Art, Power and Democracy
“…without art there would be no democracy…” –Robert Kelly
Those of us who dabble on the fringes of art frequently find ourselves engaged in conversations regarding the nature of art, the role of the artist in society, and the places where art and power are found to converge. These discussions are not specious or random, but are a natural evolution of our post-20th century culture that has been steeped in the milieu of post-modernism and the politics of global empire building.
It may seem at first glance incongruous to assume an alignment of sorts between the cultural changes brought about since the demise of modernism, and the political and economic changes brought about since the end of the second world war; yet a more detailed examination will reveal some linearity of coupling between these seemingly disparate phenomenon. Principle to an understanding of the dynamics of art and power is to dispense with the misguided notion that the trappings of art and culture are somehow disconnected from the reality of the machinations of power, or that within the spheres of power there is little or no regard for the finer aesthetics of art and culture; that the two are simply unrelated.
It could be said that art is a process that is constantly inventing new cultural symbols, languages and icons, while simultaneously being compromised, co-opted and marketed, by those outside the core of the arts community, for purposes that appear indistinguishable from that of propagandizement and mass-manipulation. Though art is commonly thought of as something that is sanctified through being set aside by the institutions of the university art culture and commercial museum and gallery establishments, intended to serve some higher purpose, it has in fact been carefully studied and dissected, its powerful and often ill-understood principles of symbolism and imagery appropriated for purposes that are essential to the maintenance of a power structure whose commonly assumed dominant principle is democracy.
Art has always played a central role in the establishment and maintenance of power within human society, although the mechanics of how art serves power has varied from time and place. We are reminded of the power of animal and other nature-based imagery to tribal cultures; the fine connection between visual symbology and the early, hieroglyphic-based languages; the importance of visual iconography and sculpted imagery within an historic assortment of state-centered systems of religion, both pagan and monotheistic; and the central role played by art in the church-state dominated power structure of post-Roman Europe.
Ironically, it is the post-20th century western culture that has been the least informed, and the most cynical, of the central role still played by art in the establishment and maintenance of power. We have been steeped in the half-truths of the cultural wars of the 1980’s, where we were told that art is elitist and not in tune with the life of the common man, while simultaneously the power of imagery and icon was being appropriated on a scale so massive as to be unparalleled in all of human history. Wars have been started, fought and resolved, entire economies have been created, seemingly out of thin air, all because the power of the symbol has been purchased wholesale: manufactured, marketed, retailed and bought lock, stock and barrel for the consumption of a culturally starved public. Corporate entities now function as virtual city-states, who do not respect social, national or political borders; their principle system of transaction being the manipulation of public wants through the power of art in imagery and symbolism; all the while those skilled in the arts of imagery and symbolism are corralled in ghettos of the corporate boardroom or the state-funded systems. The public has been told where and when to expect to find art, and of what kind: the dead art of dead artists in museums; the living art of living artists in galleries; the value of art as a commercial commodity by the monies earned in revenue or at auction, rather than the intrinsic value of art to the human spirit.
The appropriation of art is essential to the maintenance of a democracy, for both – the act of appropriation and the presumption of a democracy – are based on the suspension of veracity, the lie. The act of appropriating art and its operative principles for the uses of power is intrinsically a covert activity, for the empty shell of art is required to remain a useful and expedient diversion, while the core operative principles of art – the power of the image – are folded into sophisticated systems of propaganda, through the pervasive influence of the transnational corporate media state. Similarly, the presumption of a democracy is incumbent upon a common agreement that those in power will pretend to serve at the will of the common man, while remaining in power; while the common man will pretend a form of electoral influence while remaining in subjugation to real power. This common agreement is dependant on the suspension of veracity by both sides, and continues to function, providing both sides remain satisfied in their respective states. The function that art serves in this mutual transaction called democracy is to provide a means to maintain a level of satisfaction for the general public that will satiate their baser needs, keep them motivated to continue working to serve their corporate master and provide them with rewards commensurate with the strivings of the human spirit, through the many-facetted arena of popular culture; all the while permitting the real power of art to remain at the beck and call of the masters of propaganda.
“The ultimate expression of power is war, but the ultimate expression of freedom is art.” – David Levi Strauss
Given this more coherent view of art’s role in society, it remains to provide a more precise definition of art itself. For the purposes of this discussion we find that the proximity of art to the machinations of power provides us with a useful working definition: art is free expression of the human spirit, through the mediation of some physical material or process, that serves to illuminate rather than manipulate. Incumbent upon this definition is the notion that the appropriation of the principles of art, such as imagery and symbolism, for the purposes of power is not art itself because its use does not serve the free expression of the human spirit. True art presumes human freedom, not subjugation, in body, family and social group. Likewise, the empty shell of art that masquerades as popular culture and commercial media is not true art because it, too, continues to operate within, and maintain, the agreed upon suspension of veracity that is required for the facade of democracy to exist.
The mechanism of illumination that art provides is operative across a broad spectrum of social strata, and serves no master, nor is beholden to any one specific ideology or philosophy. At its most ephemeral and spiritual level, art functions as a direct conduit for the expression of the deepest levels of the human spirit, manifest in physical form through the process of mediation.
Mediation is the process of creativity that makes visible the things that are unseen; it is the imprint of the invisible upon the physical processes of the material world. Through mediation the artist’s most ephemeral and subjective intuition is imprinted upon the coarse, flawed and imperfect conduit of the hard materials of the physical elements.
The process of mediation presupposes the fact of the artist’s intent has been prealigned with the particular requirements and limitations of the chosen materials, such that matter and intent are seamlessly blended into a cohesive work. The artist is thus seen as being in cooperation and union with physical and social phenomenon, in order for the work to achieve a measure of success. The artist is the ultimate tool user, one who is able to apply the physical principles of the material world to problems of social, aesthetic and spiritual issues, in ways that highlight and illuminate rather than manipulate and destroy.
The artist is supreme mediator between the physical and the ephemeral, one who is uniquely equipped as the ultimate communicator. The artist is able to speak directly to the core of the human spirit, which is one important reason why the skills and techniques employed by artists are so highly valued by those in positions of power who desire to affect a level of control and manipulation over others.
The artist therefore finds himself in the unique position of having in his possession the subjective ‘keys to the kingdom’, yet is also at the nexus of the covert battle, intrinsic to the process of democracy, for the ultimate expression of power and control. It is imperative that the artist not be deluded by the distraction of aesthetic fantasies; he stands at all times on the front lines, as long as the uncompromised expression of truth remains his highest ideal. It is therefore axiomatic that the artist will always remain the target of denigration and compromise by those who desire his techniques by despise his principles.
Universal acceptance should never be a motivation for the artist, regardless of the maturity of his craft or extent of his legacy. Because the artist will always remain a pariah to at least some of the outsider community, it is imperative that he maintain a vigilance and sensitivity to the self-deception of applause that, while perhaps bringing laud and mammon, corrupts to the very core, extinguishing the spark of truth that is required to shine brightly against a darkened world. Rather, the artist’s penultimate goal is to disappear; to dissolve back into the fabric of culture, but only after the free artistic expression of the human spirit is found to extend universally to all levels of society. Given the reality of human history’s barbarism and carnage, it is doubtful whether this ideal of the universal artisan society is achievable. In the interim, the artist will remain the solitary voice, the lone torch, in a dark wilderness.