An Ancient Love Affair
Published in Weekendavisen. 3 November 2022. By Augusta Atla
(Link to the original text in Danish)
Arm’s length. Even Susanne Bier must accept the fact that politicians are inevitably involved in art – and vice versa.
On 26 October 2022 I attended a cultural policy summit at Charlottenborg Kunsthal. I left dumbfounded, having witnessed top figures in Danish cultural life deny or skip the discourse about the innate political nature of art. After all, is it possible to amputate the activist element from the essence of art? If an artistic elite cannot or does not dare to talk about art and politics, how can one expect politicians to prioritise and discuss art in an electoral campaign?
Susanne Bier kicked off the culture summit by insisting on isolating the discussion on art from deeper discussion on politics. She wanted art to be discussed in a “free” space, and Bier actually meant scorning art as activism and the use of art as activism, and denying politicians the right to get involved in art. Anyone with a basic knowledge of art history, philosophy and contemporary art knows that this ‘apolitical’ rhetorical space is an impossibility. The fact that politicians grant state subsidy to art automatically invests them with a role in the world of art.
In this geographical part of the world, the artist has freedom of expression, but a work of art also has a direct physical relationship with the world (museum, art gallery, Internet, cinema, radio, film streaming, theatre, concert hall, educational institution, library etc.). These contexts, and particularly the places where the state provides support or takes action, are important to discuss and highlight, especially when it comes to diversity.
A culture will always be reflected in its art. Art and politics constantly evolve in tandem. Art history contains tons of examples – for good and bad – of how, ever since the birth of Europe and democracy in antiquity, art and politics have been inseparable. The notion of the perfect, muscular male body in ancient Greek sculpture was invented literally to promote a physical ideal for young men to follow. Together with The Olympic Games, the sculptures were intended to instil a desire in people (men) to be strong and healthy. There was compulsory military service for the young men of Athens, and they could be mobilised at any time.
Theatre was also invented by the Greeks to keep their democratic society, human body and mind healthy. The huge ancient Greek amphitheatre of Epidaurus could hold an audience of 14,000 people, watching dramas and listening to music in festivals lasting several days. In ancient times, the belief was that theatre could boost the population’s mental health by debating morality and ethics in the plays.
For a time, once Christianity replaced the pagan gods of antiquity with a single God, theatre became less popular as the focal point of a society. Works of art were now expected to extol Christianity and its ideas. Churches became the new ‘theatres’, and plays were replaced by the scriptures of the Bible. Many of the masterpieces we know today from art history were created with the church as patron, context and mediator. One example of the fact that art did not yet have freedom in the Renaissance is the burning by the Church (ordered by Savonarola) of hundreds of Botticelli’s paintings, on the grounds that they still depicted pagan motifs. Botticelli’s beautiful Primavera (c. 1480) is one of the few of his works that escaped the Church’s bonfire – perhaps because it hung in the private chambers of a merchant in Florence.
Long before Italy was unified as a single country, Renaissance culture also used art to promote the wealth of a family and to instil fear and awe vis-à-vis a single family. Art history contains a myriad of portraits of European aristocrats in all their pomp and power. The growth of trade in Europe led to the emergence of a middle class and a brand new elite – no longer aristocrats or princes, but merchants. This meant that art was suddenly the province of the merchant class, liberated from the Church as a patron and rule-maker.
With the growing social unrest in Europe and the French Revolution, art passed from those in power to the opposition. Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, which depicts the French flag as the flag of the people during the French Revolution, is a great example of how painting could play an active part in a revolution.
19th-century artists painted pictures of the poor and their conditions with the express aim of remedying social injustices. The exhibition Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain showed how art in 19th-century England aimed to create better conditions for people – how painting served as political activism. Similarly, countless books in the history of literature expressed opposition to the establishment. James Joyce opposed Roman Catholicism in Ireland, Charles Dickens the heartless class structure of England, and Martin Andersen Nexø the conditions of the poor and the class system of Denmark c. 1900 etc. etc. Nowadays there are countless contemporary artists, for whom art, democracy and activism inextricably linked.
Take, for example, Shirin Neshat. Her works tackle gender equality and women’s rights in her native Iran – a country to which she cannot return, which is why she lives in exile in New York. Art and politics are not dangerous companions – they are inseparable and in a state of constant metamorphosis. What is dangerous is not talking about this symbiotic relationship. Silence engenders not only unconscious contexts for art, but also a false picture of the essence of art as apolitical.
The more aware a culture is of its values and dreams, the more art can refine and develop these values in a society. And why pass up this opportunity when we have this incredible instrument called art? Art amplifies and accelerates everything we put into it. If we put in appropriate virtues, the magic of art refines and develops them. Art can keep our democracy healthy by providing ‘temples’ for people – for reflection, diversity, self-criticism and new ideas - thereby actually preventing the spread of fascism. It can even boost our empathy and - in commune with nature - generate ideas.