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The White Pube, by Megan Winstone
The White PubePhotography Megan Winstone

Should your art be political? The White Pube advise

In their latest Dazed column, art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad question the place of politics in art

In their ongoing Dazed Voices column, art writers and curators The White Pube answer your burning questions about the industry, in a way only they can

Anonymous: i believe strongly in social justice and equality but is it acceptable to ignore these things in my artwork? i find protest art or issue-based art preachy, boring and unlikely to reach any audiences who don't already agree with it. its also usually pretty one dimensional and objectively bad as art.

The White Pube: TLDR;; it is completely fine to ignore politics in the subject of your artwork, but I do not think it is wise to ignore it in your wider practice as an artist/or just generally your life.

It is pretty impossible to get away with not knowing how bad life is right now. the world is heating up, literal child hero Greta Thunberg is trying to fight for responsible government action, and at the same time farmers are burning down the actual Amazon rainforest so they can use the land for cattle. and now there’s a big bad forest fire. I’m not panicking you are. Alsooooo, Boris Johnson is the prime minister of the UK and still no justice for Grenfell. Rise in transphobia, islamophobia, all the phobias, everywhere. kids getting stabbed in england and over in the US, hispanic people are being targeted by mass shooters who write shitty manifestos on 8chan to their sweaty incel peers. children being separated from parents, put into detention centres and then you see their faces when they’re being reunited and the babies are confused and blank, hardly recognising their own families anymore. all for racism!!!! ALSO have you seen what’s happening in Sudan? And this straight from the UN’s own website: ‘22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, an estimated 17.8 million are food insecure.’ For context, Yemen has a total population of 28.25 million.

these are at the surface of my mind this evening as I write my reply to you. Maybe they scare me most, or maybe these are the sociopolitical events I am most read up on. I haven’t even touched on the wider shape of the world; of capitalism, billionaires, colonialism and imperialism. But there will be plenty I haven’t covered and new things tomorrow; big, small, local, and very far away. It’s massive isn’t it. it’s too much. Like, I’m the type of stupid person that watches BBC breakfast every morning for some reason. I fall deep. the 24 hour news cycle has got me by the (eye)balls. Oliver Burkeman published a text recently about how the news has taken over reality, describing how we get so stuck in observing these events play out that we are paralysed by political events instead of being active in them (whether that is through support or protest). i definitely feel this happening to me, where I’m not sure what purpose it serves me watching news channels or keeping up to date with anything. I mean, the amazon is on fire??? i just stay stunned. it’s as tho so much information has gone into my head that there’s a standstill on the factory line. Tbh - and this is cheesy b warned - this is why I turn to art for an escape. whether that art is found in weird youtube videos, Super Mario Odyssey on Nintendo Switch, or whole ass exhibition visits, i look to these things for a mindlessness to punctuate the noise of the earth crashing into the sun.

“id be careful about asking yourself how much you want the world to progress vs. how much you want to be SEEN as someone who wants the world to progress. I’d ask what’s the point in your art, for real” – The White Pube

How come the news is so gripping but Political Art is always dead? I do not think artists should feel the pressure to focus their work on the political for a few different reasons.

  1. Artists can’t compete. Political art feels off because the news is just so much better at delivering info - designed and built for that purpose, greatly staffed, researched, and reaching a tonne of people over various literal channels, slants, and localities u can tune into. I don’t see the point in the category of Political Art that simply relays a piece of info, and ye, I would worry a solo artist in her studio trying to do the same thing on a shoestring would be a waste of time.
  2. Artists being like ouchy this is how the Bad News makes me feel, feels, bad. Twitter and Comedians are better at emoting, you know. Somehow memes are a better vehicle for this line. tho maybe i am just concerned with issue…
  3. Maybe political art comes off preachy and cringey because to be an artist is a privileged thing in itself so having to hear from artists on how they feel about a political situation makes me… suspicious. Who are you? What are you doing? I’m so distrusting of politics within aesthetics, like - Gilbert and George adopt this very political agrit-prop look and surprise surprise, from all accounts they are very middle class suited and booted tories. 2 white men demanding we look at them; raising their own image up in this stained glass, fascist style as if they are holy and powerful. And too often, that’s all it is. When this art is not just a powersuit for the artist's own existence, it’s virtue signalling so everyone knows they’re a goooood person with good politics.

I think Political Art can be great but it has to be so careful to get it right, and unfortunately dodgy practice pervades; public practice art projects that only serve the person whose name is biggest on the bill instead of the community they claimed to be collaborating with; art about the environment that is actually wasting a tonne of material etc. Most of the political art that is on this more nuanced end of the spectrum is too quiet when it’s good, and instead the bigger names that are heavy handed w their approach give the rest of the genre a bad rep. There’s also the fact that, say u wanna make this art and it’s got a political message and ow you wanna do it in The Right Way, you’ve got to concede that if that work ends up in a gallery, most gallery-goers are the shit rich people ruining the world anyway and i dunno if they’re going to engage with your art in the way they should. So, how much can you really change Banksy?? there’s something about the way aesthetics alone feels submissive or passive that I’m not convinced it’s the best way to go when it comes to Being An Artist and Being Political. unless your piece is so specific and charged in its aim - a la Forensic Architecture applying art approaches to research and then bringing that to the court room to sue for human rights violations etc. - i’d feel like I was never making a dent.

if this matters to you id be careful about asking yourself how much you want the world to progress vs. how much you want to be SEEN as someone who wants the world to progress. I’d ask what’s the point in your art, for real. I’d ask can u work collectively to achieve more because art is mostly small p political and maybe aesthetiqqqqqs alone are ill-equipped to deal with big P Politics, and really transform things. I’d also ask what you are doing to call out bad stuff on the daily. And I’d remind u there are plenty of artists who do not make Political Art but who act political; who work for this industry and other ones to be better, who support marginalised people, who share, make things transparent + fight the fight. I feel like this is some messy food for thought but i hope it is helpful, and i’m glad it is on your mind at the v least - I think for me my mind has shifted 2 bigger sweeping moves rather than throwaway art-bits. The shape of this all, rather than its pores close up. anyway fuck boris i cannot believe he is the prime minister, jfc my mind has truly not caught up with that one yet!!!!