Yesterday, Ryan Wollard of Plantation, Florida wrote, “Does politically-themed art sell? I specialize in a type of impressionism and nothing gives me more joy than painting blue skies and sandy beaches. But lately my inspiration has come from the world of geopolitics. I’ve painted the riots in France, and several pieces about politicians here in the U.S.A. I find that these paintings exercise my angst and help me to blow off steam. But do people want to hang violence in their dining room?”
Thanks, Ryan. The answer is generally no — and not in the living room either. Geopolitical art in someone’s home is like giving bird flu to Colonel Sanders. There are three main spots where geopolitical art works best: Public galleries, the Internet, and print media.
Some public galleries are looking for “shock and awe.” They too, would like to make a statement. These days there are also strong currents of interest in social responsibility, the environment, anti-war sentiments, and universal love. You have to be careful and think out what you want to say and how you’re going to paint it. Just showing G. W. Bush chucking his cookies on Osama bin Laden won’t always cut it. Think of subtle work that is for the greater good. Be sophisticated. Currently, the public is both curious and frustrated. They like to think someone is doing something about what they helplessly feel is “the situation.” Consider showing your geopolitical stuff to public gallery curators.
The Internet has made possible a brilliant and empowering channel for art. The ultimate in viral democratization, the Internet is the New World Gallery. A drawing, photo, video, or a clever painting, released to go its way like a chain letter, can get copied into the four corners of cyberspace. It’s also possible to get some greens this way. If a million people open it up, you can pay yourself decently with a tiny Google ad.
Then there’s the editorial cartoon — the lampoon, the political gag. Traditionally through print media, for the truly talented there’s potential syndication. My advice is to start locally and get good. And get fast. All the gag writers I know are speedy. Never underestimate the privilege and nobility of political art. “The government,” said Bill Maher, “is being satirized for your protection.”
PS: “I don’t think artists can avoid being political. Artists are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. When we stop singing, it’s a sure sign of repressive times ahead.” (Theresa Bayer) “If everyone would paint, political re-education would be unnecessary.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: The public perception of fine art is mixed with expectations of esthetics and traditional modes of beauty. Some artists see this as unfortunate. Art can be anything it wants to be. But art needs to be hung out in a somewhat receptive context. Not understanding this principle has kept a lot of artists not only angry, but hungry. Ideally, all of us should be free to paint, draw, hang and publish to our heart’s content. But we do not live in an ideal world.
No need for political rage
by Tom Disch, Barryville, NY, USA
A visit to any big museum (or, as you point out, the Internet) offers a host of mostly neglected practitioners of “political” art that transcended mere propaganda. Sometimes a truthful portrait says it all, as with Goya or Velasquez. Contemporary art historians have made a fairly compelling case that a lot of those lyrical river paintings of the Impressionists have a polemical subtext. And what about our friend Norman Rockwell? No one is more deftly political than he. All politics need not be in the key of rage, though if the artist sets to work in that frame of mind, it bodes ill for the work he does.
Value in timelessness
by Richard Nelson, Maui, Hawaii, USA
One possible way of measuring the value of any art or art form is its timelessness. Picasso’s Guernica, possibly the most important painting of the twentieth century, addresses the universal theme of war without specific reference to particulars. We see no dive-bombers, explosions, Nazi symbols or Spanish architecture, the particulars upon which lesser artists dwell. His painting is valid for people of all nations, all times, all political preferences and religions.
Positive energy in art
by Mark Davis, Boise, ID, USA
Everything we paint is a statement about ourselves. If politics is your bag then that may be what you should paint. The landscapes I paint reflect the beautiful places I have been. Sharing them is my message to others that says to keep their energy focused on the positive aspects of our world, which can be difficult with all the horror going on around us. If you believe as I do that positive energy begets positive energy and negative energy begets negative, then I choose to portray positive images.
Visual metaphor in art
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
There are less overt and more subtle ways some painters make political statements in their art, and one of these is the use of visual metaphor. And really there is no reason why people cannot live with artwork like this. It is merely a matter of surrounding oneself with objects that carry meaning vital to one’s own philosophy. I would rather surround myself with objects that cause conversations to come alive with passionate partisanship than with objects which provide a bland backdrop of meaningless, tasteful decoration.
The art must be first
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I am rereading Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. There is a wonderful line about political art in the context of Goya — “First be a magnificent artist and then you can do whatever, but the art must be first.” I too have recently done political art and have found that it’s true — Nice comfortable middle class folk do not want to confront a challenge to their nice comfortable middle class life. Then we go to Mark Twain‘s quote. “My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Ignorance in humanities
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
America is a country whose majority of citizenry refuses to hang on their walls or display on their coffee tables anything that would make or force them to think beyond Shop Till We Drop — bent on not disturbing our inner peace and wishful thinking fantasies that the world is perfect. That’s why abstract imagery, which says nothing offensive, is so prevalent. Of course I do not speak of those that decorate with bunnies and rabbits and fluff art. I have been in numerous multi-million dollar homes with art barely suitable to wallpaper a garage. It simply shows a vast ignorance and lack of education in the humanities. Our educational system is to blame because, fundamentally, it is a private affair and not the government responsibility that it should be.
Geopolitical work adds depth
by Jeffrey Hessing, Niece, France
In the Sixties the artists, more specifically the photographers and musicians, were instrumental in stopping the Vietnam War. Presently the global situation is as bad or worse. American politics continue to shock and shame me. After 35 years of painting only uplifting images I felt it necessary to react, to speak out, with the best means I have, paint. This is not the moment to write love songs and paint for people’s walls unless you see yourself as merely a decorator. I know Mirandi continued to paint his bottles throughout World War II and I have not abandoned landscape painting. I found I can do both. They are not mutually exclusive, just different facets of myself expressed through my work. The geopolitical pieces add depth and scope to my overall body of work. Many people feel it is my best and most important work and though there are certainly fewer people who would buy it, the few who have considered it are willing to pay ten times more than for a landscape. Finally, if you are an artist you must paint what is in your heart without regard to the public.
Marketing of fear
by Brian L. Jones, Cortaro, AZ, USA
Avoiding political influence in our thinking as artists is nearly impossible in this plugged-in media-stimulated world. The powers that control that industry seem intent on keeping the synapse of the populace crackling with emotion spasms. The emotion of choice is fear. Political and media producers utilize the marketing of fear more than any other to stimulate support for this or that program.
In past decades, paintings were the media of their day. Historically, paintings like The Raft of the Medusa brought the emotional truth of an event to the public’s conscience because no other media could do it so profoundly. Stravinsky’s music started riots for much the same reason. These works posited the value of every human life for its unique contribution to society and mourned the loss of value for the individuality that makes human life rich. Since the camera, photojournalists have taken this task and the artist’s responsibility to communicate has been greatly lessened.
Someone has to paint it
by Luz Maria Perez, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Politically-themed art does sell — you just have to find the right buyers. Without having seen Ryan’s work, I’m going to say that perhaps he is giving it the wrong title. What about all the paintings of the Civil War? I wouldn’t mind owning a few pieces to hang in my home, even if they do show bloody war fields. And what about Jose Clemente Orozco and the Mexican Revolution? What about all the early work of artists who painted the Indians/Cavalry killing and fighting each other?
Someone has to paint the revolutions. Someone has to paint the war in Iraq. Someone has to paint about AIDS. Some of these works are so powerful that you are moved to tears. It brings to mind a very poignant painting done by Dean Mitchell as his grandmother lay dying in the hospital — I believe it just sold in the hundreds of thousands — and he did this not to sell, but because she really meant something to him. One of my favorite artists here in California, Elin Pendleton, has just completed 2 paintings of her mother as she rests comfortably. They are not for sale but both speak volumes to me as both have the universal theme that all our parents have gone through. Personally, I have one which I would never sell because it is of my son’s experience and my personal reactions to his death.
Message hinders personal vision
by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA
If one’s primary goal is to create an image that is true to a message, more often than not one must sacrifice the small passages and subtle shifts a painting must go through to achieve visual transcendence. This is why so little commercial art crosses the boundary into the fine art arena: its ultimate goal is to satisfy concerns that lie outside the artist’s personal vision. Passion and love, when communicated visually, are what make some work stand out from the crowd. I say paint those paintings anyway, if this energy is a fruitful source of inspiration, push it to the edge and when you get to the essence of it there will be someone waiting to hang it in their dining room.
Politics can offer hope
by Helen Webber, Berwyb, PA, USA
For 30+ years I have been making my living and supporting my family through my art, working with interior designers and architects — the main medium being fabric collage tapestry. They have been mainly decorative with some hint of social content through the occasional use of poetic words combined with an expressionistic figurative style.
But in my heart I have longed to use my art to reach people on another level and have been thinking of ways to use my work to express directly my feelings on some vital issues, like peace and the environment. My thought is that political expressions can be positive, and uplifting, and may have an appeal in offering hope as opposed to the prevailing pessimistic despair.
Focus on the future
by Dalah Faytrouni, San Fernando Valley, CA, USA
I have been lately very involved in documenting the history of my beloved country Lebanon through the war the year I was born in 1975 until lately the ups and downs and when I do paint these paintings I know they may not be important to some but as an artist it does fulfill my need to express and mark my world in an important issue and we are lucky as artists to express any subject, and for me when I do my series I learn to let go of the painful history and focus on the future.
Political paintings controversy
by Leslie Hoops-Wallace, Bonaire, GA, USA
I have done a few political paintings. It started with 9/11 — that painting haunted me until I got it done. Then every time something big would happen, everyone would ask, “Are you going to paint that?” I am normally a wildlife and pet portrait artist, but sometimes life gets in the way. My political American Chaos painting sold quite a few prints, and still does come every September, when I bring it back out again. It used to get hung around Warner Robins, from City Hall to the Base, and Aviation Museum. Last year someone complained about it hanging at city hall, so they took it down. I have had several people say they did not like it because Bin Laden was in it. But that was the first time someone complained, saying it was against America, which it is not!
Hidden political messages
by Dusanka Badovinac, the Netherlands
I just had to make a comment on this one as being myself a victim of political circumstances. I paint like crazy because of all that and only painting helps me live the normal life. In the same time I think that artist must have his way of criticizing political situations but on artistic emotional way. I don’t think that you should expect somebody buying it until you become Picasso…
I taught myself to hide that political message making it all very personal. For example being a Serbian woman in this time when the Serbians are demonized as rapists and killers I like to make my self-portrait without head but with some national symbols not very recognizable to others. I am enjoying in fact that people see something very much different than that. They have their story, but I know about that story of mine. What is even better, I like to make a very happy peaceful looking painting of landscape in Toscana… (grass) but in my movement while painting, action with knife and my nails I put all the anger and helplessness and sadness. And again people like that painting very much and they can not even dream about what was going on with me while painting.
Those are maybe strange ways of criticizing situation in the world… I also realise that I am being very small nobody in this big world and I have no chance to feel my self heard. So this is my way of learning to deal with it. If my message on painting become very personal and obvious and too much to bear I clean the paint away, and I feel better.
Work evolves in private, ostrich place
by Sheila Grabarsky, Long Branch, NJ, USA
As a highly sensitive person, I am more than despondent about the current world-state. I often ask myself how I can express my upset in my work. And then, I hit the easel and wind up with lovely delicious colors, intense ones, and often even serenity, joy, happiness. How can this be? Because my work has evolved from my life experience. I may be upset as heck about politics, religiosity, ecology, etc. etc. but in my private, ostrich place called my studio, as well as in my personal life I am finally at peace. And it reveals itself in my more recent work, as opposed to my paintings of years ago; tumultuous, head-banging, raucous and therapeutic. How I have evolved in my personal life is what is showing. It’s my antidote to the world.
Happier doing political art
by Rose Moon, Sedona, AZ, USA
It is getting harder and harder for art with context to find venues, much less sell. I used to be involved with the local artist coalition who had shows each year addressing some human rights issue, but the moment we let down our guard a new committee took over the exhibition and changed it into yet another decorative art show. So a few of us band together to have our own show which will open at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, Arizona in June called The Sky IS Falling. It will be up for a little over two months. Maybe we won’t sell much, but when I used to go into my studio and paint to sell I got bored. It became a contest of techniques. I gave it up and now I feel driven, excited and I know who I am as an artist. Political art hangs in my house and studio and people love it. People call and ask if they can come over and see it and bring friends. I once had 3 pieces hang in Flagstaff City Hall for six months. Political art can be beautiful too. I make my money doing graphic design, teaching and with occasional sales. The same as when I painted to sell. I am just happier.
Can’t escape the obvious
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA
Artists are in the ‘business’ of expressing themselves… Those who isolate their concerns, who feel little need to articulate a viewpoint based upon their own belief systems, or their own geo-political surroundings, may have missed the boat. The landscape artist can’t escape the obvious crush upon nature by the touch of human processes governed by politics and greed. Artists portraying American children must recognize the growing obesity issues of our newest generation. How many of us rendering cityscape skylines have had to consider how to express (or ignore) the smog that also infiltrates or obliterates the renderings being prepared? The means to express an artist’s concerns while still purveying their work into the homes of buyers may not be as difficult as one could suppose. A series of works, with subtle thinking, can be taken together in understanding the core of your motivations. Meanwhile, your work noiselessly makes it to the ‘Living Room Wall.’ Educating the consumer requires many small steps. Expressing an ‘Idea’ may also be conveyed using ‘tender notions.’ Such is the ‘food for thought’ when considering any artist’s overall body of effort.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Coulter Watt of Quakertown, PA, USA who wrote, “In Picasso’s day, when he painted the violence of the Spanish Civil War, there was no television to make the violence and outrage of war palpable. Besides, who wants to live with yesterday’s news — not me. I want to live in a positive, uplifting environment.”
And also Brent Brown of Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada who wrote, “To me, a message, political or otherwise, is the difference between a painter and an artist. I can paint beautiful landscapes, but am I really saying anything? When my work has no message, I’m just a painter. I guess that’s fine with me.”
And also MK Soni who wrote, “Thanks for the message. Frankly I am a peace lover and would not like violence of any kind to be depicted. I only suggest love and peace to spread through depicting nature like green valleys, rainbows, spring season, gay moods.”
And also Skye McLeod who wrote, “I don’t mean to ruffle your feathers but there is a vast globe of tastes on this planet that is unaccountable from the norm and we have to respect that.”