Art + Politics: Old Habits Die Hard

A painting of Napoleon being crowned king and a poster of President Barack Obama promising hope — while these two pieces are centuries apart, they both fuse art and politics.

Obama Hope Poster by Shepard Fairey, 2008. Photo by Lord Jim.

Obama Hope Poster by Shepard Fairey, 2008. Photo by Lord Jim.

Politics and the art industry seem separate but political theorists and art experts alike see an intersection of these two mediums.

“By its very nature [art is] a political medium. It’s the art or politics of persuasion,” said Alain Sanders, a professor of politic science at St. Peter’s University. “If you’re looking at art that’s specifically aimed at influencing an election or political point of view, then it’s much more direct and done in a way mot people can understand.”

For example, Sanders said, the trend of political posters, buttons and bumper stickers sporting only red, white and blue color schemes in and of itself is political, but it also shows an understanding of how people absorb messages.

“People respond more to something that’s out of the ordinary, unusual or catches the eye,” Sanders said. ”It’s a good thing because it shows creativity [and that] they’re trying to reach a variety of people, but art can also be destructive if it doesn’t convey the message [correctly] or it’s misunderstood.”

To ensure such destructive possibilities are avoided, Sanders recommends leaving it to the professionals.

“Why not hire an artist that is capable of using his or her skill and sending a message that is all the more effective because it has a professional artist behind it?” Sanders said.

“Political is a hard way to go, so if one does it, I am inclined to think that it should come from the heart and gut of conviction and a concern for others.”

And while bumper stickers or posters using highly stylized designs might be a more modern phenomenon, the intersection of politics and art is not, said Paul Manoguerra, director and curator at the Jundt Art Museum in Spokane, Washington.

“Art is one of the avenues of being human that intersects with all avenues of culture, one of which is politics,” Manoguerra said. “Political campaigns by their very nature are very conscious of their visuals so that intersection of arts and campaigns is probably something that’s been going on for a long time.”

Manoguerra cited patronage — the practice of religious and royal figures commissioning artists to paint them — during the Renaissance era as historical examples of politics and art coming together.

While such an intersection isn’t a contemporary idea, contemporary artists looking to get political in their works may want to avoid taking the easy way out, said Stephen Knudsen, a professor of painting at Savannah College of Art and Design.

“Making political art is the easiest thing in the world if as critic Robert Hughes used to say with contempt, ‘you take an obvious agenda — like let’s stop pushing grandmothers down in the street — and then slap a little art on that idea,’” Knudsen said. “Making good and enduring political art is what is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is easy to invoke here Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s 3rd of May to show the right way.”

For artists looking to introduce politics into their art as a way of increasing their success, Knudsen warns of that as well.

“I can only speak for myself. Anyone adding the ‘political’ as an ingredient to sell art will not get attention in my writings,” Knudsen said. “Political is a hard way to go, so if one does it, I am inclined to think that it should come from the heart and gut of conviction and a concern for others.”


Adam Rhodes is a staff writer for Professional Artist. Originally from Boca Raton, he’s is a striving student journalist with hopes of being a feature writer. Adam is currently a journalism student minoring in criminology in his final year at the University of Central Florida.

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