The Lamentable Politicization of Art

Michelle Marder Kamhi

Owing to length, my article “Art History Gone Amuck” (AQ, Fall 2020) omitted an important aspect: the uncritical acceptance of increasingly politicized art and interpretation. That is my subject here.

All Art Is Not Political

The contemporary artworld has become so relentlessly politicized that it’s important to note how far it departs from millennia of art making. The notion that “all art is political” is now widely asserted as an incontrovertible truth by those on the left. It was the opening sentence of a 2019 article in the Atlantic by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the acclaimed musical Hamilton. And a decade earlier, novelist Toni Morrison had more pointedly insisted that “all good art is political.” Since both writers were mainly concerned with essentially literary art, there was some truth to their assertions. Fiction and drama almost invariably deal with human experience in a social context—which is likely to at least touch on politics, though not necessarily as the main point. In Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, the British system of entail and primogeniture inescapably affects the lives of her protagonists. But she was concerned as a novelist with showing how they act within those constraints—not with reforming the system. Qualities of character and human interaction are what matter most in her fictional world.

Moreover, the claim that all art is political is totally false in the realm of visual art. Major categories of visual art—portraiture, landscape, and still life—do not deal with a social context at all, much less a political one. Nor is religious art political. The values embodied by these kinds of art are essentially metaphysical and moral, not political. In truth, the vast majority of traditional visual art is apolitical.

Visual art can of course deal legitimately with politically charged subjects. Moving examples come to mind—from Francisco Goya’s Third of May (on which, see below) to work by the African American artist Charles White (the subject of a recent retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), who should be better known than he is. But today’s politicized work largely falls short of succeeding, or even qualifying, as art. And higher education has become far more concerned with the political messages such work aims to convey than with how well or ill it succeeds as art.

Misinterpreting the Art of the Past

Needless to say, the apolitical nature of most traditional visual art has not impeded the zealous pursuit of hidden messages of oppression. Some years ago, an earnest curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, informed viewers that the charming late-nineteenth-century portrait Ernesta (Child with Nurse) by the American painter Cecilia Beaux signified the marginalization of servants, because the figure of the nurse who firmly grips the child’s hand is cut off above the waist. Not long after, my daughter-in-law happened to photograph my granddaughter, then a toddler, holding the hand of her other grandmother. The relationship of the two figures was essentially the same as that in Beaux’s portrait—which led me to argue that the composition of both images was simply due to focusing on the main subject, a child in the secure care of an adult, rather than revealing a reprehensible “marginalization” of the caretaker. As this example indicates, interpreting the underlying intent of pictures can be problematic.

A more outrageous instance of misinterpretation was the much-acclaimed art historian Linda Nochlin’s Marxist-inspired reading of Georges Seurat’s luminous masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Flying in the face of the work’s post-Impressionist vision of the simple pleasures of a summer day, Nochlin claimed that it reflects “the most advanced stages of the alienation associated with capitalism’s radical revision of urban spatial divisions and social hierarchies of [Seurat’s] time.” Based on what is known of Seurat’s interests and concerns, however, dissenting scholars have more persuasively argued that the work was instead inspired by socialist utopianism—quite the opposite of Nochlin’s dystopian view and far more consistent with the work’s visible features.1

“Contemporary Art” as Sociopolitical Message

The widely used art history text Gardner’s Art Through the Ages offers telling evidence regarding the politicization of art in higher education. The opening section of its chapter “Contemporary Art Worldwide” is entitled “Art as Sociopolitical Message.” It claims that contemporary painters and sculptors have “harness[ed] the power of art” to “amplify the power of the written and spoken word” in protest about political and social issues. As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, the problem with today’s protest art is that it’s long on protest but short on art.2

A case in point is the first work cited by Gardner’s in this section—the Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s “masterpiece” Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People). It consists mainly of a large-scale painted canvas whose central image is a canoe, set against a background collage of diverse items ranging from newspaper clippings and gum wrappers to stereotypical images of Native Americans and photos of deer and buffalo. Suspended above the canvas as if from a clothesline are various objects associated with Native Americans—such as beaded belts, feather headdresses, and memorabilia from sports teams with Indian-inspired names. What is the intended meaning of this hodge-podge “reminiscent of a Rauschenberg combine”3 (as Gardner’s approvingly notes)? Smith is quoted as having explained: “Why won’t you consider trading the land we handed over to you for these silly trinkets that so honor us? Sound like a bad deal? Well, that’s the deal you gave us.”

The work’s pleasingly patterned overall impression conveys nothing of that tragic irony on its own, however. Only if one were to read the small print in Trade’s collaged clippings would one begin to guess its allusion to “the problems facing those living on reservations today—poverty, alcoholism, and disease” (to quote Gardner’s again). Like other works of “conceptual art” (more on which below), Smith’s piece is ultimately dependent on textual elements, rather than imagery, to convey its content. In contrast, the true power of visual art lies in the expressive force of its imagery. Consider, for example, Charles White’s lithograph Hope for the Future. Through the mother’s wary expression and the noose hanging from a tree seen in the window behind her, it forcefully conveys a sense of the human impact of anti-black racism.4

An even more egregious example than Trade of the political “art” favored in higher education is a “performance art” piece entitled Brinco, by Judi Werthein, an Argentine “contemporary artist” who resides in the U.S. part-time. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal a decade ago, Brinco had been featured in a session at the annual convention of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in 2010—the theme of which was “Art Education and Social Justice.”5 The presenter was Dipti Desai, professor of art and art education and director of the graduate art education programs at New York University’s highly ranked Steinhardt School.

To artworld outsiders, Brinco (meaning “jump” in Spanish) was simply a blatant instance of political activism, completely devoid of art. A multi-part “performance” piece, it consisted primarily of Werthein’s distributing specially devised sneakers to workers at the U.S.–Mexican border, to help them enter the U.S. illegally. She designed the sneakers, had them manufactured in China, equipped them with useful features such as a map, a flashlight, and a compass, and subsequently sold some of them in high-end boutiques to raise money to aid migrant workers.

Ignoring both the legal implications of the piece and its dubious status as “art,” Desai praised Brinco as one of “a wide range of practices” used by “contemporary artists” to criticize U.S. immigration policy—and, as such, worthy of inclusion in art education. Still more remarkable was the NAEA’s official response to my Wall Street Journal article. Posted on the organization’s website, it was signed by the then president R. Barry Shauck, a professor of art education who headed that department at Boston University. Prefacing his response with an excerpt from the association’s professional code stating that “[Art] is a means of communicating and expressing our perceptions in graphic form” (emphasis added), he went on to argue that throughout history “artists have played a critical role in controversial issues.” As examples, he cited Picasso’s Guernica and Werthein’s Brinco. Astonishingly, he thereby ignored glaring differences between the two. Werthein’s “performance piece,” unlike Picasso’s painting, was merely a form of political activism, not art, and it was by no account a work “in graphic form.”

The NAEA’s professional code (first approved in 1986) remains in effect. Yet no one in charge of the organization appears to have noticed how much the “contemporary art” championed by mindless critics and art historians and dealt with in the art classroom deviates from work in graphic form. Nor does a “performance piece” like Brinco even conform to traditional sculpture—which, although not acknowledged in the NAEA code, has always been a legitimate subject of art education. Instead, the dominant concern of the organization is with exploiting art education to achieve social justice.

Lost in the shuffle is the sizable cohort of contemporary artists who have chosen to perpetuate the grand tradition of Western painting and sculpture, without harnessing it to a political message. Ignored by critics and curators, they are likewise absent from art education, though their work would surely find greater favor with the public than postmodernist concoctions such as Brinco. A telling example is the classical realist painter Dale Zinkowski’s recent portrait of a sculptor-friend, The Artist Rubin Gabeau.6 Depicted in contemplative profile, grasping the tools of his trade, Gabeau seems to be musing on a work in progress—with fragments of classical sculpture faintly limned in the background, suggesting the tradition that inspires him. What would today’s racially obsessed artworld make of the fact that Gabeau happens to be an African American? Would he be viewed as having succumbed to “white supremacy”? Or could the work be seen as evidence of interracial admiration and friendship? Might it further indicate that the Western classical realist tradition in fact transcends race and culture? Just as the magnificent pre-European realist sculptured heads by the thirteenth and fourteenth century Yoruba people of Africa do, I would argue. Such a reading would of course not suit the divisive ends of today’s woke radicals, however.

Institutionalization of Politicized “Art”

Art education’s increasingly activist bent is explicit in Steinhardt’s description of its relevant M.A. programs:

[We] envision a radical space where contemporary art and social justice education meet. We believe that artist educators are cultural workers . . . and activists. . . . Connecting theory to practice, we explore progressive social justice approaches to teaching and artmaking . . . and work towards necessary social change in classrooms and community settings.

At Ohio State University, another prominent site for teacher training, art education “examines social concerns through the arts in environments which are experimental, participatory, collaborative and cross disciplinary, with the ultimate goal of engaging communities and promoting positive social change.”

Sessions at the 2017 NAEA convention clearly reflected the growing activist bent. A professor of art education from the University of Arkansas presented one on “Teaching and Learning Social Justice with University Students.” Another session, by professors from Florida State University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, promoted “refram[ing] art criticism as a tool for fostering critical thinking . . . about pedagogy and social justice issues.” Even more pointed was a session aiming to “Use Contemporary Art to Empower Students to Become Advocates for Social Justice.”

The virtual bible at schools of education is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the Brazilian neo-Marxist Paolo Freire. Ironically, in the wholesale embrace of Freire’s “critical pedagogy” scarcely anyone exercises sufficient critical thinking to question whether the methods successfully developed by Freire to educate illiterate, disenfranchised adults in a feudal society are truly applicable to the teaching of children in America’s democratic republic and open economy. Instead, the reverence accorded to Freire’s work implies that the disadvantaged young in the U.S. are economically and politically “oppressed” by our system of government—rather than by their own ignorance, as wiser minds have insightfully argued.7

Hand in hand with the “progressive” political aims of today’s art education is a virtually exclusive focus on anti-traditional “contemporary art” such as Brinco. Although Steinhardt properly defines the term as work “produced by artists who are living in our time,” it entirely ignores work by living artists such as Zinkowski and Gabeau. It is as if they did not exist. In their place, “installations” by the likes of Hans Haacke—who “expanded the parameters of his practice to encompass the social, political, and economic structures in which art is produced, circulated, and displayed”—are featured on Steinhardt’s website.

“Conceptual” Pieces vs. Traditional Art

Haacke’s work, like virtually all of today’s political “art,” belongs to the spurious postmodernist genre of “conceptual art.” Defined by one source as work “for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object,” conceptual art was invented in reaction against the artworld dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Based on the false premise that traditional art did not convey ideas, it was essentially a form of anti-art and has even been characterized as such by some advocates. Yet it has come to dominate today’s artworld.8

No doubt the most famous of today’s political “artists” is the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who has gained justifiable fame for his courageous opposition to the injustices perpetrated on his people by a totalitarian state. Don’t mistake his work for art, however. His most famous piece, the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, is a work of documentation, pure and simple—not art. Following the death of countless children in shoddily constructed school buildings during the devastating 2008 Sichuan quake, Ai challenged the government by gathering and posting the victims’ names on his personal blog. The project has been aptly characterized as a form of “participatory journalism.”9

No one in today’s artworld or academia appears to care about such a fundamental distinction, however. Ai’s journalistic project was featured in the Guggenheim Museum’s 2018 exhibition Art and China after 1989—where the list of victims’ names was displayed alongside videos (another form of journalism) of survivors testifying to the loss of loved ones amid bureaucratic irresponsibility and evasions. And Ai was the keynote speaker for the Fear of Art conference at The New School in 2015. Significantly, not one of the numerous academics involved in that conference responded to a flier I circulated questioning his status as an artist.

Another “conceptual” piece inspired by the Sichuan disaster is Ai’s Snake Bag installation. Consisting of 360 backpacks cleverly joined together to simulate a 15-meter-long snake, it is meant to evoke the students killed in the quake. That meaning is not conveyed by the piece’s snakelike form itself, however, whose connection to the event is not at all apparent. The evocation is indirect at best, dependent (as in most “conceptual art”) on accompanying verbal explanations.

In sharp contrast, a traditional work of political art such as Goya’s Third of May delivers its import directly, by embodying the human experience in a carefully wrought image. The anguished expression and attitude of helpless surrender of Goya’s central figure movingly reflects the brutality of the faceless firing squad lined up to annihilate him and the countless others awaiting his fate in terror. While the work was created to memorialize a historic event—the slaughter of Spanish patriots who had dared to rebel against the Napoleonic invasion of Madrid—its expressive power endows it with wider significance. Like all great art, it transcends its particular context. One doesn’t need to know about the event it refers to in order to experience it as a chilling embodiment of injustice. The same cannot be said of Ai Weiwei’s Snake Bag. Tellingly, Ai’s avowed inspiration as an “artist” comes from the anti-art readymades of Marcel Duchamp, not from the work of artists like Goya.10

Whose Politics?

As I’ve indicated, today’s politicized “art” is decidedly leftist in intent. That is most distressingly true in the realm of art education. One award-winning art educator—Jan Jagodzinski, a professor of education at the University of Alberta—has made a career of railing against capitalism, for example. A devotee of the arcane French theorists Deleuze and Guattari, he is astonishingly naive regarding economic realities. Asked what sort of system he would recommend in place of capitalism, he actually told me that he preferred such things as “free software on the Internet.” It has apparently never occurred to him that that those who offer such freeware must have some other way of supporting themselves. Nor does he seem to have noticed, much less questioned, why freeware so often serves as an introduction to a product that is subsequently monetized.

In the absence of competing viewpoints, political art promoted in the art classroom can easily bias students’ attitudes on important issues of public policy. A piece like Brinco, for example, fosters sympathy for the migrant workers while ignoring other aspects of the complex issue of illegal immigration. (Desai studiously avoided even using the term “illegal.”) No consideration is given to the negative impact that such immigration might have on American workers, for instance, or on the American communities that must deal with problems arising from them. It amounts to brainwashing of a captive audience of young people.

Artist-activists such as Ai and Werthein are generally viewed as heroes in the classroom, as in the culture at large. But the messages conveyed by their work, as well as its status as “art,” should always be questioned. Even a great work of genuine art can err by conveying a message of dubious objective value. Jacques-Louis David’s memorable Death of Marat, for example, powerfully implies that Marat died as the heroic victim of his assassin, Charlotte Corday. From an enlightened perspective, Corday was the true heroine of the event, however, for she was a member of the French revolution’s moderate Girondin faction and had murdered Marat to end his draconian policy of sending such opponents to the guillotine. Despite David’s brilliance as an artist, he was on the wrong side of history. Another, more notorious example of politically inspired art on the wrong side of history was the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s vision of communism versus capitalism in his Man at the Crossroads murals for Rockefeller Center. Such cases should remind us that artists, like all human beings, are fallible.

What Is Lost

Skewed politics and bogus art forms are not the only lamentable aspects of today’s ubiquitous protest art. The suffocating focus on politicized work in academia and in the culture at large is further troubling because it obscures the vital truth that so much of what concerns and sustains us in life has little or nothing to do with politics. Our lives are full of other preoccupations and values—from our personal interactions with our fellow humans and the other creatures who inhabit our world to the beauty and terror of nature and the overarching tenets of religion and morality. The art historical record across the globe over millennia vividly testifies to that truth. Reduction of that breadth of human experience to temporal politics is characteristic of a totalitarian state, not a free society—as the award-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others so powerfully portrayed. It is especially dismaying in art education, which impacts upon the young in their formative years.

Finally, another important truth is relevant in this context. The nexus between leftist political views and avant-garde “art,” though historically prevalent, is by no means universal. Some of the individuals who have most enthusiastically welcomed my critique of anti-traditional contemporary “art” are decidedly “progressive” politically. A clear sign that the essential question of what art is transcends politics.

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