For a long time, I did not ask myself questions about art. Art was intrinsically relevant to me because I was active in an art-related field. It brought me pleasure and I was very interested in its forms. However, some time ago, I started to challenge my initial assumptions. I distanced myself from them and took a mental leap to other media. Then I began to question what we took for granted. Once you step outside your own frame of references, you have the opportunity to look at things differently and ask yourself questions. Consequently, I began to question the position or the power of change art has or can have within a wider constellation of social relationships. More specifically, what does art do in the communities in which we live? Can it be an instrument of political or social emancipation? Does it have this power? Under what circumstances?
The format of an essay does not allow detailed answers to these questions, so what I have in mind is my personal opinion, an obviously modest– and by no means exhaustive – attempt to present two theoretical directions I have identified while studying the relationship between art, politics and society.
The most prolific debates in this regard took place at the Frankfurt School, in the first half of the last century. Various theorists were concerned with the link between the aesthetic realm and society and formed a body of knowledge particularly significant for the cultural and artistic analysis. The volume Aesthetics and Politics (2020) brings together essays and letters by Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács.
I will highlight in particular Bertolt Brecht’s vision expressed in a debate on realism. One fact that many theorists and artists who advocate for socially involved art agree upon is that realism is the form art must take to induce a progressive – or even revolutionary – spirit among people. For them, art must critically explore the social relations existing in the contemporary society, and provide the population with solutions for progress and development. Art must have a social mission.
Brecht was a playwright and often experimented with artistic forms. He believed that we should not follow realistic classical models in our artistic practice, because in that way we would no longer be faithful to the current reality. The complex reality in which we live calls for innovation and experimentation to represent it. Based on his experience with the working classes of his time, from which he sought advice in his work, Brecht said that they understood and felt the need for diversity in artistic expression. The forms of expression had to resonate with how reality made us feel, to involve the masses and give them the tools to escape their allegedly passive position of mere viewers.
In his essay The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière challenges the actor-active and spectator-passive opposition that has often been used as a reason to “reform” art in terms of an artistic practice that involves and motivates the public actively. Rancière describes how looking through a lens that assumes the existence of the distance between the artistic act and the public implies the presupposition of inequality between the two entities. The presupposition that the viewer must be transformed into an active participant implies that looking, reading and meditating on art are passive actions. Rancière explains how the act of translating and understanding an artistic act is a work in itself, one through which the spectator makes connections with their own experience and knowledge. For him, people have the ability to discern and select knowledge from artistic practice; it is not necessary for the artist to resort to paternalistic forms of “activating” the spectator.
Therefore, Rancière encourages artistic practice that is willing to offer autonomy to the public without it taking the form of a “lesson”; such practice could inevitably embrace the methodological principles advocated by Brecht: openness to the use of a heterogeneous range of artistic forms to reflect reality in the plurality of its expressions. Such an approach also gives autonomy to the artists, as their creation would not be limited in form or by any very precise target. It follows that the knowledge involved in the artistic practice can be enriched.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that art’s power of social action should not be understood as direct; as Rancière says, art produces “a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy for action” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009, p. 14).