The Politics of Art

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In an ideal world, there would be little connection between politics and art. In my mind, art of all types is the singular expression of one artist's perception of the world around him – be it sociological, aesthetic, philosophical or political. Overt politics expressed in art tends to turn off half of potential viewers and diminishes what might be a terrific work. Art is the ongoing search for human truth while politics if the ongoing search for some human's power.

The nexus of art and politics has always disturbed me. From the days of World War II and portrayals of the "yellow devils" to other propaganda-driven works throughout our history, this nexus has served politics more than it has art. Just a few years ago, a recorded conversation involving White House staff demonstrated the desire the political class has to control art, when it was asserted that artists seeking NEA support would have a better chance of support if artists' work somehow advanced the political agenda of the President of the United States. We have also seen for years how financial support for artists tends to flow to artists who are amenable to acting as agents of the state.

It's a repugnant tactic with a historical basis – and it is certainly not new.

Through January 5, 2014, the delightful Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman is taking a unique look at how the nexus of art and politics shaped Cold War art in Latin America. While propaganda art from the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have often been explored in exhibits, this exhibit takes a look at another important Cold War part of the world and how art was… influenced to shape public perception and opinion.

From the museum: "During the Cold War, the Organization of American States, formerly the Pan American Union, actively promoted artists from Latin America and the Caribbean that demonstrated affiliation with influential modernist styles such as Constructivism, Surrealism, Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism.

Jose Gomez Sicre, the Visual Arts Specialist of the OAS, exhibited artists sympathetic to international trends in contemporary art with the intention of demonstrating the cosmopolitanism of Latin artists and emphasizing freedom of expression in the American republics.

Libertad de Expresión examines how both the OAS and its cultural institution, the Art Museum of the Americas, advanced Latin American art and democratic values during the Cold War. Ironically, Gomez Sicre’s support for freedom of expression did not include artists of a socialist or communist bent, and he refused to exhibit leftists at the museum.

The exhibition features more than 60 artists, including Joaquin Torres Garcia, Roberto Matta and Jesus Rafael Soto."

This fascinating exhibit is a must-see for scholars seeking a better understanding of the role of the arts in manipulating public opinion. It may also be revealing to those interested in the complex nature of this country's relationships with Latin America. Interestingly, by restricting art communicating Leftist/Marxist messages, the OAS might well have set in motion Leftist activism in Latin America today. Censorship is censorship, no matter the goal, and the end result of the art community is often to revolt against all types of censorship.

Being old enough to remember the Cold War, and being fortunate enough to have traveled to oppressive dictatorships, it isn't a personal distaste for the above-mentioned policy that makes this exhibit most interesting to me. It's the backlash. The act of creating art is not a clinical thing; it's an almost violent struggle with the individual artist's personal perspective and observations combating the need of the aesthetic. I might loathe the messages of collectivism and servitude to the state; but more repulsive to me are any efforts to restrict the observations of true artists. From the example accentuated in this exhibit to today's American policy of financially supporting only counter-culture artists, art and politics are like oil and water. They do not – and should not – ever mix.

This terrific exhibit is a good illustration why that is so.

Libertad de Expresión continues at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art continues through January 5, and is well worth the effort to see – and to study. For more information, visit www.ou.edu/fjjma/.

-Michael W. Sasser is Oklahoma Magazine’s senior editor and an award-winning journalist. For comments or suggestions, reach him at editorsr@okmag.com.