The study of history has often highlighted the appearance of patterns, cycles and repeating structures in the motions of human activity. Seen generally as an organising force, arriving at times almost predictable, and precipitating some of the greatest rises and falls our past has to offer, the term revolution is perhaps the best we have to map onto our own activity. It encompasses both the tide-like consistency and refusal to be tamed that we see in human behaviours. The reason for this incessance, and our impotence despite awareness, is most likely its origin. It has been said in various formats that ‘blood alone moves the wheels of history’, most recently by Dwight Schrute of The Office fame, and his retro-historical counterpart, Benito Mussolini, but I propose an interpretation which would thankfully liberate the phrase from its genesis at the heart of fascism. ‘Blood’ is not that spilled in violence, but the purest human movement, the liquid force and flow that provides the impetus for contractions and expansions of a society under the writhing heat of its own people. The motions and patterns of political and social upheaval are indicative of the most fundamental of human urges.
With this in mind, it is then easy to see why those often responsible for the initiation and realisation of grand changes do so via methods which closely reflect the fundamental origins of their movements. Art as a political force, used to instigate social revolution and redefinition, draws its efficacy from its proximity to the nature of politics and sociolog y. Defining art in this manner however does not necessarily term it ‘base’, or invalidate any connection we may draw to high culture, elevated thought or profound examination. On the contrary, it creates an observable continuum between the more primal and vital desires, and their subsequent political articulation.
Expressing an innate sense of entitlement or obligation, be it to a cause or for human rights, is often accompanied by a propogandist call to some form of natural or transcendent image. ‘The motherland’, ‘service’, ‘duty’, all raise, in those susceptible to their charms, an ineffable lurch of spirit. Yet, when thinking about art in a political context, there is a necessary element of coherence and validity; it is not enough to call upon a generic sentiment with no purpose or affiliation. This most likely engendered, sense of obligation must be harnessed, directed and controlled by a socialised and contextualised piece of art. Having already written for this paper on the topic of propaganda, I must specify that I am not again doing so. What I speak of here is, admittedly, the basic formulation by which coercive campaigns and the like are generally realised, however, it more importantly signposts why the arts are such an effective medium for political communication. The ability to establish a commonality between the innate compulsion and the ideological, in a medium as semiotically established as the visual arts or literature, is a powerful one.
Whilst the availability of a potent tool may be tempting in and of itself, it does not inherently justify the compulsion many artists feel to involve themselves in political issues.
The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is perhaps the best known example of the ‘artist as activist’ complex that seems to strike many in his field. He famously stated that “if somebody questions reality, truth, facts; it always becomes a political act.” The processes of introspection and the critical gaze prompted and foregrounded by artwork are often destabilising enough to qualify a piece as ‘political commentary’. This is compounded by the fact that, in our aggressively postmodern age, we have a vastly increased awareness of the structures of political systems and how semantics are shaped and crafted. With this augmented knowledge, it is nigh on impossible for modern artists to operate entirely aesthetically. A precedent has been set, a tradition established or a theory constructed around almost all forms of visual art and literature. This is not a limiting structure, as it simply adds to hermeneutic engagement as opposed to restricting it, but it does mean that creating serious artwork and being agenda-free is an almost impossible balance to establish. All art has become political, because politics itself has transcended its Estate, becoming so ubiquitous that the most minute of interactions is now laced with some form of implicit bias.
I do not wish to pass judgement on this state of affairs, it requires far deeper engagement and an assessment of the separation of the social, individual and political. But it remains undeniable, that all expression has been rendered politically charged, meaning that any artist making an attempt at creative expression, is consciously setting forth, acutely aware of the clinical political treatment their work shall receive. It is questionable whether or not it is a choice to create art with an obvious, and publicly proclaimed ideological agenda, or whether we are simple a society primed to search for one. Yet it would be insulting to the intelligence of any self-described artist to presume them sufficiently naïve as to remain unaware of the significance of their composition.
In addition to this, we must also consider the oppositionality inherent in the idea of self-expression. It is the removal of the individual, from the context of the individual and their then placement in the public sphere. In doing so, the artist is undermining the constitutive fabric of a public setting. Instead of a society being an agglomerated mass of unique voices, each consciously directed into the public frame, the artist has removed the detaching medium of vocality, placing at least an insight into the entire self in a very expositional setting.
This distinction is one that has manifested in art and literary theory for a long time, but its potency cannot be underestimated. This action presents the individual as infinitely complex, an institution equal in scope, capacity and therefore influence to the state. Any form of self-expression will be an immediate enemy of those desiring conformity or cohesion, as total assimilation of an individual is impossible without consent or coercion. In creating art that is, for want of not sounding like a country music critic, true and expressive, an artist takes a stand against their own imposed definition. It is the transition from reader, to writer, or from spectator to performer. Politics is there to be witnessed by those it controls, so when another entity exists in an equally exhibitionist manner, and with access to the same semiotic tools, a threat is immediately established. The artist as revolutionary is a wonderful image, and perhaps one that is forced upon creatives of our day. However, it is imperative to recall both the political power of artistic media, and the inherent ideology of created works. I remain undecided as to where the ‘urge’ lies in this dynamic, but it is clear that such structures are expressive of fundamental tenets of human nature and society. Forgive the attempted pith, but it appears that ‘ink alone moves the wheels of history’.