlooked.
Help me out here. I’d love to hear your comments (down below the stupid adverts)
Hi Eoin. Instead of rambling on about this topic that I think about all the time, I’m going to try to get my thoughts in order and get back to you. This is a very meaningful post.
After further thought, I remain up in the air about the questions you pose. The sentence of yours that is most meaningful to me is “Perhaps it’s that I make art to draw attention to that which might otherwise be overlooked.” Sounds good to me!
Thank you Lily for your two comments. I’ve been away from the computer for a few days so please forgive me for not replying sooner. Have you read “Conversations before the end of time” (edited by Suzi Gablik)? One of the conversations was with an anthropologist called Ellen Dissanayake who had studied the “art” of indigenous peoples. She said that for them, art “made things special”. That has stayed with me. Thank you for your comments and if you have anything else to add, I would be delighted to read it, Bye for now, eoin
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I am so very thankful I bought yours and your brother’s book on my dream trip to Ireland. It led me to your blog which has gifted me with solace and joy and circumspection and melancholy and beauty and humor and so many other emotions I cannot explain. I think that is the purpose of art. And it shows up in everything you do. I’ve felt your awe at Newgrange and other such sites. Your commitment to planting apple trees. Your honoring of your Pearse heritage. Your art pieces of all sizes and shapes and colors and media. Your community of artistic friends and family who share such deep and profound bonds. Today is my Dad’s birthday. The first after we lost him in March, and I hit my link to your blog hoping you had written something I could read today. I guess after all of this rambling, I’d say each of us defines what is art. And it can change like we do through our seasons of life. I don’t know Gaelic, and I may butcher this but here goes
Siochain agus beannacht duit
(Peace and blessings to you)
Míle Buíochas Julie, thank you for your beautiful and inspiring comment. I’m very sorry to hear of your Dad’s passing. May he rest in Peace.
Thank you for your condolences. My Dad is definitely resting in peace.
Thank you for telling me about the book, Eoin. It sounds very interesting. I’m going to see about getting a copy.
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Does it have to be one thing or another? I would say there is room for all different kinds of art, and surely what the artist is drawn to and feels connection with will lead to a truth of some kind.
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I’m all in favour of looking for the joy. We are beset with images of war, pain, torture even. None of these inspires me and makes me want to live. There is a strong temptation to give up and simply hide away. But Monet’s Water Lilies ! there is inspiration for life. A visit to Giverny a glorious memory.
Yet I applaud your courage in producing 1400 charcoal drawings to commemorate the Irish Civil War.
Perhaps we need artists to point out the things we’d prefer not to see.
Niamh Mc G/W
Thank you Niamh for your thoughtful comment, eoin
Hello. Great writing. As someone who enjoys drawing. I think art has alway been useful in taking a break from worldly troubles.