Art should be political

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You’ve probably heard this complaint over and over again. “Why does x media have to get political?” You see this in response to calls for greater diversity in media. You also see it in reboots of old franchises being perceived as pushing a political agenda that the original seemingly didn’t have.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to burst a few bubbles. Art has almost always been political. Fans of pop culture were usually too young to notice the politics of their favourite childhood art or were only okay with politics if the piece of media already agreed with them.

We better start with a definition of art to quell any arguments that my examples don’t count as art. I have my own views on the subject but for this article’s sake, I’m going to have to go with a more easily-accepted definition. One of the definitions in the Oxford Dictionary is, “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Note the words “emotional power”. What is more emotionally charged than politics?

To make sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of what I mean by “politics”, one of Oxford’s definitions of the term is, “The principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status.” Politics isn’t just “x party should rule the government” but also the values we have about ourselves and society, something that artists love to explore.

Most art is created by humans, with all of their political biases that they might not even realise. Because of this, the art often represents the artist’s mindset, intentionally or otherwise. Take the ‘Star Wars’ franchise mentioned in that first tweet. The original trilogy contained an evil empire that was inspired by the Nazis and was taken down by a rebellion made to represent US Marines. How does this not sound political? These films aren’t less political than the new Disney-owned films just because the new films have a female protagonist and a black main character.

That’s just the surface level of the politics of the franchise. There are also matters of representation that the filmmakers likely didn’t even consider. Notice how people find a female protagonist and a black main character so political? Funny how they don’t consider it a political statement when in the original trilogy there were only two black people (more if you count non-human creatures voiced by black actors, though I’m not sure you can call that representation) and four women with speaking lines (and the lines of three of those women combined only take less than two minutes of screen time in a 6 hour and 17 minute trilogy). But hey, since a lack of representation is considered the status quo, I guess it can’t be considered political, right?

To be fair, agreeing with the way things were before in the original trilogy is likely not the only reason someone might find the newer films more “political”. Another is the fact that a lot of people grew up with the original trilogy. Children struggle to differentiate between messages and storytelling, as evidenced by their inability to tell the difference between television and the advertising breaks in between. Even when children do start to tell the difference it’s usually on a shallow level such as shows being longer than advertisements. It’s only natural for a child to not notice when a film, television show or video game is pushing an agenda, especially since they might not know the complex history of racism, sexism or, in the case of ‘Star Wars’, fascism. Now they’re adults and can sense when new movies are being political. I feel that maybe a lot of the people who desire a less “political” reboot of their beloved franchise want to return to a simpler time when they didn’t have to think too hard about the complicated realities of the real world. This is shown in the obsession many people have with nostalgia, to the point of romanticising a time that wasn’t that great to begin with.

I’ve shown how media is already political but is this a good thing? Obviously, a good piece of art can be ruined by the writer handling a message in a ham-fisted way, but that is an issue not with the message itself but by unsubtle writing that often lacks nuance. However, some works of art have remained classics because of their political messages, from ‘1984’ and its poignant criticism of the surveillance state to Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ giving the world a striking depiction of the horrors of war. There’s a reason why English and literature classes put so much focus on themes and that is because themes are often political messages that are important for people to consider.

Media helps us explore worlds we’re not used to and put ourselves into other people’s shoes. Popular video game franchise ‘Bioshock’ would likely not be held up as an example of video games being art if it weren’t for the messages of the story, namely a criticism of Randian objectivism and the way it causes people to become selfish. In the first game, you have to navigate a lawless dystopia where it’s every person for themselves and the terror of being alone is palpable. Experiencing this through a piece of entertainment is more effective than say, listening to someone lecture you about the problems they have with Objectivism and its political cousin Libertarianism. If this game was not political, then it would not be praised for being “thought-provoking”, as it would not have many thoughts to provoke.

In addition to understanding our world and what would happen if our world was run by a certain ideology, art can also help us understand ourselves and this understanding often has political undertones. Look no further than the podcast ‘The Sewers of Paris’ to see this in action. In the podcast, gay men talk about the media that changed their lives, such as a man who became more comfortable with his own sexuality due to the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show‘. In an ideal world, being gay would not be a political issue, but the reality is that coming out can be a political statement. If art was never political, that would rob people of their ability to fully understand and accept themselves.

This idea of politics and art being a good mix is not limited to the left side of the political spectrum. The original ‘Ghostbusters’ film is beloved by many and weaves pro-business themes and criticisms of the Environmental Protection Agency into its story. This makes sense from a narrative standpoint as it is about a small business and businesses are often at odds with government agencies, which run the risk of stifling entrepreneurialism. Politics is an easy and effective way to create conflict in a work of art, as it does in this particular film. It also lends an element of realism to fantastical stories, as politics does create conflict and drama in the real world.

So no, art being political isn’t a death sentence. Yes, the art will provoke some negative responses from people who disagree with the artist’s stance, but art is supposed to be thought-provoking. Yes, there is more to art than its message and for it to be effective it needs to be well-crafted. If you just have a message and no craft you may as well be up on a soapbox and yelling in the street. However, art is and always has been a powerful vehicle to explore the various way humans understand ourselves and each other. If all art was free from politics, the creative world would be sterile and boring.

But sure, feel free to tell me that a movie franchise about fighting space Nazis is free from politics and is better for it.

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