The Sheldon Museum of Art has opened its doors to all types of art, including concert posters from the age of psychedelia, a sculpture of what appears to be a phallus and photos imitating Mastercard commercials. All of these pieces bring to mind the question: is that art?
This, of course, is an unanswerable question. The artist, by his or her very nature, broadens art’s scope. In music, John Cage took this idea to its fullest realization with the piece “4’33”,” which is performed by opening a piano, playing no notes for a full four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and closing it. Cage’s argument with this piece is that music can be any sound, even the absence of sound.
As such, it is not worth asking if something is art, but whether or not it is valuable. When one makes politically thematic art, that art may lie anywhere between Bob Dylan’s anti-war songs and a poster one might’ve found on a wall in Stalin’s Soviet Union. On the latter end, where the art serves primarily as propaganda, it should not be deemed valuable, or at least not as worthy to stand beside the works of great artists such as Norman Rockwell or Georgia O'Keeffe.
This problem of art that serves primarily as political propaganda is exemplified by a piece recently acquired by the Sheldon Museum of Art, “Vote” by Julian Schnabel. Schnabel’s “Vote” takes a silkscreen print of an existing Baroque painting and paints the word “vote” in black over it. Schnabel’s other additions include blotches of white paint, perhaps to charitably grant permission to call the work something other than a copy and paste edition of the original painting.
Even if Schnabel had painted the background himself, the piece would still not be wondrous. No matter the case, the piece gives the viewer an order: go vote. By centralizing a duty of the viewer over the artistry and meaning of the work, the artist denigrates his own painting.
This type of political aggrandizement masquerading as artistic creation is not on par with the work of an esteemed artist. That is unless one considers the painting of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer and declaring “I want you” in the same province as Raphael, in which case other purely political art, including Schnabel’s piece, would follow suit.
If such art isn’t on par with the work of artists typically found in museums, it begs the question of whether this art is similarly worthy to stand in a museum.
The artists we idolize, who we go to see and love to read or listen to, often revolutionized what the dominant idea of art was in their day and made it new. The very thing that makes such revolutionary art valuable, despite its subversion of traditional aesthetic ideals, is the recreation of artistic ideals with the potential for beauty, wonder, mysticism, mystery or sublimity.
Even artists like Marcel Duchamp, who famously placed a urinal in an exhibition and displayed it as art, did something interesting. Though his work manifested no sense of beauty, it opened the mind to confusion, bemusement and theorization.
What then is valuable to us about art? Consider that when we house works of art in museums, it is not only for public viewing, but more so for that work’s preservation. Our experience in a museum is nothing less than spiritual; the political, by comparison, is less universal in what it provides its viewers. In art, the political can never create this kind of religious experience provided by paintings and stories of gods, heroes and lovers. Since the politically objective demands only one interpretation, it cannot foster the same sense of mystery, wonder or religiosity.
The creation of propaganda, furthermore, promotes social systems and didactically enforces that we respond to that art in a way the creator desires. In the case of Schnabel, his exhortation to “vote” does precisely this. This art is not focused on the challenging of norms, presentation of visual beauty or creation of catharsis in the viewer. Rather, its only purpose is to influence political ideas and actions.
One might argue the political folk songs of Bob Dylan possess qualities of propaganda on account of his ardent anti-war lyricism. However, even songs such as “Masters of War” and “Only a Pawn in their Game” leave room for uncertainty of action and response. In both, he tells stories not to simply compel the listener to go do something (which is what propagandic art does) but to share the experience of the American poor against the war machine in which he lives.
Beauty, wonder or mystery within anything can and should lead us to the contemplation of higher things, of what is good and what is best, of what is beyond us and of what we know and do not know. In the sublime, we see something within the human capacity that is divine. When I see someone write “vote” on a printed painting, I see political propaganda spread over what was once a fairly pretty piece. Let us hope the next generation of artists will attempt to bring us to tears, not to the ballot box.