An Art Affair: The politics of art (column) |

An Art Affair: The politics of art (column)

Washington, D.C., street artists protest government greed on the city walls of the nation's capital.
Courtesy of r.a.b. |

Art and politics have been bosom buddies in the Western culture for as long as people have bothered to take note of such things. The infusion of politics into art reaches back to when the only people who could afford art were the church, royalty and a handful of wealthy families. They were patrons of the arts, with a motive beyond mere art appreciation. Art patronage was for self-promotion and getting your message out to the world. All those gorgeous Renaissance paintings you see in art history textbooks and in museums had a political and social purpose.

Is art still used for gain and self-aggrandizement? Absolutely. You only need to look at the recent spate of celebrity collectors that have been in the news. Beyonce and Jay-Z, with their growing collection, have been huge influences behind the growing interest in African-American artists. This is a column in its own right, though.

When it comes to politics and art, a lot has changed over the centuries. Governments across the spectrum realized the power of art and created propaganda machines to take advantage of that power.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century commissioned artists to create propaganda posters that could be inexpensively reproduced and hung in every small town. The messages were simple and straight-forward; one of the most iconic being “Uncle Sam Wants You.” But there are also ones that many would like to forget, such as the “Uncle Joe Stalin” poster that was printed when the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union.

In the new millennium and the current election cycle, there is a marked shift in how art is being used. As politicians turn to social media and sound bites to get their message across, the visual artist is not being used. After all, you can reach millions of people with a tweet and it’s instant and in the moment.

Artists, perhaps seeing their importance dwindling, have taken matters into their own hands. Shepard Fairey created the “Hope” poster of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama because he supported Obama for president, not because a patron who wanted to create influence commissioned it.

This election cycle has seen an unprecedented amount of election-focused street art popping up in cities and towns both in the U.S. and abroad. Many of the artists remain anonymous and receive no recognition or money for their work. And much of the work is negative. The most well known is a series of anti-Clinton pieces that are reminiscent of Fairey’s “Hope” piece but portray Hilary negatively both in looks and message. And Donald Trump has been the subject of quite a few viral art campaigns. The most notable being the “No Trump” parking signs.

Then there is Bernie Sanders, who has become a favorite of artists. Pro Bernie posters, dolls and paintings have been popping up everywhere. There is even a traveling exhibit to celebrate the pro-Bernie art.

Street artists today are creating political art because they are passionate about a cause or a candidate. They are not being commissioned by wealthy patrons to further their influence nor are they sponsored by the government to promote a cause or influence popular sentiment.

Artists are creating the political art because they are politically aware and are using art as a means to get a message across. When the artist is the one with the message and not a patron’s, is there a difference in the significance of the art and the politics behind it?

The anonymous artists that created the anti-Clinton posters would seem not to have any financial or influential gain by creating the political posters. The artist is anonymous and many street artists, including well-known ones like the artist Banksy, choose to remain anonymous. They don’t want outside pressure and influence interfering with the political and social message behind their work.

The political street art in this election cycle is exciting no matter what your politics are and I can’t wait to see what these artists come up with throughout the 2016 election cycle.

Alexis Bohlander, a Frisco, Colorado resident, has been having an affair with art her entire life. She has a degree in art history and is an art lover, collector and consultant. She is the owner and head consultant of Alexis Paul Art located in Summit County. She can be reached at

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