Reflecting on Political Art


This post is going to be rather different than the usual content I share on my blog, but it's something I'd like to reflect on using the platform I have here. Recently, you may have seen stories in the news about an artwork created by photographer Tyler Shields in collaboration with Kathy Griffin. I'll try to keep this short and sweet, although I think I could write a thesis.

Let me preface this by saying that I, in no way, endorse the work that was produced. I don't know that it was effective or successful in any way, be it aesthetically or intellectually. I don't know the artist's intentions or if he was simply looking for gasps. I agree with those who have described the work as disrespectful, vile, disgusting, inappropriate, and all of the other adjectives.

However, my inner art history student has a slightly different perspective which is why it piqued my interest and even disturbed me a bit to see reactions from the public, particularly well-known progressive public figures. To put it simply, it's a slippery slope. If we publicly disparage and wish to censor artists for creating works like this that bother us, that sets a precedent.

Political art has played an important part in shaping our world since the beginning of time. In particular, vulgarity in art has a distinct role. Ultimately, the role of political art is to pose a challenge. Good political art goes beyond using suffering or political situations as subject matter and, instead, uses art to act within that political situation. As I'm not the artist, I can't say what Shields' intention was but I imagine, if there was intention at all, it wasn't to use Donald Trump as subject matter but instead to represent the feeling of existing in a world under Trump's leadership: a world that feels angry and violent and offensive to most of us no matter our political affiliation. It almost represents the normalization of the offensive content and behavior we see constantly on the news, across internet comment sections, and in the actions of our leadership across all parties.

Regardless of the intention or the outcome of the artwork, my main concern is that we should always push back against censorship in art. When you don't, you open yourself up to situations like Ai Weiwei's, where a peaceful work of art honoring those oppressed by their governments is grounds for arrest.

One last thought is that I find it interesting to contemplate the public reaction to this work. So many artists before now have used extreme violence and vulgarity but pretty much no one outside of the art world is aware of it and therefore, no one is offended. Why aren't we, as a nation, offended by the violence and vulgarity depicted in David Cerny's Shark? Granted, this piece wasn't plastered across mainstream media but if it were, would we be equally offended? Why is the vulgarity of Shark or Tyler Shields' photo more offensive than, say, Picasso's Guernica which depicts the aftermath of the casual bombing of a small Basque village? Is it because the former provoke visceral reactions? And if that's the case, should we not try to dig deeper than our visceral reactions?

I have so many more thoughts on this subject. As I said, I know this was a very different post so I appreciate any of you who read it.