Photograph of art space with back of woman crouching to the left with a metal lid on the floor.

8. The art of commitment

Artistic practice exists within a context and uses elements that have a historical, political and social dimension. When we make art we establish a set of priorities and we confer importance to a series of elements. Each choice positions our work in the world. Artwork defining itself as apolitical is like people defining themselves as apolitical. They do not exist. It is not necessary for artists to be aware of the political dimension of their work for the work to have it.

It is undeniable that the language of the visual arts is politically effective. If it were not, art would not have been used as a tool for political propaganda for centuries. However, for a work of art to be politically effective it has to be coherent with itself.

A politically committed art is an art that is conscious of itself and of the political dimension of the world. Committed art is a comment. Traditionally, this comment has been in the form of the proposal of an alternative to the society that we live in or a negation of the established order.

Commitment in art is not in the content, but in the form. Art with an openly political message becomes mere propaganda and the information is assimilated according to the stereotypes and prejudices of the viewer. 

Personal experience is the only way of transforming our consciousness to inspire us to take responsibility, and the typical reaction in front of a work of art is aesthetic. 1 Therefore, it is in the aesthetic experience that any reaction has to occur.

The content is inevitably trapped in the form, that is, the set of techniques, rules, subjects, styles, etc., that a given historical context generates. When the form is intelligible it becomes comfortable, whatever the content. 

Therefore, it is the form that determines the work of art, and a work of art cannot express non conventional ideas if it uses conventional means of expression. The form wins over the content and if the content contradicts the form it gets sterilised. 2 The rebellion against the form makes artistic quality suffer.

Art does not enrich us if it tells us a story that we already know. The new propositions in ways of seeing and understanding human nature and the environment are what makes art advance. For art to develop it needs to be capable of looking beyond the system of which it is part, it has to dare to look. To develop, art needs to be capable of leaving the institutional frame behind.

Politically committed art is a subject that systematically generates discomfort within artistic circles. The reaction to the proposition that art should contribute to make the world a better place is generally defensive. 

Any allusion towards the power of art to improve the world that breaks with the established system is met with accusations of naivety or even stupidity. Generally the reply is that to have a political effect is beyond the reach of art. 

Yet, it is obvious that art is politically effective, as is proved by the use it has been given by the ruling classes for thousands of years. The discomfort might come, not from disagreeing with the proposition itself, but from what it implies: commitment.

  1. Parreño, J. M. Contra un arte por compromiso. ↩︎
  2. Based on Adorno’s ideas in Adorno, T. (1977) Commitment. In: Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso. ↩︎