We each pay the price for the times we live in, but what crazy and discomforting times these are.

Detail of The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893. Photograph: Granger Historical Picture Archive

To the arts falls the task of reflecting our times in meaningful and insightful ways. Good luck with that, Vincent. We struggle as individuals in a world where honesty, truth and justice have lost all meaning. The smells of corruption, greed and injustice are everywhere. How can we address monumental problems facing the world today?

Don’t read this looking for answers because all I have is a freight train full of lonely questions.

Must contemporary art be politically engaged to maintain relevance? Must artists always focus on war, genocide, racism, police brutality, the orange monster, poverty, climate change and other issues that make me skeptical of the human race? Is it valid for artists to offer non-political antidotes to problems? I keep moving along, exploring new visual and audio environments but real world big issues keep dragging me back to the same old walls that we forever bang our heads against without making necessary improvements.

Making art might seem decadent in these times, but is it up to artists to solve social, political and environmental problems? Subjects taught in art schools differ greatly from those covered in political sciences. Artists are often good with color, line, form, space, light and even history, but not so versed in economics or warfare. They might learn how to get critical attention, but not how to solve existential problems facing humanity. The way of the artist is to keep eyes, mind, ears and heart open.

Art always struggles to compete for attention in the face of dramatic events and sundry disasters. Corporate media sensationalizes and baits every angle and has failed us by design. Cheering onward this or that team or special interest group won’t yield any real winners because the only common goal out there today is the hollow accumulation of power and wealth, with its flip side of austerity and miserable competition for losers. The media is the message and the message is corporate. We get splashy headlines and roadside disasters, without in-depth, non-partisan, follow up analysis.

Too much contemporary art does a fine job of reflecting these times with shiny, shallow, oneline, over-priced, tribal, trans-fat merchandise that might very well be completely irrelevant tomorrow. Nuance does not sell and the spirit of the times denies personal responsibility. Artists should confront big issues with personal integrity and honesty, not by adding to the stench with more corrupt, phony constructs. The marketplace pimps temporary personal and group identity as hooks and ploys while losing sight of universal objectives. Art can only avoid this trap through transcendence, by being so damned good that it just knocks everybody’s socks off.

Maybe in the near future art making will be outsourced to programmed robotic enterprises. The ruling class would be good with that and there might be broad based bi-partisan support.

What artists usually do in periods of uncertainty is to take a few steps back and have another look. The world is a fine mess, but I still want to paint my pictures and play guitar. Think of the myth of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Fiddles didn’t exist in 64 AD. Many Romans believed that Nero started the fire himself, in order to clear land for his planned palatial complex. Did the fire result from Nero’s eccentric habit of dipping Christians in oil and burning them live to illuminate his groves at night? I have a few fine old guitars and they each sound much better than any of today’s talking heads or palace lackeys.

Bruce Thorn

Bruce Thorn is a Chicago based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also a contributing writer to Neoteric Art.

Volume 31 no 4 March / April 2017 p 8

2 thoughts on “Art in Our Time and Political Milieu

  1. I had forgotten about writing this until stumbling across it now, almost 5years later, March 19, 2022.
    it could have been written yesterday. Just wow, it’s as if the nation has made no progress.

    1. Progress is not found over years but through generations and even then … it is small. Art has not only looked backwards but gone backwards as has politics. We could ask the question whether progress is an illusion and whether politics is only the art of power and nothing at all to do with the people.

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