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ART vs Politics ... Is political art turning you off?

Is political art turning you off? I guess to most artists who haven't really been under the shoe of oppression might think that making political is boring, limiting and overused. I was asked in my thesis defense, "Haven't the art world had enough of Black beauty?" I am paraphrasing but you get the meaning of the question. What does one say to a question like that? When we look at beauty magazine covers on news stands few if any have a Black face on the cover. In the current issue of InStyle magazine featuring Kerry Washington  the editors thought "lightening her skin" was acceptable. Her beauty wasn't in question, her skin tone was. I think art and politics go hand and hand, it's the "politics of respectability." Below is segment of my views on gaining respectability through the use of grotesque imagery.

The Grotesque in Art History
Theorists and historians have explored the social and cultural contexts
of the grotesque in art history through the lens of the Western idea of beauty.
This critical examination has shown how artists have used grotesque imagery to challenge complex issues and traditions in a modern society that cherishes and rewards beauty. Grotesque images have a tendency to contradict common realities and push cultural boundaries beyond what society is accustomed to. There are several characteristics associated with grotesque images like humor, trauma, distortion, and ugliness. These are tools used to satisfy the need for humanity to recognize and engage others in social and political dialogues. Also, grotesque images have a propensity to raise questions and at times speak for the invisible in communities. Clearly, one of the most intriguing aspects of using grotesque images is that they are very visceral and give a unique approach to issues of identity.

Many artists have used this medium to express issues of misogyny, racism, poverty, and mortality. One of those artists is the 17th century painter English William Hogarth (1697-1764) who used realistic portraiture and comic strip like images to act as a political agent and social critic. At the very core his work challenges poverty and classism. Hogarth’s work ran the gamut from deliberate, exaggerated forms to beautiful painted portraiture of everyday people. Hogarth challenged classism by arguing that an artist’s function was to uncover social norms that were politically, morally and socially unfair and did not include all
its citizens. Hogarth posits, “His works should not be viewed as ‘contemptible caricatures’   but a new genre that was in ‘between the sublime and the grotesque.’”  In other words, he championed the notion that the grotesque features merely brought attention, humanity and honor to the common worker. 
Theoretically, he used his works as provocation to expose the similarity that existed in all humans, which enable us to see ourselves in other people.
By invoking Foucault’s ideologies with respect to power, Hogarth’s caricatures’ darker, serious sides were intended to be a symbol of the result of the damage conflict, or lack of power that was put on a particular group or person(s). The same can be said of Kenya born artist Wangechi Mutu (1972) whose works challenge notions of the surreal, beauty and human grotesque forms. Like Hogarth, Mutu constructs her images in ways that communicate a social injustice that presents itself in today’s society. The outward appearances of her works evoke a powerful emotional response from the viewer when examining the relationships of identity and humanity. Prompted by the ideas of sexuality, cruelty and beauty Mutu’s horrific yet imaginative works empower the women in them by giving agency to the voiceless and marginalized. Mutu’s use of cut out pieces from fashion and pornography magazines to translate grotesque images into social commentary acts in the same way as Hogarth’s drawings and paintings. Both Mutu and Hogarth used their work to create visibility for the invisible by shortening the distance between culture, social structure and gender. The collage images Mutu uses show fractures as well as harmony, which allow the viewer to move beyond the embodied grotesque to see humanity in the faces of the women she creates. In order to reach for a greater universal truth we must explore both the effects and the social politics of beauty. 

I believe that all art is political, you just have to look closer when viewing it. Check out the dailyserving latest article on Art and Politic.


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