All times are political. That’s simply how humans coexist with other humans, for better or for worse. What’s different is that we have never lived in an era where political forces transmogrify as quickly as they do now.
Change often takes a long time, but sometimes the arrival of change comes in a rush. Earthquakes typically result after months or years of pressure building up, released in a blinding burst. For artists, the challenge of confronting an endlessly changing world is to respond appropriately and at the right time. Sometimes those artistic responses come in a burst, sometimes with gradual and methodical shifts in tone. The more politically fraught the times, the more the forces of change provoke a response. It’s also true that the more politically fraught the times, the more relevant those artistic responses become for cultural navigation.
Take Francisco Goya’s extraordinary painting The Third of May 1808. Completed six years after the events it depicts, Goya radically transformed the potentials of painting not only by selecting an overtly political topic, but by depicting it in ways that had never been seen before. A direct statement of support for Spanish resistance to Napoleonic adventurism, Goya didn’t shy away from the depredations of war. Where blood and death had certainly appeared in a thousand paintings before, it had never been presented in quite so honest, quite so personal a way as it does with a desperate prisoner at the tip of a bayonetted musket, surrounded by dead compatriots.
The difference here lies in depictions of beauty. Bluntly, there’s none. There are no heroic or religious or romantic gestures to present the characters on the canvas in ways that appeal to our senses. Goya resists elegant nobility in the plight of the man with outstretched arms. He appeals instead to a nobility of struggle that seeks to engage viewers differently. We all know the challenges of standing up to injustices, whether those are on battlefields or in boardrooms. In his painting Goya does not sanitize our collective commonality. He ennobles the man held at gunpoint without prettying up the scene.
Shortly after it was completed, the painting largely disappeared for decades. Its more journalistic aspects were uncomfortable to political forces of the time, from proletariat audiences all the way to aristocratic ones. Perhaps it was the painting’s disappearance for most of the length of a human lifetime that helped it radically modernize the rules of art. The painting demanded viewers take a position, feel something, or, more powerfully, ask questions of themselves. As it re-emerged near the end of the nineteenth century amid a swirl of industrialization and new international traffic, audiences were more willing to engage in questions that stretched beyond their own village.
Here in the 21st century, we tell ourselves we’ve got this all figured out. We tell ourselves that art is the provenance of artists, that it’s natural and obviously dramatic for political forces to provoke artistically vibrant expressions. One wonders if this presumption will bear out. Art has become disposable precisely because creative works, crudely put, have become so democratically available. Of course it’s a terrific development in human history that so many people should have the means and mechanisms to create images and sounds and words, but the dilution of importance for the best of those creations threatens the value and continuity of the whole enterprise.
Times are different now in some ways than they may have been for Goya in the 19th Century, but many forces remain the same. Art always comments on events of the times in which it’s created, but it also demands that artists allow themselves to be moved enough to engage their subjects. With high-speed bursts of information that currently suffuse every moment of our lives these days, coupled with the ubiquity of our own creative tools, it becomes entirely too easy for all of us to lose the ability to respond passionately in the first place. We have so many things to see and hear and do that deeply felt expressions may be harder to experience. So saturated, we run the risk of not noticing events at all, fully convinced that they don’t matter nearly as much as the next beeping, flashing celebrity photo or sports alert to cross our attention.
The challenge of art in intensely political times is to remain engaged in art even while we’re responding to the daily challenges of the times. Broader culture must support an artistic milieu that’s richer than simply “liking” endless streams of visual stunts on social media channels. Art is a natural response to life and its many stimulations. When political forces threaten to upend culture so much that it’s impossible for most people to consider creative work as a serious response, it’s vital that the culture retain enough of a creative corpus capable of speaking in a language separate but parallel to the conversation. That language, presented in paintings, music, movies, words, and all sorts of new and emerging and blended forms, is one of the most constructive ways for political turmoil to find release without resorting to more destructive expressions.