Lauren Riley discusses the inherent political implications of art, and whether or not the form can ever shed these associations
“From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art”
-Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’
Coined by Theophile Gautier, the French poet, critic and novelist, signifiable at the time for his “cherry and green satin clothes”, the phrase ‘Art for art’s sake’ quickly became the maxim for the aesthetic movement. Figure-headed by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, the movement evokes images of lavish drawing rooms, Italian gardens, turquoise and gold feathers, Japanese folding screens, blissful ignorance and immense privilege. The idea that art can exist without ties to political, social, moral or cultural aims, being only a mere expression or “mimesis” (Sontag, pg.3) of beauty is an endearing if an admittedly unattainable concept. However, the idea that art can be solely this, and that any form which can be considered a “handmaiden” or “servant” to a higher purpose would be somehow ‘anti-art’ is, in my view, depressing, small-minded and, at best, an extremely limiting perspective (Charles Swineburne on William Blake). The recent rise of political movements explicitly expressing their aims effectively though art via online platforms has demonstrated the invalidity of this mode of interpretation, since political art has a clear purpose.
The digital age has revolutionized the consumption of art. Art is now being specifically designed and produced for social media platforms. One of the most critical resulting changes comes in the form of a redefined relationship between artist and art. The separation between these two entities, which was never concrete, has become increasingly blurred. ‘Content creators’ are now more than ever being intrinsically tied to their content often overshadowing their art as the power of the ‘celebrity’ grows. This can be incredibly powerful in allowing the propagation of art to be more pervasive but it also has the potential to be damaging, for it creates an environment in which art has the potential to be hyper-politicized to the extent that its value is at risk of being lost.
In regard to the world of visual art, social media has allowed many of the barriers which previously faced artists to be demolished. The process of sharing one’s art has moved from a long ordeal involving critics, galleries and exhibitions, to pressing ‘post’. Instantaneously, an artist is able to share their work with an unlimited audience who has the ability to like, share, and comment.
Olafur Eliasson is a contemporary Danish-Icelandic artist who is well-known for his large installation artworks. Featured recently at the Tate Modern, his artwork is well-suited for social media platforms. His exhibits are extremely ‘shareable’, featuring bright, dramatic colours that photograph and video well. The hashtag “#olafureliasson” currently has 209k posts on Instagram and the official page @sutdioolafureliasson has 652k followers. His art is extremely politically driven, an idea which is reinforced by his website which claims that “art is a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world”. Eliasson has become a figure-head for his studio and for the political movements which inspire his work such as Climate Change awareness. He has been involved in creating documentaries on the topic and recently spoke on the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance panel. Eliasson’s personal influence clearly demonstrates social media’s ability to aid in the amalgamation of artist and art and, additionally, create a keener focus on the artist rather than the art itself.
The success of Eliasson’s work shows the powerful nature of social media’s influence on the world of art and its ability to make change, yet there are many other instances in which social media has had less than positive effects on art. In 2017, Dana Schutz’s painting displayed in The Whitney Biennial, Open Casket caused major controversy over the rights of a white woman to depict black suffering. The painting’s subject is 14-year-old Emmet Till who was violently murdered and mutilated in a racially driven hate crime during the 1950s. The criticism of Shutz’s painting began on Twitter and eventually led to multiple Facebook petitions which called for the painting to be removed and even destroyed. Schutz was called upon to justify her art by explaining her artistic intention. She claimed her right to the maternal bond of mother and son, but whether or not Schutz has the ‘right’ to create the painting she did, seems, to me, besides the point once the painting has been produced. At that stage, the artistic value of the piece should be able to be separated from the artist. This hyper-politicization of art due in part to social media’s condensation of artist and art endangers, in my opinion, valuable art which is intended to create positive change and awareness.
A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in literature. Barthes’ renowned concept of ‘the death of the author’ hardly seems possible now that our favourite authors have Twitter and Instagram accounts sharing their opinions on topics like their pet’s eating habits (see Molly the Evil One on Steven King’s Twitter Feed) to the Coronavirus relief bill (also see Steven King’s Twitter Feed). Once again, readers or the representative ‘audience’ in the literature/drama sphere have been given increased influence over creators through social media platforms. Readers can now directly apply to writers asking them to justify their art. This can be an effective way to influence and create progressive and diverse literature in the future. However, as with Schutz, whose race was shown to define how her art was interpreted, authors’ political views are shown to define how their past and future works are interpreted. The question of authorial intent has plagued the world of the critic for many years but social media has taken this one step further by creating the opportunity and culture which superimposes the political views of an author, primarily expressed on social media platforms, onto their work.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well-known for her feminist writing her most recently published work being Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Adichie has been criticized for comments made in a BBC Channel 4 interview which implied transphobic sentiments on the author’s part. Since then, several Twitter feeds have categorized Adichie’s Manifesto as similarly transphobic. This has led some users to include the entirety of her published works under this label, generating them ‘unreadable’. I find this slightly disappointing considering Adichie is historically outspoken in her support towards the LGBTQ+ community and was one of the first mainstream feminist writers to break the chain of white-centric feminist writing and successfully begin to diversify the conversation in a way that was and continues to be desperately needed. This article will not attempt to evaluate the comments that Adichie made, as I believe her works should be evaluated separately from interpretations of her personality that are primarily fuelled by her online, social media generated persona. Adichie’s writing has been hyper-politicized in a way that results in an attempt to de-value writing which has already generated important and needed conversation and still contains value as a work of art.
It is important to consider that the artist does have the option to create a social media presence. This gives considerable power to the artist as they have the choice in regard to which platforms to use, how to use them and which issues to weigh in on. Many artists view social media as a tool for the advancement of their career. Clearly a valuable form of marketing some artists have found social media to be pivotal to their careers. Shantel Martin and Benny Or are two examples of artists whose social media presence has helped to immensely accelerate their career. However, not all artists feel that social media would be as beneficial to them. Writer Zadie Smith, who recently published a collection of essays called Intimations that discuss topics such as the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, has expressed in multiple interviews her purposeful avoidance of all social media platforms. She explained to the Huffington Post in 2017 that she “thinks [we] should retain the right to be wrong” and that social media would threaten this right and in turn, threaten her writing. However, just because an artist chooses not to create an online profile does not mean they are not expected by the online community to participate in social media-driven discourse. Often silence on these platforms is used to implicate artists as complicit in the corresponding issues. They are often accused of not upholding their ‘responsibility’ as celebrities and/or activists, even if they choose to participate in these discourses through their primary artistic forms.
Returning to our consideration of the Aesthetic Movement, art was not, and can never be, apolitical. However, the potential for it to be evaluated or interpreted in a way that is apolitical has become increasingly impossible as social media blurs the line between the artist and their art. The aesthetes’ biggest fear was that the role of the critic, which has now been transformed into the public through social media platforms, would overtake that of the art. In this, we can learn something from them, as hyper-politicization takes away from one of the most fundamental and powerful conventions of art, which is its ability to be interpreted. If art is hyper-politicized interpretations are reduced to the singular. This, as we have seen, can have positive effects and encourage the acknowledgement of issues that are long overdue in their need to be addressed, but it can also result in hyper-politicization of art which will only deprive society of valuable art and conversation.