The Aesthetization of Politics and the Politicization of Art

[Bodhi publishes excerpts from a presentation given by Unmesh Senna Dasthakhir as part of Extra Mural Lectures at IIT, Madras.]

Apolitical art and artless politics are the fruit of a divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both; art and politics ignite each other and need each other. ~ Rebecca Solnit

For a long time, it was not considered desirable to depict an attitude in art, artists restricted themselves to imitating nature. It took a lot of rage and time before art was able to free itself from the yoke of commissions from the church and political leaders and make itself independent of the power and influence of this or that interest group. But things changed in the last century. In The Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote:

Set the library stacks on fire! Turn the canals in their course to flood the museum vaults! ...Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded! Take up the picks and the hammers! Undermine the foundations of the venerable cities!

The important movements of avant-garde in the 20th century — Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism — all became social movements whose achievements permeated and influenced the whole of our cultural lives. They all emphasized destruction and revolution, believing that nothing new could be created without first clearing out the old. We will not discuss history of art as it is a much deeper subject and should be addressed in detail.


But the basic sentiment of our time is acceptance, consent and conformism: we all want to be part of the system, of the process; we say 'yes' to everything. We accept the course of things and the world as it is. We don’t question it.

What is the meaning of Art today?

Especially public/political art? Especially when we have reached the 'end of art history', the 'end of "isms"', and the 'end of ideologies'? Art itself has become a multimillion business as Robert Hughes points out in the famous documentary ‘The Monalisa Curse’.

Museums beyond the Mausoleums


In spite of all the rebelliousness of art in this century, museums and the mainstream art establishments continue to remain the arbiters and validators of art, and the concept of ‘museum standards’ continues to prevail. The mainstream contemporary art world focuses on the production and distribution of artworks through museums, galleries and publications. The practice of categorizing art according to genres, assessing its ‘quality’ and placing it within a continuum of art history continues even today.

But it often addresses to only certain segment of people. Those who are outside this segment often lacks the ability to appreciate the work of art. There is always a gap between the mainstream contemporary and the general public viewers who are uninformed and unwilling.

A few months back I had an opportunity to interact with the curator of the forthcoming Berlin Biennale (2014, and its 8th edition) Juan A. Gaitan on his visit to Bangalore. Since its previous edition, i.e., the 7th one, focused on the social and political significance of contemporary art, I asked about his thoughts on the works of Jonas Staal, whose concept of ‘New World Summit’ was exhibited both in Berlin and Kochi Biennale. It was an artistic (and of course political) experiment to provide alternate parliaments to organizations which are excluded from democracy (banned by the so-called international terrorist lists). The exhibit in Kochi was raided by the special branch of Kochi police along with state intelligence. A case was registered under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act Section 10(4) against the members. The irony is that it is the very same act that is used to ban the organizations that the New World Summit aims to address.

Mr. Gaitan, though he talked about the geopolitics of Berlin city that he is going to address in the forthcoming Biennale, the one he is curating, didn’t respond to my question because he considers Jonas Staal not as an artist, but a politician. So there still is a concept of so-called ‘high art’ and ‘low art’ or ‘non-art’.

Art has existed for centuries before museums and galleries. But, nowadays these institutions define what art is, or at least what important art is. With these powers also made a distinction between high and low art, like in the case of Mr. Gaitan, to indicate what is significant in the history of contemporary art as opposed to so called ‘low art’ forms. Hence forms of cultural and political expressions outside the museum-sanctioned space are demeaned and devalued.

Today we are going to talk about such art and artists those who use public spaces and subversive tactics as potent means of speaking about personal issues of a public dimension. The term public art here doesn’t necessarily mean art only for the public spaces, but art addressing public issues. Artist who chose to depart from the hierarchies and definitions imposed by the traditional art institutions started looking for new and meaningful ways to engage with a wider audience. The audience were considered as the goal at the center of art production for these artists, as against the existing modernist concept of self-expression. This audience also included the uninformed and unwilling audience who usually stays away from art.

Politically Motivated Art

Is Art a Political Action?

Everything is art. Everything is Politics ~Ai WeiWei

Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.~Václav Havel.

I think an honest artist just can’t paint pussy cats, fishes, and pots with flowers when it’s Holocaust at its height. He can’t be silent about the horrible crimes that are committed around him ~Alexi Pluster-Sarno(from Voina Art Group)

Political art is the art that is created when it is unfashionable and when it is uncomfortable- legally uncomfortable, civically uncomfortable, humanely uncomfortable. ~ Tania Bruguera

There are wonderful thing that you could make Art about in Afghanistan. But personally I don't want to paint rainbows, I want to make art that disturbs identity and challenges authority and exposes the hypocrisy and re-interpret reality and even use this in an imaginative ethnography to try and understand the world that we live in ~Aman Mojadidi.

Art can change perceptions, ART can change THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD. ~JR

What is Politically Motivated Art really about?

  • It is ballsy and adequately thought-provoking.

  • It tests the boundaries and provokes.

  • It often sounds radical, absurd and asocial.

  • Some of these artists probe the wound, while some ask the questions that no one else is asking.

Image: 21st Century Christ ~ Joseph Ernst

Political art is cultural resistance, a struggle against cultural hegemony. It arises from the desire to engage in political thoughts, and to participate in political actions; art becomes a continuation of politics by other means. It often operates outside institutions when needed, take risks and are actively involved in trying to bring social change. The difference from the art of the past to that of today is that it increasingly refuses to produce decorative ornaments.

It is a way of subverting the powerful voice; politically motivated art can be in global discussions about politics, economics, society, culture, religion and international relations. It is often a clear attempt to create an entirely new narrative that challenges the dominating histories, stories that shape our experience and understanding of the world we live in.

It provides a way for us to rethink and understand ourselves. We learn to question what we know of the past, what we understand of the present and what we can imagine for the future.

How do they function?

The difference from the art of the past to that of today is that it increasingly refuses to produce decorative ornaments.

There are as many different strategies among political artists as there are different motivations. One can see the influence of libertarian, anarchist, autonomous, ecological, feminist, leftist, and humanist ideas. Many of these artists adopt guerrilla tactics, shock effects, deception strategies, disinformation, sabotage, deliberate misuses, and over-identification.

These artists take on a variety of roles. In their projects they act as journalists, urban planners, philosophers, architects, politicians, and environmental activists—as well as explainers, commentators, eyewitnesses, documentary makers, and voices of warning.

These artists take on a variety of roles. In their projects they act as journalists, urban planners, philosophers, architects, politicians, and environmental activists—as well as explainers, commentators, eyewitnesses, documentary makers, and voices of warning. Many of them use closely guarded anonymity as in the case of the Gorilla Girls. It helped them keep the focus on issues rather than personalities or status.

Is it Asocial?

We want a world revolution, carried out by the artistic means and without any victim ~VOINA Group

The dividing line between such art and radical leftist terrorism is sometimes very thin, but we should not forget that a key defining characteristic of political art is that it deals only in non-violent and symbolic "terror".

Is it Art or is it Activism?

It is socially-engaged but could not always be defined as activism, but about being engaged with our world and humanity in a way that goes beyond the superficial, instead looking deeper into historical constructions of our present state and the basic principles of human responsibility. These artists provide no answers, but they do suggest alternatives while targeting social, political, and economic blights. In fact, it may simply produce more questions. But in asking those questions, history and our role in how it constructs the present can be better understood.


Subversivity is a characteristic of (almost) all subcultures and it is the main characteristic of politically motivated art. They are fundamentally deviant, even hostile towards the dominant system or hegemonic culture. Unlike political subversion, they want to disrupt it, but not necessarily overthrow it. subversion is closely linked to a whole range of important concepts (and strategies) such as criticism, dissent, protest, resistance, activism, dissidence, sabotage, refusal, and exodus.

Characteristics and Issues that such Art/Artists address

Today commerce defines a large part of our lives. It seems almost impossible to ignore advertising and avoid succumbing to the desire to buy, buy, and buy. Our obsession with brands is defining our era.

Their works are not intended for a museum. Whereas appearing in that context would make them immediately recognizable as art, seeing them in public spaces is disconcerting. They use unfamiliar situations to call familiar spaces into question. Security in public spaces is also a popular subject among these artists. They explore issues surrounding security systems and totalitarian surveillance. Some campaigns involve artists stepping into illegal territory. The artists also deliberately overstep moral boundaries to provoke reactions.

Political art is increasingly appearing in countries and regions plagued by injustice and/or ruled by totalitarian regimes. These works, along with their individual statements, can only be understood if viewers possess the relevant background knowledge. Some of the works have been banned from exhibitions, has strict government censorship mostly at the demand of the regime that they target. They use their art to highlight problems that either directly or indirectly affect them. Their works here express this insider's perspective and take modern communication far beyond the borders of their home countries.

Image: Illegal Billboards ~ Ron English

Politically motivated art is never art for art's sake. They produce works that are specifically designed to help bring about change in prevailing social, political, or cultural circumstances. Since these artists aim to tackle socio-political shortcomings, they want their art and campaigns to show how art can influence reality. They want their forward-looking projects to do more than generate interest in political issues; they want them to help people discover what exactly is involved and to encourage direct (collective) action.

Traditional history painting has become obsolete -- instead of aiming to strengthen national identity, today’s works often call this approach into question. Today's artists rarely employ conventional tools such as brushes and paint, the motivating factors that drive their work. Present day artists do more than allowing viewers to contemplate and reflect on what they see; they also allow the protagonists to process their own personal experiences. Contemporary works of art that reflect history do not necessarily present a specific scene; rather, they infiltrate they interpret the subjects in their own way. Artists' frequently avoid adopting a clear position, choosing instead to encourage viewers to unravel the structures, whose roots are often buried deep in the past. Artists often express their criticism with crystal clarity, tearing apart heads of states like Bush and Blair instead of glorifying them. Present day artworks are dominated by issues that address the co-existence of different ethnic groups and the hierarchies between them.


But there still is a problem with all this. Because what is alternative today will be main stream tomorrow. As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter wrote in their book The Rebel Sell:

Here is a quick list of things that in the past fifty years, have been considered extremely subversive:

smoking, long hair for men, short hair for women, beards, miniskirts, bikinis, heroin, jazz music, rock music, punk music, reggae music, rap music, tattoos, underarm hair, graffiti, surfing, scooters, piercings, skinny ties, not wearing a bra, homosexuality, marijuana, torn clothing, hair gel, afros, birth control, postmodernism, plaid trousers, organic vegetables, army boots, interracial sex. Nowadays, you can find every item on this list in a typical Britney Spears video.

The fact remains, Subversion does not entail solely a desire to change, but it inherently implies an action that is continuous and sustainable in the face of impending challenges. It is not ephemeral, and it does not have an expiration date.

But doing these things, they can get you in Jail, they can be misunderstood. But I do them because the geography itself mandates it. That is my burden. What’s yours?

~Aman Mojadidi

References and further reading:


  2. Art & Agenda, Political Art and Activism. Editors: R. Klanten, M. Hübner, A. Bieber, P. Alonzo, G. Jansen, Published by Gestalten, 2011.

  3. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization (Reflect #8), NAi Publishers, 2011.

  4. The Art of Rebellion #3, by Christian Hundertmark, Publikat Publishing, 2010

  5. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art edited by Suzanne Lacy, Bay Press incorporated, 1995