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Should we evaluate political art differently from the ways we evaluate non- political art?

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When evaluating and therefore determining the worth of a particular piece of art, we could potentially take into consideration the feeling that is invoked when viewing a particular piece, alongside aesthetic value and also perhaps the ideas and motives that originally belonged to the artist. Donald A. Gordon’s Methodology in The Study of Art Evaluation establishes that ‘Without evaluation, every work of art would have equal standing with every other work and all would be equally good and equally poor’- this important process of assessment is ultimately determined by the individual and what form of art they deem most significant.  The difficulty exists when establishing what constitutes as political art and non-political art and how these two polarities can be defined and also if they need to be viewed as separate entities; in terms of evaluation. This exploration of categories will assist in determining if we should evaluate political and non-political art separately.

The current political climate is unpredictable and volatile, in the age of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far-right sentiment in Europe - political opinions have become polarised. In 2016 a group of prominent, internationally- acclaimed artists launched a campaign in conjunction with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ (BSiE), the aim was a mobilisation of the art world with its high levels of cultural capital to convince the voter that Britain would be stronger if they stayed in the EU.  Artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, Michael Craig- Martin and Wolfgang Tillmans created free downloadable posters to be shared on social media along with the #ArtistsforIN, this art can be characterised by bright colours and text forms which strived to create emotive responses for the Remain campaign. This rhetoric created a conversational tone, one which was intended to be quite refreshing amongst the ambiguous utterance from politicians.

 I think this political art should be viewed as Jowett’s and O’Donnell’s  assessment of propaganda which is ‘the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.’This work indeed had clear political intentions to influence the publics voting orientation and therefore shape policies by persuading people to vote remain. In this case, I believe these artworks should be evaluated differently from non-political art as Smith, Craig-Martin and Tillmans all had a common deliberate objective and this political bias certainly shifts the audience’s opinion and evaluation of the work. Despite the campaigns original intentions of creating a new narrative that was disparate from ‘Project Fear’ this art campaign has been criticised by Professor Matt Hills as being ‘unhelpfully restricted to niche appeal’, this is true as arguably these artists were preaching in an echo chamber to the already converted, a poll of CIF members (2016), who work in the arts, creative industries and cultural education, has revealed that 96% intended to vote to remain in the EU. There was in fact no attempt to engage the masses in a new imaginative debate, which should have extended beyond economics and migration policies.

 The reasoning to why this campaign failed can be explained through Adorno when he outlines in his essay Commitment  that ‘Art, which even in its opposition to society remains a part of it, must close its eyes and ears against it: it cannot escape the shadow of irrationality.’When viewing this statement in context, a sense of irrationality can define the whole political debate of Brexit and how the general population were left feeling confused and unsatisfied, these artworks just reiterated slogans that had already been adopted by politicians. Arguably, if this work is going to evaluated as ‘political’ it can be evaluated as a failure due to the remain campaign collapsing when it came to the referendum, this work failed to achieve its aims, however this is not necessarily due to the aesthetic content instead due to the audience it was shown to. A non-political piece of artwork instead would be evaluated differently as it has a separate purpose which is out of the realm and which is also not concerned by politics.

 An alternative argument to the one I have just presented is that there can be no differentiation between political and non-political art, they should be seen as the same entity and consequently they should not be evaluated any differently. Chantal Mouffe  argues that ‘One cannot make a distinction between political art and non-political art, because every form of artistic practice either contributes to the reproduction of the given common sense-and in that sense, is political- or contributes to the deconstruction or critique of it.’If this is accurate then all art should be evaluated equally as ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ as they are either supporting or criticising the already existing system.  This belief can be challenged as art has been created in the past purely ‘for art’s sake’, with a piece’s purpose of breaking down and refreshing existing traditional techniques of previous artists that are instead embossed in technical and aesthetic value. This was the manifesto of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the main exhibition ‘Viva Arte Viva’ which was curated by Christine Macel. She recently told the NY times that ‘Not all art should be about politics. It’s only one dimension’and despite the political turmoil of the past year, Macel intentionally curated this experience ‘with artists, by artists and for artists.’  This curated decision disputes Mouffe’s statement, as Macel is rejecting this idea that all art is entangled with politics and instead art can be free of having particular motives and/ or ideology. If this is true then surely political art and non- political art should be evaluated differently, Christine Macel’s 2017 humanist Venice Biennale should be evaluated differently from Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 politically charged Venice Biennale- seeing as each curator saw a strikingly different purpose to their exhibition. 

As Mouffe has put forward this idea that there can be no differentiation between political and non-political art as one is either opposing the current system and the other is supporting capitalism and the already existing societal hierarchies. Jonas Stall  corroborates this idea in ‘The artworks displayed in the increasing number of national pavilions aim to enforce the myth of a benevolent and culturally appreciative civilised state, thus legitimising the ‘democratic’ bona fides of autocratic, colonial, and fascist regimes.’This statement can be viewed in the context of the 2017 Venice Biennale, as although a lot of the works did not contain prominently political content, because they were shown in the conditions of an elitist institution it therefore becomes political by reinforcing this appearance of a ‘culturally appreciative civilised state’. When Mouffe and Stall’s ideas are both taken in to scrutiny then all art should be evaluated equally, as even if a piece of art does not have political subject matter then the context of where its shown is also a critical element when evaluating a piece. Although this is true, I think it should be taken in to consideration that there is a difference between a piece being politically charged and a piece being politicised in terms of the context of it where it is shown and also when it was produced.

 An artist that illustrates this conflicting debate as to whether political and non-political art should be evaluated differently is Phyllida Barlow. Barlow was chosen to represent the British Pavilion in the 2017 Venice Biennale, with her work titled Folly. The British Council has defined her work as ‘encourag[ing] us to take on the role of explorer, picking our way around a sculptural labyrinth of densely-packed towering columns’.This work has no political relevance whatsoever, instead it is an exploration of abstract sculptural forms made by stretching the limits and potential of cheap everyday materials such as timber, concrete and fabric. Clement Greenberg stressed the necessity of abstract art and the utilisation of it as a‘universal language’ and also as a way to object to the invasion of politics and commerce into art. As Barlow’s work is a concentration on form and material, I would argue that, this work should be evaluated differently from the political work of Smith, Craig-Martin and Tillmans, as Barlow’s abstract work is a concentration on space and boundary and how an audience navigates and engages with this, it is purely an experience and the viewer can become engrossed in any thought/ interpretation that they wish. Whereas with political artwork there is a forced intention and idea that the artist wants the viewer to consider.

 However, there is a recent conflict as to whether Barlow’s work can just be simply categorised as ‘non-political’ as Sculpture magazine  describes, in relation to the work Folly, that ‘the making of art is, in itself, a political act, even if the work is not branded as such; the same can be said about the viewing of art’as a new ungoverned relationship is created between the viewer and the artwork. Although this piece is abstract and has no obvious or intentional political content, the Financial Times  has announced that Barlow ‘must reach for metaphor to express her troubled epoch.’This implies that this work is indeed political due to the context that it was created in, although Folly contains no political content, it is still a consequential piece that has derived from the current political turmoil. George Orwell also purports this in his BBC broadcast titled The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda which examines the idea of pure aestheticism being destroyed in both literature and art, alternatively ‘every work of art has a meaning and a purpose — a political, social and religious purpose — that our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs.’Accordingly, as Orwell puts emphasis on this idea that our judgements and evaluation is inexorably going to be impacted due to our personal background and this inexplicitly includes our political ideology and therefore even work that classifies as ‘non-political’ art cannot escape a viewer’s already existing political bias. However, I think this again confuses the distinction between political and non-political art as there is a difference between the viewers biased political stance and whether an artwork has political content.

 When considering the question ‘Should we evaluate (determine the worth of) political art differently from the ways we evaluate non-political art?’ two opposing arguments can be defined. If we are to evaluate political and non-political art as the same this is because it is too difficult to view these two types of art as separate entities. Another idea presented by writers such as Orwell and Stall argue that a piece of art will never be able to be viewed as separate from its context and the bias of the viewer, as a non-political artwork exhibited in the Venice Biennale will initially be associated with the institutionalised idea of promoting culturally-appreciative countries, concealing Europe’s dark colonial history. Although this is all accurate, I think that it is necessary that political art and non-political art are evaluated differently as there is a distinction between work having political context and then non- political work being politicised due to the context that it is viewed in. In corroboration, political art has particular intentions and ideology, the artists Craig Martin, Tillmans and Smith all had the intention of persuading the British voter to vote remain in the EU referendum.  This political work should be evaluated differently from the non-political artwork Folly created by Phyllida Barlow due to the idea that this work has a different purpose of creating an experience and environment for the viewer, rather than attempting to shift political ideology and policy.


Nisha Woolford