The Blurry Intersection of Arts and Politics: Can You Have One Without the Other?

Clara Wodny

How is art related to politics? Is it true that “all art is political”? What power does art actually have in a political context? What power does politics have in an artistic context? Does an artist really get to choose if their art is seen as ‘political’? These are all questions that have been debated at length and inspire a wide array of responses and beliefs, but not a concrete answer. 

As an aspiring artist and writer myself, ruminating too long on the purpose and usefulness of art, and whether or not an artist really has any control over the reception and interpretation of their works, often sends me into a long, dark downward spiral that culminates with the belief that nothing really matters and we’re all doomed (I can’t be the only one, right???). At the same time, I know that art can be powerful, valuable, and politically effective, because I have experienced it on a myriad of occasions. 

When faced with complex questions, such as if art has the power to be politically effective and whether or not art that isn’t explicitly political can still hold political power, there is no easy, simple, unequivocal answer. Instead, we must look into why art (used here to mean a broad array of mediums including fine art, theatre, poetry, literature, music, etc.) is so often given political associations and connotations, and how politics, in turn, has such a huge influence on any given period of art.


When evaluating art, the question of a work’s ‘function’ or ‘purpose’ will often arise. Some critics value art simply on its aesthetic value, while others insist that it must have an ulterior motive or some kind of socio-political agenda in order to be effective. Some art is explicitly political, such as protest art, artistic propaganda, art that encourages activism, and art that centres around memorialization or commemoration. But, even if an artwork wasn’t created with political intentions or doesn’t explicitly advocate for a specific political function, it still has the power to interact with political ideas, as a side effect of existing in the human realm.

The truth is, all art requires action from its viewer. That is, all art needs to be interpreted, and no two viewers will interpret any one work in exactly the same way. When an artist releases a work of art into the world, they have no control over how it is received or what it means to those who consume it. Additionally, they have no control over what their words, pictures, etc. will come to represent many years down the road.

Consider part IV of the poem, ‘North American Time’, by 20th century American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich:

It doesn’t matter what you think.

Words are found responsible 

all you can do is choose them

or choose

to remain silent. Or, you never had a choice,

which is why the words that do stand

are responsible

and this is verbal privilege.

Here, Rich is pointing out that an author can put as much meaning, connotation, etc, into their work as they want, but once it’s released, the words have to stand on their own. The writer no longer has control over what the words are used for or what they symbolise for every person, because the writer has no control over each consumer’s past experiences, worldviews, or pre-existing associations with certain words and ideas. 


Similarly, all art is, in some way, influenced by the political atmosphere, because all artists exist in and interact with the world in a way that is inherently political. Aristotle was of the belief that all humans are, by nature, political animals. He meant that all humans are a part of nature and a member of a community who are constantly making choices, forming beliefs, and engaging in interactions with each other in pursuit of an environment well-suited to human existence. 

Even those who claim to ‘not be involved in politics’ or to be ‘apolitical’, are, in their own way, making a political statement and engaging in political discourse. By consciously refraining from and separating oneself from a larger political discourse, you are inherently making some kind of statement about the validity or effectiveness of the system that is preventing you from engaging with it. 

When artists produce work that they claim to be wholly separate from politics and simply ‘art for art’s sake’, they fall into this same trap. Professing that something that exists in the world doesn’t have any meaning or connection with anything else in the world, immediately superimposes some kind of meaning and connotation on top of it. Additionally, just because a certain picture or group of words or musical chorus doesn’t hold any political associations to one person, doesn’t mean it won’t to another.

And, as discussed earlier, once an artist sends their work into the world, they no longer have full control over it’s interpretation. In many cases, pieces of artwork or writing that were created without any political connections in mind have been taken and pasted into various political campaigns and contexts, and will now forever be remembered as being explicitly political.

Art is built from the human experience, and it reflects some part of the world or of how the artist views the world. Art has the power to inspire change, to point out inequalities, and to disrupt societal norms. One classic example of this is Manet’s 1963 oil painting, ‘Olympia’. The painting depicts a young, nude, white woman lounging on a bed and being attended by a black maid. Presumably, the woman is a sex worker, but she is portrayed with a confident, content air that suggests she is in-control and well respected, very much contrary to the general stigma surrounding sex workers. 

This work makes political statements about race, profession, gender roles, and stigmatisation because of its content and the historical period it is tied to, but the style of painting itself also carries political connotations. Art intersecting with politics is not a new or isolated phenomenon. Throughout history, all of the major art periods and movements (like dadaism, romanticism, pointillism, hyper-realism, modernism, surrealism, etc.) are all rooted in some kind of political motivation. In the case of Manet’s Olympia, this work represents the beginnings of the Impressionist Era, and- more specifically- the rejection of the long-honoured Salon as the sole representation of “good art”. The beginnings of the Impressionist movement signified the refusal to conform to traditional, classic artistic representations in favor of lighter, swooping brush strokes and depictions of everyday life that more closely represented the human experience of living through the industrial revolution. 

Another very interesting perspective on the relationship between politics and art comes from current artist Sharonda Haris-Marshall. She asserts the idea that not all artists have the luxury to create ‘non-political’ art, because the simple fact of their identity (typically as a person in a marginalised group) pre-supposes their work as political. Haris-Marshall was specifically referring to Black artists, in that their existence automatically becomes politicised and heralded for ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’, and their work is often belittled and appropriated for (again), no reason other than the identity of the creator. She also states that the belief that art can be fully separate from politics is, “white privilege commodified”. 

I think Haris-Marshall’s point has merit, and can be applied more broadly across the art world and its history. Even back in the 18th-20th centuries, with the rise of the Royal Academy of Art and the Salon, women artists practically didn’t exist. This was, of course, only because they weren’t allowed in the same spaces as men. The art tradition of the time focused heavily on the artistic capture of live, nude models, and women were explicitly banned from these spaces. Therefore, all the paintings of that time period that depict those sorts of environments now carry with them a political connotation: the reality that it was an exclusionary, all male space that significantly devalued women. 


Moving back into present-day and the interactions between art and politics, I think it is fair to say that the two are so ingrained in each other that it is nearly impossible to truly separate them. To completely divorce politics from art would be to ignore historical context, emotion, and the artist. Conversely, to divorce art from politics would be to erase personal expression, do away with political rhetoric, and cease the practice of memorialization. Ultimately, as with any query relating to art and politics, the answers to each of these questions are up for interpretation, and there are no absolute right or wrong answers. The beauty of art is its ability to spark discourse and to elicit an emotional response, whatever that may be. So, I encourage you to consider your own encounters with art that meant something to you. Was it simply an aesthetic experience, or did it elicit some kind of deeper response and understanding of the world? 

Art is, after all, whatever you make of it. 

Clara Wodny

Featured image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article images courtesy of via No changes made to the images.

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