Art & Politics

An intimate relationship

Stefano Pasquini



There are many negative factors that accompany what can be called "political art". First of all, one can say that all art is political in some way or another, in the sense that it reflects and is influenced by the time it was produced in. This is not always the case, even though the definition "political art" can be as vague as "conceptual art".

We all saw the reaction of Hans Haacke at the Whitney Museum to the declarations of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over the "Sensation" show last year. His installation can easily be defined political, but it was above all a felt reaction by an artist who saw himself directly involved by the statement of a politician. Many political works are born this way: the artist experiences something on his/her skin, feels the impossibility of changing the system that provoked this experience, and finally reacts with the only thing he or she knows how to do: the making of a work of art.


Left - Right: Iso (anonymous),
"G8 Martyr", 2001.
digital image.

Fabrizio Vegliona,
"Banana Republic",
digital c-print.






So why is the art world so little politicized? Why are political artists so unlikely to hit the mainstream? The answer can be summarized in one simple word: fear. The art world fears the real world, and it is scared that by showing political art the consequences could be detrimental for the sale of works. After all, which collector would want to buy a disturbing work of art? Who would want to own a work that reminds us of how little and impotent we are in front of what happens in the world that is unjust, undemocratic and plainly wrong?
Art is a commodity, it's the first thing people renounce to when they have to make some budget cuts; and as a commodity, it is manly bought by wealthy people, people that don't want to be reminded of their cowardice in front of an unjust world. Owning art is a symbol of power, success and intellectual achievement. Owning political art entails the risk that who's helping your success may not agree with the political message of the work. That's why you don't see much political art in galleries around, and that's why if you make political art you're highly unlikely to find a gallerist to represent you.
Another negative factor for political art is the limited public that will experience the work. This is not always the case if we think of Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer or Maurizio Cattelan, but generally, art is seen only by a very limited amount of people, an elite of lovers, collectors and people in the field. Isn't it contradictory for an artist to use such an elitist means like the visual arts to communicate a message that should be universal?
Cinema could be an answer, even though once again political movies don't hit the mainstream unless they deal with something that's happened enough years ago to not require any sort of action by the public.
In the field of music, and more specifically pop music, the situation is slightly different. As an artist, when I feel that my political work can be meaningless in front of a stuckup arty crowd, I listen to Billy Bragg. Billy Bragg is a highly political British songwriter who, in the eighties, was facing artistic solitude when the world was listening to Duran Duran and GoWest. He started his career singing and playing the guitar walking in the streets with an amplifier on his shoulders. Gradually, with an independent label, he reached notoriety and his highly political albums are now available world-wide. Nevertheless, he still plays for free at rallies and demonstrations and any time there is to fight for democracy.

So why is the art world so little politicized? Why are political artists so unlikely to hit the mainstream? The answer can be summarized in one simple word: fear.

At the anti G8 demonstration in Genoa last July we saw the Italian police crossing the line between public order and fascism with an indiscriminate beating of anybody at the manifestation: from pacifists to lawyers, politicians to voluntary medics, even two nuns had a taste of the police batons. Then a young demonstrator got shot in the head by a scared carabiniere. I found the image "G8 Martyr" by an anonymous artist (Iso) in the website of, and I think this digital manipulation is a clear example of political art from the heart: the artist was so disgusted by what he saw on TV (or experienced first hand) that he felt compelled to make this visual parody of Italian democracy.
This is not the first artwork produced against the Italian Police force. Marco Maggi was caught by the police doing provocatory graffities on the election posters of the mayor of Bologna. He was beaten in the street in front of passerbys. He then started a court action against the policemen who participated to his arrest but both his trial and the trial against him were sunken into the oblivion of Italian bureaucracy. So an answer to the elitist public possibility of communication of a work of art can be showing it in the street, and then hit the press for being beaten up.
Why art though? Books, articles and cartoons have been working for and against politics for years. Yet, most of them disappear in history as they're too time-specific to be timeless.
If an artist plays it well his or her work can become timeless. And the political message within the work will reach immortality too. This could be a first in showing mankind its errors in time.
That's why art.