They don’t behave in the same ways at all. That said, there’s a reason to bring them up together.
An artist, alone, creates because there’s something to say. Yes, somebody’s going to shout that plenty of artists take commissions for reasons that have nothing to do with saying deeply personal or deeply profound things. Many are hired guns willing to shoot at whatever target gets them a bag of gold at the end of the day.
That’s simply true.
But philosophically, artists act because they need to say something. That need stems from an internal drive to create greater than other forces that might prompt them to do other things with their time. Politicians act because they want to gather influence, sometimes for the purpose of doing something, and sometimes for other, less tangible, more self-interested reasons. Art may be inspired by politics,—it may be designed to influence the world like politics— but it is not, fundamentally, the same as politics.
The craft of politics and the pursuit of successful political craft always leans on what works rather than what’s elegant. Art, at least in its best expression, is all about approaching something truthful. That truth may be ugly or it may be banal, but art is about being true rather than simply trying to make people join something. Where an artist might labor to make an audience appreciate and respect and even enjoy a work, the propulsion driving creative acts concerns a need to bring order to disorder. Even at its messiest, art is all about organizing thoughts, starting with the person doing the creative thinking. Politics is about convincing an audience about some sort of value or action, even if that something is supremely well intentioned, wise, or something with which you already agree—in which case it’s trying to convince you to add your voice and support.
Certainly art can become political. Unless they’re never shown to another soul, creative acts provoke opinions, and opinions are the DNA of political thought. Politics, on the other hand, rarely becomes art. Politics starts with opinions and then strives to capture enthusiasm about those opinions. Even at its most banal, commercial, low-brow, and crass, creative efforts may be the product of a person who ultimately want to be loved, but the work itself behaves differently. Creative work serves its own trajectory, even if it has simultaneously ulterior motives.
Where politics and art may overlap may be the fact that most work done in each camp will not be remembered. Most artwork and political speech disappears from collective consciousness ten seconds after it appears. Simply put, it’s tough to be profound and lasting and good in either area. But in those sparkling moments when art speaks profoundly and intimately, it behaves differently than effective, empowering political forces. And yet, after all this, it’s interesting to consider just how much these two different cultural forces need each other. Art becomes political the moment culture places meaning on what it sees or hears or reads, and politics requires some measure of creative work when it tries to synthesize civic strategies into cogent messages.