It’s election season, and debates abound about the candidates’ views on all matters. But what place do the arts have in all this? Well, Obama proposes a 5 percent increase in funding for some of the major government-funded art organizations, whereas Romney says he will do away with such support. Maybe they should take a cue from FDR and Picasso and realize that art and politics go hand in hand.
Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that art not only is vital to the cultural life of a society, but also can be a political and economic force. One aspect of Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs during the Depression was the Works Project Administration (WPA). The WPA subsidized all forms of artwork, including post office murals and staged theater productions. Funding the arts during the Depression was beneficial because it both employed artists and brought people together in a time of hardship, increasing community productivity.
But some people don’t think government funding is the best way to fund the arts. Ian David Moss argues just this in a Huffington Post column. Even if it’s not the “best” way to fund the arts, however, government funding of the arts supports other aspects of society that the government should be concerned with. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the arts are a good public sector investment because they are economic drivers, educational assets, civic catalysts and cultural legacies. All art has the potential to act this way, but especially political art. Therefore political art is the type of art most relevant to any political candidate.
Let’s consider what actually constitutes political art. An easy definition would be anything with political content—for instance, a painting of George W. Bush. But Matthew Harrison Tedford, an art writer in the Bay Area, questions whether such a painting is automatically political. What makes it different from just a portrait of a historical figure, such as a painting of Abraham Lincoln? Both of these hypothetical works depict a political leader, but they aren’t necessarily political art. Tedford defines political art as art that can “function as a political phenomenon” rather than art that simply contains political content.
And art that functions as a political phenomenon is exactly what the government should be supporting. This kind of art sparks debate about our society and moves people to act—whether it’s to vote, to be civically engaged or to simply be more thoughtful.
One of the most famous pieces of political art is Picasso’s “Guernica.” The piece was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, by German and Italian warplanes, on behalf of Spanish Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. The mural-size painting depicts suffering in a chaotic representation of people, animals and buildings and takes a stand against injustice and the harming of civilians. Even though the inspiration and the message of the painting are politically driven, the events caused by the painting are what really make it political art. After being displayed at the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, “Guernica” traveled the world, spreading its anti-war message, ending up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Eventually, Francisco Franco wanted the masterpiece back in Spain, but Picasso refused, stipulating it was not to be returned to Spain until the country became a free republic. The controversial subject matter of Picasso’s piece caused it to be involved in political discussions and interactions between countries, elevating it from the status of a piece about a political event to that of political art.
Politicians might be wary of political art and of supporting it. This is a valid fear, as it could be used to question the government’s actions. “Guernica” did this in 2003. A tapestry reproduction of the work hung at the entrance of the U.N. Security Council but was covered up before officials stood in front of it to make statements to the press about the war in Iraq. Evidently the U.N. was aware of the hypocrisy of discussing unnecessary violence in front of a piece of art protesting just that. This situation was kind of embarrassing, but it exemplifies the power of political art to prompt people to act. There was a huge backlash to the covering of the tapestry—proving that people were not only paying attention to what the U.N. was doing, but were also aware of the political implications of the piece. Despite the fact that political art isn’t always in line with what governing bodies want to do, it still can have an instrumental value for the government in terms of engaging with the populace.
So why should the government continue to fund the arts? First, the arts support economic growth and education. Second, the arts engage citizens in political and social issues. Both lead to a better democracy. Next time someone questions the validity of government funding for the arts, counter by asking if the government should support the economy, education and political awareness. My tagline was meant to be a joke, but maybe we really should be a state of the arts.
Hannah Anderson-Baranger is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.