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Non-political Art Does Not Exist  2017

The term ‘Political’ signifies the fine art or science of government but refers to political parties, justice, property, rights and law. It’s also categorizing cultural constructs introduced by authorities (such as race, gender, sexuality, class) which are used as ways of labeling people. These labels introduced things like gender and racial based prejudice. Throughout history, anything distinguished and aboriginal in the way of creative thought was a jarring hitch and a step toward revolution in the eyes of authority. Separation of art and politics is a result of downgrading artists into specialized disciplines, in order to inflict an unnatural split on artist’s subject matter. So what actually makes a piece of artwork non-political? Does it simply have to have no rebellious notions? Can it take the same form as political art? When planning for this essay I searched for artists whose work had no relation to politics. The artist Benedict Drew was someone who I Initially thought had no association with politics. After seeing her exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery[1], I did further research into her work and it soon became apparent that it didn’t exist in isolation from politics as it explores matters of “Socio-political and environmental issues”[2].  So after making this conclusion, I spent time trying to find a different non-political artist. Every artists that came to mind was in some way influenced by the time in which they lived and so I failed to find an artist whose work had no relation to the world around them, which would almost naturally become political. 


This justified my opinion, that there is no such thing as non-political art as society inflicts its political controversiality onto the arts, even when an artwork or artist isn't confrontationally political. Political art appears across history, as the artist and artwork is a reflection of the time period in which it is exists. Revolutionary ways of thinking have surfaced first among artists/creatives. Political art can be a force of social observation and can even shift social norms and ways of seeing the world, for the people of its time and future in the case of Contemporary Art. I'm going to look at Martine Syms’s piece The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto[3]  and compare it to Arthur Jaffa’s piece Love is the message the message is death[4] to see which I consider less political (rather than non-political) and does this mean that they should be evaluated differently and how? The title of Sarah Lowndes book ‘All art is political’ is George Orwell’s quote from his book Politics and English Language’[5] where Orwell states “In our age, there is no such thing as keeping out of politics”[6]. I agree with this statement and have researched into this issue.


Arthur Jafa is an African American, political, contemporary cinematographer based in Los Angeles (born 30 November 1960 in Tupelo, Mississippi, USA) who calls attention to issues of Oppression of African Americans, historically and contemporarily. He reflects society's abuse, neglect and lack of sympathy for black people today and in the past. Jafa uses the expression ‘the alien familiar’ to describe the inherent bizarre characteristics of the life of a black person. I first saw Arthur Jafa’s ‘Love is the message the message Is Death’ at The Serpentine Gallery, where his show consisted of wearing headphones and going around to watch each short video collage. Love is the message the message Is Death contains footage of police violence, rappers, civil rights marches, dancers, politicians and sports stars. The piece holds you on the edge of laughter, tears, fury and nostalgia from start to end.


He demonstrates black people doing everyday things, like teens dancing in clubs, a woman driving her car, a man singing. At first I found it baffling why it’s so risky or radical to depict a black person in a public space or moving. These are mundane activities, everybody moves around. However, Jafa collages these activities with contrasting horrific clips: a white policeman’s unprovoked attack on a young black female. This really highlights the hardships of ‘the alien familiar’. Yet, he also celebrates the beauty and power of ‘the alien familiar’ by demonstrating the immense achievement and talents of black people, regardless of political oppression. This is evident in Rebecca Walker’s quote “Blackness is an ineffable aesthetic that can be traced back to a place, or a people and a culture. Black influence is everywhere in America, but often accused of being unknown and unknowable. But I know it when I see it”[7]. We see it in ‘Love is the message the message is death’[8] and many people leave the screening knowing the power and beauty of black culture that society denies and Jafa manages to highlight elegantly.


In addition, depending on which part of the room the individual viewer is sitting, the works worth is differed. If the viewer is of colour, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, the label you fit into determines what history you carry in you. For example, if a black male is viewing this piece, it is likely to hit a nerve that may be less touched by a white man. ‘We carry history in ways that other people don’t, as bodies of the post colonies’[9] this is connected to prosthetic memory theory (introduced by Alison Landsberg). We are inhabited by and carry around history and memories that are not our own lived experience. I believe this is the case with every race and gender. That are inherited or perhaps even genetic. It is the same as if the viewer is male. Violence against and the media’s demonization of black men is something hugely reflected and juxtaposed in Jafa’s film. My question is, would an African American woman be touched by this as much as the direct victim of these abuses?


In contrast to Arthur Jafa’s subject matter, Martine Syms (an African American performance and video artist) explores the position of African American women. So would an African American man value Martine Sym’s work, as much as an African American woman? She was born in 1988 and grew up in Los Angeles. Her work is based around the black experience in America and she calls herself a “conceptual entrepreneur” rather than a conceptual ‘artist’. Syms work simply could not exist in isolation from politics as we live in a world where just by simply being alive Syms is put into the category ‘African American’ which is subject of racism.


The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto is an overall humorous approach to highlighting their values, what they recognize, promise and rejoice. She talks about the past oppression of black people, reflecting on the slave trade, about what we are to expect and hope for, for Black people in the future. Syms recognizes ‘the possibilities of a new focus on black humanity: our science, technology, culture, politics, religion, individuality, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.’ Although I feel this is a piece for the demographic of anyone and everyone, its value varies for the viewer depending on their race. More specifically, if the viewer is non-white, this topic would be more relatable and so the non-white viewer would maybe take more time evaluating this work. Although generally this may be the case, it’s not always the case. A white person, well-educated and experienced on issues of racism and oppression of non-whites, may evaluate and hold the value of this work, very high.


I also was having a small debate with myself, when I was choosing to use The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto in my essay, as to whether it should be evaluated as a piece of art or a piece of literature. Or if it should be evaluated as both? Does this change its value? Only until a few centuries ago, literature wasn’t regarded as an art in the same way as painting for example and It is not yet regarded equally, but this is progressing. I chose to refer to The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto as a piece of art because it has the same pungent style and subject matter to most of her works, but at the same time, I recognize its existing medium to be literature. As it is written in Martine Syms voice, when reading The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, it’s as if Martine Syms is sitting behind your computer screen reading it to you. The format in which it exists (on her website) makes the experience intimate because there is room for only you to read it on your screen. When looking at her other works on her website, you get the same feeling of intimacy. However, when watching her film ‘Incense and Ice’ [10]the atmosphere was not intimate because of the other 100 people sitting with you in the room. When seeing her work at the Raven Row gallery[11], the experience was intimate, more like that of reading the Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. The room was an installation/set with three screens facing in at each other. The room would only allow 10 people comfortably inside it in order the see the 360 visuals of ‘  ‘ talking directly to you.  The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto loses no value because it is a piece of literature rather than a film or painting. This is because it’s unapologetic and cannot be interpreted as something different then what it says in plain writing. Unlike a painting or a film.


Evaluating a piece of artwork cannot be done correctly until the context of it is known. No artwork exists in isolation from its artist. No artist exists in isolation from politics. However, on first impressions of the two pieces discussed, you understand the political issues being expressed. You get more information about the film, once you know that the artist who composed for e.g. Love is the message the message is death, is Arthur Jaffa. It then makes sense that he is male, and African American because he focuses more on African American Male experience. If the composer of the film was white, the message would be different, perhaps even problematic. There is coherency between Jaffa and Syms’s pieces in their African American context. However I feel the worth of each work is determined differently depending on the gender of the individual viewer. The political potency differs for male viewers of Martine Syms piece because of its direct exploration of issues around being an African woman in America: e.g. beautification and pressure on ‘black’ appearances to be more ‘white’. The political potency differs for female viewers of Arthur Jafa’s piece because more light is shed on the Male African American experience.


In conclusion, I reject this essay question but felt driven to discuss my thoughts on the term ‘Political’ but most relevantly, ‘Political Art’. This is because all artwork should be evaluated with consideration of the context in which it is made. The gender, race, age and sexuality of the artist it was made by, the year, place and medium it is made of, leave no choice but to be related to politics. So therefor, the question ‘Should we evaluate political art differently from the ways we evaluate non-political art?’ isn’t valid to me. However, we can determine the worth of artworks, but the value will change from viewer to viewer depending on the political context of the work and where the viewer sits in relation to the issue. All work should be considered ‘Political’ so should not be evaluated before taking the politics around it into consideration. The work should be evaluated based on other properties e.g. size, colour, form, and then these things should be evaluated with consideration of the politics of the time they existed. These issues are forever evolving and opinions on the topic are always changing.


[1] The White Chapel Gallery, London, England

[2] The White Chapel Gallery, London, England

[3] Martine Syms, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, 2016

[4] Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death, 2016

[5] George Orwell, Politics and the English Language(1946)

[6]George Orwell, Politics and the English Language(1946)


[7] Martine Syms ‘The mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,’ Documentary, 1 December 2015

[8] Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death, 2016

[9] Martine Syms ‘The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto’

[10] Martine Syms,  Incense Sweaters and Ice, 2017

[11] Raven Row, Art Gallery in London, England

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