All good art is political

All good art is political
© Getty Images

America has long had a love-hate relationship with its great and celebrated artists. That relationship can easily turn toxic when politics are involved.

Celebrated artists of all stripes are told they should keep quiet about politics and focus where they excel.

As the president of a school that is training the next generation of artists, I find that reaction to fundamentally miss the point of art.

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All good art is political. This adage doesn’t simply declare that an artist, through their work, is taking a stance; it reveals to us that art attempting not to be political ends up endorsing the status quo and is, therefore, still political.

Attributed to novelist Toni Morrison, this concept rings truer today than before. Yet, in these times, it also falls short of an even loftier and necessary goal.

Those who make art — good art — have a responsibility to advance individuals and communities who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented by amplifying their stories, by building a culture that reflects their true reality or, perhaps most powerfully, by giving them a platform to speak for themselves.

Morrison continues her thought to say that “she is not interested in art that is not in the world.”

We as a society should no longer be interested in a world where art does not change us in our assumptions and our beliefs.

There are many ways to accomplish this. One way is for artists to change our culture by using their platforms and audiences to elevate the work or experiences of others.  

Popular artists and entertainers have long dabbled in activism. Some take the speechifying route, using a few minutes in the spotlight to display their concerns for a particular cause. Some donate their resources to on-the-ground organizations.  

Others use their art and their considerable platforms to allow underrepresented, and often deliberately neglected, experiences to pierce into mainstream discourse, as Marlon Brando famously did in asking Sacheen Littlefeather to speak in his place at the Motion Picture Academy Awards in 1973, bringing needed attention to the conflict at Wounded Knee.

What Brando did might not ring to some as a work of performance art. But, through his acting he was granted immense privilege and attention, and he rightly felt a moral obligation to use that attention to elevate the stories and struggles of others.

The goals and outcomes of these type of actions are not so different than the creation of a piece like a sculpture, a play, a song or a film. It is a natural extension of artistic expression. It follows through on the premise that the status quo is often unjust.

Take Beyoncé. She referenced the Black Panthers on the Super Bowl halftime stage in a politically-pointed performance that was beamed straight into almost every home in the U.S. At Coachella this year, she showcased the traditions of historically black colleges and universities. And she and her husband, Jay-Z, have been outspoken in their comments and body of work about police violence and criminal justice reform.

But her latest use of her platform was a photoshoot on the cover of Vogue. It was shot by Tyler Mitchell, a 23-year-old black photographer whom Beyoncé selected.

Selecting an early-career artist would be enough of a reason to applaud her decision, but it was the fact that he was the first black photographer to shoot the most famous fashion magazine's cover since its inception 126 years ago that made the selection historic. She could have chosen any prominent photographer she wanted, but she understood the politics and was motivated by making change happen — by challenging the status quo.

"Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell," she said

This edition of Vogue might otherwise have come and gone without much fanfare.

Instead, Beyoncé’s decision to use her hard-earned power to uplift another artist and break an absurd lack of black representation in the magazine’s history allowed to her to publicly set a new standard, while giving Mitchell’s work a sense of permanence and urgency.

We may argue about the political content or message in any particular piece of art, but we cannot and should not deny an artist’s right to be political.

Ravi S. Rajan is the president of CalArts. He has extensive background in the production of the arts, music, theatre, dance, film and video. He has served on the Tony Awards Nominating Committee and as president of the Asian American Arts Alliance.