Art, as Activism

If you spend any time on social media, you’ve undoubtedly come across some argument or another where someone is insisting that politics stay out of art.

Remember when Lady Gaga played the halftime show at the Superbowl and everyone praised her for simultaneously not getting political while being incredibly political?

So, perhaps the fact that art can/is/should be political is even a debate is actually an issue with the understanding of what politics are — and what art is in general.

Art is inherently political. It always has been and always will be. Art is culture, and often cultural history. It is a reflection of everything we are in this moment in time. Sometimes it’s how we view history, sometimes it’s how we imagine the future. Art is also inherently political by omission.

That’s the part that a lot of people miss.

Let me illustrate how art can be political by omission. I’ll even use mainstream Hollywood entertainment to make this comparison:

First, watch Hidden Figures. And then watch Apollo 13. (Note: Spoilers ahead!)

Apollo 13 was a wonderful movie when it was made; it was very dramatic, had great writing and beautiful cinematography. Descriptions of the movie say: “Based on the true-story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission…” (And if there’s anything that’s true of humans, it’s that we love things based on true stories). However, there’s a massive omission in the movie. Remember the scene where Tom Hanks’ character devises a navigation method using a single star (“an approach guidance system using a single onboard optical measurement”)?

Well, that wasn’t Tom Hanks’ spaceship saving move after all, but rather Katherine Johnson’s work. Yes, that’s right… the black woman who can be credited with getting John Glenn into space is also responsible for getting Apollo 13 back in one piece. But in the film about her life-saving work it’s rather implied as an idea of a white man, a throw-away thought, rather than a scientific breakthrough. Not only is Johnson’s work erased from this film, if you watch Apollo 13 (especially after Hidden Figures) you’ll see the shocking whiteness of NASA. The events of Apollo 13 take place 12 years after the events of Hidden Figures (and 5 years after NASA desegregated entirely).

So where are the people of color in this movie, and why is Katherine Johnson’s science not accurately represented?

The answer is both simple and complex, and the answer is politics. Don’t believe me? Go research how many black women had leading roles in massive Hollywood movies in 1995.

I’ll wait.

You can say it’s about story or simplicity or editing or drama all you want, but all those things and our ideas of those things are dripping in politics — and that’s because politics are more than policy.

Politics are how we self-govern. Politics are not only government institutions, politicians and representatives, paperwork and elections. Politics are how we communicate with one another, the things we allow and don’t allow, the things we talk about and the things we don’t know how to talk about.

Politics are the rules of society, and art is the culture of that society. There isn’t even a Venn Diagram of where they intersect, but rather they’re constantly interlocking and overlapping, endlessly feeding off of, and informing one another. This is how it has always been.

Art, for art’s sake, is just practice. Whereas art for an audience has a message — and that message includes what you say and what you don’t say. So whenever someone says they prefer their art without politics, just remember, what they’re really saying is that they prefer a representation of our society and culture that is not true to what is happening in our world. I’m as big a fan as any when it comes to fantasy art, but even Harry Potter was political… and that’s part of what made it so great.

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