Sunday, November 9, 2008

Severing the tie that binds: art, politics and the real world

I'm not a fan of politically motivated art. I feel that as artists we should dig deeper and strive to produce work that deals with humanity's common threads as opposed to surface issues. Great art is often made about intensely personal subject matter, but what makes it great is its ability to go beyond the merely personal to touch upon a universal truth.

The question I've been pondering is whether political art can ever be truly great as well as whether an artist with aberrant political ideologies should be black-balled from the pantheon of great art.

When dealing with groundbreaking artistic work that has underlying racist or propagandistic elements the artistic merit cannot be stripped away from the content.
D.W. Griffith’s (1875-1948) film “Birth of a Nation,” from 1915, is considered by many to be a masterpiece.

The film is a plaudit to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and presents a skewed history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
The film was the first blockbuster and is credited with both innovating and solidifying cinematic language.

At best, it can be considered in a historical/sociological context, specifically for its ability to propagate a racist world-view and its effect on the public as well as later Hollywood productions.

Early Soviet era cinema and the films of Leni Riefenstahl made for the Nazi Party are other works that must fall into this category.

I’m focusing on film because of its unique potential as a tool for propaganda. No other art form works in the way that film does because it so closely mimics reality, easily persuading the public that its perspective is a common one.

There is no denying that The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Segei Eisenstein or Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) have influenced later filmmakers, but we should not consider these films as true art but as dogma in the guise of art. The medium and the message are intertwined in these films making it impossible to untangle the two.

I feel there is a difference in the case of artists whose personal beliefs may be shocking or repulsive to most, but whose work doesn't reflect their personal beliefs.

The German Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was a Nazi sympathizer and brilliant artist. His work exhibits vigorous brushwork, intense coloration and an exuberance not unlike Vincent Van Gogh's paintings.
Nolde's Nazi affiliations began early, in the 1920's, and lasted well into the 1940's, even after Adolph Hitler’s government banned his work. He publicly made anti-Semitic statements and considered Expressionism as a purely Germanic style.

Nolde's politics and personal beliefs should (obviously) be questioned, but the fact remains that his art has no relation to his politics.

The poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and his output follow along these lines as well. Pound's writing is arguably the foundation of the modernist tradition, influencing a generation of later writers.

He moved to Italy in 1924 and later became a propagandist for Benito Mussolini's fascist government. He was also an anti-Semite who spoke publicly against Jews.
But, like Nolde, his work doesn't reflect these views.

I believe that the art and the artist should be considered separately from one another, unless of course, the work reflects their vitriolic personal views or a political agenda, in which case the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.