A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2023 proposition, “Art must be political.”
Symbols are inherently political—a representation of any kind must contain some thesis. All names and visual representations are symbols to someone, or could be. So long as something can be perceived, it can be named. If it can be named by even one person, it can be imbued with symbolism; there need not be a broad consensus as to its meaning. When you look at something for the first time, your mind is hard at work making inferences about it and typifying it in accordance with your prior knowledge and the context in which it is situated. Upon reexamination, it is the created symbol which you perceive, a learned argument for what the envisioned collection of pixels is as a whole. It is our ability to find difference and commonality in our perceptions that charges the symbol with political energy.
What is the difference between a symbol and a work of visual art? One distinction is that a work of art combines a plurality of symbols that invite multiple interpretations, whereas logos or political icons aim to communicate only one. Another is the interrogative nature of art, as opposed to the explanatory nature of other symbols. The plurality in this case might be considered in terms of questions and answers. A political symbol invokes specific questions with specific answers—the right answers. There is a mysterious way in which this symbolic potential translates to a sense of infinity in art and a distinct finiteness in ordinary symbols. In general, there is a sense in which symbols are inadequate and fallible, incapable of expressing complex ideas and feelings, an ineffability that is apparent in the impotence of both words and imagistic symbols. They’re too easily misunderstood, too political. It’s almost as if art is really a desperate attempt to transcend this political nature and find something personal, perfect, and real—the true identities of things beneath their public, political ones. Nevertheless, the objects manipulated still retain their public identities, so can their symbolism be truly subverted?
Consider abstract visual art, which can only be superficially understood through a search for literal symbols. Abstract art appears to be the epitome of this desperately-sought transcendence. But does this make it apolitical? It seems inconceivable that a splatter painting could have traces of the political unless someone were to project symbols onto its surface. Abstract art might be said to symbolize emotions, mental experiences that are subjective and, likely enough, unique. In being subjective, a specific feeling is incommunicable, and therefore without a symbol. Emotions are involuntary experiences and therefore beyond judgment: feeling one way or another cannot be right or wrong. Of course, people judge, and thereby politicize, feelings, but they do so under the guise of judging actions, or opinions that are actionable. This is the revolutionary thing about abstract art: in it there can be neither guise nor judgment. There is no rationale put forth and so there can be no objection. But it is here that thinking in terms of the “political” begins to show its limits. Distinguishing abstract art as inherently apolitical implies a fundamental difference between it and other genres, though it doesn’t seem to have fundamentally different effects or powers. In other words, I believe that politics are contingent, rather than essential to art.
In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter that images cannot be wiped clean of their webs of preconception in order to refract an artist’s inner “truth” if they still strike in a new way. It is almost as if in compiling and arranging symbols in order to create, one blurs the pixels, redraws the lines, and creates one single, original form, uniformly comprehended. It is this idea which generates tension in the concept of “creation.” True creation is impossible. There is only the organizing, curating, and collecting of things. It is this absurdity of our existence amongst objects that is most literally, though not most powerfully, conveyed in abstract art’s deconstruction of symbols into mere lines, colors, and points. I have been speaking in terms of visual art, but this easily applies to sound and movement. So, in the sense that all names and representations are symbols, “art” itself is a symbol, and, therefore, political. It simultaneously symbolizes our disgust with politics and the futility of our resistance against the political.
For all intents and purposes,