Opinion

The Conservative Politics of Non-Political Art

Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in advertising (if you want to call that art), but it is also the foundation for many romantic sitcoms, many of the jokes in stand-up comedy, most songs and much more.

Every now and then an artist – no matter what the art form might be – will be referred to as political. Since this is not applied to all artists, it would mean that the rest are non-political and some of them also explicitly call themselves non-political (or apolitical if you prefer that term). But can art truly be non-political (Can anything for that matter?) or is non-political art simply political in a way that we tend to miss?

First of all, the characteristics of political art need to be examined. If all or most political art share the same characteristics, then to find the politics of non-political art becomes quite easy and this seems to be the case.

When an artist is referred to as political it is often because that artist tends to challenge existing ideas and/or wants change. Apart from a very small group of rightwing extremists, political artists tend to call out against racism, for gay rights, for financial equality, for stricter gun laws in the United States (with the exception of a few country musicians perhaps), against inequalities and so on. This can be found in for example the music of System of a Down, the movie Brokeback Mountain (and the short story), Orwell’s Animal Farm and the street art by Banksy.

It is very tempting to say that political art always tends to lean to the left, which would make all non-political art lean more towards the right and to a certain extent that can be true regarding ideas on for example economics and a demand for financial equality. However, though it might be tempting to refer to antiracism, feminism and the gay rights movement as leftist, and they might have started out as leftist movements, these days they are on the agenda of some rightwing parties as well, at least in countries where parties that define themselves as liberal are seen as a part of the right. To instead define political art as progressive is more fitting.

But calling political art progressive means that non-political art would be conservative and even though that might not at all be true of the artists who claim that their art is non-political, it might be true of the art they create. Non-political art tends to treat love as something between a man and a woman and very rarely of different colour. It sees no problems having the wife at home, dependant on her husband’s salary; that is simply the ways it is. That does not mean that non-political art explicitly claims that it should be that way (that would make it political); instead the portrayal of the norm is more the result of a lack of thinking about the societal structures brought up. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in advertising (if you want to call that art), but it is also the foundation for many romantic sitcoms, many of the jokes in stand-up comedy, most songs and much more.

An argument can be made against non-political art as conservative in ordinary movies or books where for instance a group of poor and weak people fight their way to the top or defeat an evil corporation. However, here the enemy is one ”bad apple” and not the system itself and once the evil at the top has been defeated, life continues as usual.

In the end, art perceived as non-political is indeed political in that it is conservative and is relying on the norms of society and not questioning them but instead treating them as truths or common sense. Art perceived as political is challenging these norms, demanding change and even though many of the artists seen as political would probably label themselves leftist, the idea of art as leftwing or rightwing comes down to where on the scale you find your conservative politicians and where you find your progressive ones striving for a more equal world.

Written by Mattias Danielsson, 2014-08-01