It’s all so political…give us some art

Since the Brexit result, the noisy news has been relentless.  Our politicians have found the going slippery  (so much rivalry and skulduggery), the economic marketplace appears clueless, whilst out in the towns reserved resentments are popping up like ugly jack-in-the -boxes.  The world looks on at us; unsettled and rather shameful.

The power-play will continue over the coming days, months and possibly years to come. Our young will probably have to mop up the mess (though I’ve never seen them tidy anything.)


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Aristotle said art cannot be separated from politics, any more than it can be separated from the nature it represents.

“Art is the most intense form of individualism,” said Oscar Wilde. Art cannot be defined, regulated, or homogenized. It is a testimony to the history that precedes it, the environment that molds it, and the events that inspire it.

Art is, in other words, an autocrat’s worst enemy.

The long history of world government reveals a tricky relationship with the artist (rather like patrician parent and annoying child). Regimes like, and will readily fund, artistic works that promote the glory and pomp of themselves (all those statuesque statues of statesman, the landscape paintings of war glory fields) but can be mean when it comes to less noble artistic ventures.  But like the prescient child, artists have a way of irking the State, with remarks that can touch on a parental nerve.

And what the State can’t control, the State usually destroys.

The Nazis burnt Picassos, Dalís, Ernsts, Klees, Légers and Mirós during the 1930s and 40s . The Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-75  destroyed much of it’s own heritage. The Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. Today the  ‘Islamic State’ is destroying Syrian antiquities and using heritage sites like Palmyra, the ancient city in the Syrian desert, as a battle shield.

“Where they burn books, they will burn people” (Heinrich Heine foresaw in his 1821 play Almansor)

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Burning insight: When ignorance destroys art

But governments, even those not so authoritarian, should probably pay less attention to opinion polls and more to the artistic work their policies and ruling style begat.   This includes all art forms that wish to start a conversation not manipulate you to think a certain way (or buy something)

This is definitely not art that mixes with a political message.

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And this brings us back to where we are today – post Brexit vote. Sometimes an artistic spirit provides a particularly deep insight into the political spirit of the times. Creativity speaks to souls and reaches the voters where polemics can’t.

But then again artists arguably need abominable societies – they spark the inspiration needed to produce interesting work.

And how so evident today as Europe remembers the first World War with ceremonies commemorating the start of the battle of the Somme.  How lacking in colour these remembrances  would be without the spectrum of artworks left behind by those witnessing the horrors of this political war.  A creative outpouring that touches us still. At the time it may have seemed (to those producing these works) a futile attempt to pour balm on the bearing of so much pain. But today our understanding and knowledge of the deep fissures caused by war is so much greater because of it.

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Water Lillies, Monet

From Giverny, Monet could hear the battle guns of the first world war as he painted in his garden. His response? A towering series of nearly abstract water lilies canvases,  his personal patriotic gesture. “Yesterday I resumed work,” he wrote in December 1914. “It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.”


It’s too soon for artistic reflections on the politics of our post-Brexit vote – beyond the satirical cartoons. Hopefully the strength of feelings shown over the past week will produce a brave new world of creativity –  really good poems and plays and paintings, even masterpieces, to rival those produced 100 years ago.



The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.  An Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program  is given the task of finding and saving pieces of art and other culturally important items before Nazis destroy or steal them, during World War II.

Or watch the film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon  – loosely based on this story.

Similarily read Fahrenheit 451 . The hauntingly prophetic classic novel set in a not-too-distant future where books are burned by a special task force of firemen.  The classic novel of a post-literate future, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ stands alongside Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.

Or watch the film Fahrenheit 451 (1966) directed by Francios Truffaut starring Julie Christie (an under-rated influential work – Nicolas Roeg)

Princess Casamassima, Henry James. When a beautiful, spoilt, aristocratic woman with revolutionary ambitions meets an idealistic young proletarian conspirator who dreams of a better life, the stage is set for The Princess Casamassima in which Henry James explores the London underworld and the political unrest seething there in the later nineteenth century.

The Aesthetics of Resistance, Peter Weiss Spanning the period from the late 1930s to World War II, this historical novel dramatizes anti-fascist resistance and the rise and fall of proletarian political parties in Europe. Living in Berlin in 1937, the unnamed narrator and his peers-sixteen- and seventeen-year-old working-class students-seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss’s novel.  Hailed as “…probably the greatest novel about political organization that I know of,” says Flavorwire Literary Editor Jonathon Sturgeon.

After Brexit, Art Must Break Out of Its Bubble

For clever daydreaming in a politically literary context  – try this blog; – by Yara Zgheib –  Conversations about politics, art, culture, economics, literature, philosophy, and chocolate, inspired by great thinkers.


Storyville – Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer.  Artistic (and very brave) protests to Putin’s Russia. The compelling story of how a group of young, feminist punk rockers known as Pussy Riot captured the world’s attention in 2013.

Ai Wei Wei – neversorry the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics.  Alison Klayman’s detailed portrait provides a nuanced exploration of contemporary China and one of its most compelling public figures.


Guardian podcast – Do Art and Politics Mix? 01.07.2007

Art historian Jonathan Harris, artist Heather Ackroyd, columnist David Aaronovitch and radical opera director Peter Sellars discuss whether art and politics mix.


How lucky we are to have the Imperial War Museum –

Book lists – novels about politics:

Tim Pears’s top 10 20th-century political novels

19 Novels About Politics for Election Day (and the Revolution, Too)

The 12 greatest political novels.

Featured Image: Paul Nash, The Menin Road, Imperial War Museum