To what extent does art influence politics?

By Helena Snider

Art can do a lot of things: it can illuminate, it can decorate, it can inform, and arguably, it can change the world.

On a small scale, there are hundreds of artists who try to change the world on a daily basis. Over the course of history, such writers include the likes of W.B Yeats and George Orwell, and more recently, Bob Dylan and Tom Wolfe – all of whom have actively engaged with and commented on politics through the medium of art to great success.

As an English Literature student, I am used to considering the way in which texts reflect the times in which they were written. What is often overlooked, however, is the extent to which writing fundamentally changes a particular course of events, be it in terms of political or social history.

Studying W. B. Yeats made me question whether literature reflects the political history of its time or helps to create it. Yeats’ rewriting of his own life creates the impression of a cultural entrepreneur who produced a revolution – the poet who asked ‘Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?’ How we remember those events is of course highly significant.

The old adage, ‘history is written by the victors’ (Winston Churchill), is changing. The intersection between politics and the medium of art has never been so exciting. Social media platforms, by offering up a democratic space for young artists to showcase their work, are having tangible effects.

Young people voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the General Election 2017. Harriet Agerholm from The Independent reports that his campaign ‘galvanised support with social media and he received heavy celebrity endorsement, including from grime musicians JME and Stormzy.’

Moreover, modern-day artists are using social media and their popularity on these platforms as a way of encouraging youth engagement with politics. Rapper and poet Akala set up a new campaign, endorsing Mr Corbyn, called ‘#Grime4Corbyn’ with the promise to win tickets to a rave. ‘#Grime4Corbyn’ stated that ‘Young people, and the grime scene, can win this election for Jeremy Corbyn.’ We are now all interconnected in such a way that facilitates change within public discourse on critical issues. Both artists and politicians are utilising this.

While some artists use their platforms to endorse political leaders, others try to convey political messages within their artwork. In 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley commemorated the Peterloo massacre with the political poem, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. This was an excoriation of the government of the day and a call to arms for a new form of politics. And last year, Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’ became the adopted anthem for the student demonstrations: ‘It’s a far cry from Shelley, but its aggression made it a rallying point for those driven by anger at the cuts’, Omar Shahid and Robbie Wojciechowski pointed out in The Guardian in 2011.

Ann Powers argues that the way in which artists engage with politics is doomed, ‘this method worked for The Clash, but this was at a certain time and a certain place, they benefitted from being a band, and audiences were more used to seeing men being confrontational.’

And yet art influences our understanding of what is important. As Plutarch once said, ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’

We should learn from art. The greatest power writers have is their ability to shape how we remember things. Oppressive regimes will always exist but it is the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of artists and the homage they pay to victims that can provide solace in times of crisis, and inject a level of humanity seemingly absent in the world today.

Photograph: Pixie Pix (Thelms Eye) via Flickr and Creative Commons

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