Art’s Place in Politics

Sinead O’Connor rips a photo of the Pope on SNL. Photo by Yvonne Hemsey via Getty Images.

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For millennia, patronage of the arts has been a mechanism for public support and political power. It was how rulers such as Louis VIX of France and the Qing Dynasty of China sought to increase nationalism and the international prestige of their countries. Powerful families such as the Medicis, sponsors of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as the Rockefellers also invested in art and artists in place of aristocratic lineage as a way to gain legitimacy.

Even today, it is not hard to see why. This year at the Super Bowl, viewership was up 35% among women and girls ages 11-24, accounting for two million more viewers than the previous year. This statistic correlated with the television coverage of singer Taylor Swift attending games, as her boyfriend and Kansas City Chiefs Tight End—Travis Kelce—was playing. Further, Hollywood movies gross billions of dollars in box office numbers worldwide, thus contributing to the spread of American culture and the English language.

However, many Americans do not see the arts as a priority. Instead, they focus solely on profit over artistry, or on other fields entirely, such as sports and STEM. In times of economic recession and budget cuts in schools, the arts is often the first to go. Many argue that sports bring in more donations, and therefore are more important. The reality that many professional artists are self-employed or freelance (which is not always stable in the long-term) may also be a factor in the decision to cut arts programs’ budgets. Unfortunately, this career instability and lack of resources often causes children to be discouraged from artistic careers, instead being pointed in the direction of something that is seen as more secure and backed by academic institutions. 

What results from this are artistic industries that are increasingly hard to break into. Fashion Runways and movie screens are covered in “Nepo-Babies,” or the children of the rich and famous. Hollywood and Broadway consist mostly of remakes, sequels and revivals, whose lack of financial risk is being paid for at the cost of originality. A start-up publishing company is looking to restructure the industry so that bestselling authors can make more profits at the cost of the advances that new authors live on. Pop songs offer little variation. Our capitalist society, which counts its selling points as spurring innovation and ingenuity, is instead trying to turn the arts into a cash formula, taking something that works and beating it until it is long dead. 

As creativity becomes more of a privilege for the rich and famous, there has been a shift in the artist-leader relationship. Famous artists themselves are formulating political platforms as they run for the stamp of public approval, and many fans look for their favorite actor and singers to speak out on controversial topics rather than experts. Politicians now receive celebrity endorsements in their campaigns, as well as on specific policies they wish to gain public support on. 

But as celebrity opinions become more common, they also become more perfunctory. Gone are the days of Jane Fonda’s opposition to the Vietnam war or Sinéad O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. Instead, celebrities are expected to regurgitate a politically correct PR script at us with lukewarm, if not obvious political statements in an attempt to make us feel like we are ethically sourcing our music, movies, and Instagram feeds. 

That is not to say that art and artists cannot be meaningful in current events and social issues, however, for it to be so fresh voices and perspectives are required. Movements like the Harlem Renaissance have shown the value of art in highlighting inequality and amplifying minority voices. Art has the power to shift a cultural narrative and make people care more than statistics and facts. But to do so, it must break away from the status quo, which most celebrities or elite do not have the courage or social awareness to do. This is why support for small, independent artists and their art has and always will be important.