These days it's common – indeed almost inevitable – to hear art discussed as a political statement. The creed "art for art's sake" seems to be on its way out; today art has a message, art performs a function in society, art implies an artist taking a stand and agreeing to be held accountable for it.
There was a lot of talk of the relationship between the arts and politics at the Power of the Arts National Forum in Ottawa, co-hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, during the Culture Days weekend (Sept. 27th-29th), which I had the privilege of attending as a student and Culture Days intern. (You can check out my previous post on the Power of the Arts National Forum here.) Culture Days and the Forum are both all about connecting the arts to people's lives on as many levels as possible, and the political level is a particularly important, complex and charged one.
Jean-Daniel Lafond, filmmaker, writer, and co-founder/co-chair of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, kicked off Saturday morning at the Forum by talking about the interdependence of political power and the power of the arts, and the ways in which art has both served and gone against political regimes over the course of history. He offered an interesting three-part classification system for politically oriented artists: at one extreme end of the spectrum is the "anarchist artist," at the other end the artist fully supported by the government, and in between the two stands the more moderate but still socially active "engaged artist."
Also present, and with a great example of the possibilities of such "engaged" art, was Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer at Elections Canada. He stated that art "makes us citizens" and permits you to "fashion who you are and where you fit in society." He drew attention to the problem of the low voter turnout of younger Canadians and linked it to a lack of belief on the part of this demographic that their vote actually makes a difference. This is where art comes in, he said – art shapes identity and builds confidence, bringing with it the ability to reach out in the knowledge that one's voice does have an impact. As an arts-based strategy to involve more Canadian youth in politics, Elections Canada held a contest during Canada's Democracy Week 2013 that invited Canadians ages 14-30 to submit a video, image, or written piece about their relationship with democracy, for the chance to win a number of prizes.
Possibly one of my favourite engaged art moments at the Forum was when John Osborne, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University, offered proof of the longevity of the power of the arts by tracing its path all the way back to Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Hamlet definitely wasn't afraid to go political with art – he used the theatre to call out a ruler on his immoral actions. And the incredible endurance of this classic play over the years is of course itself a testament to the power of the theatre, and more generally the arts, to captivate the hearts and minds of a public.
I personally believe that there is something to be said for "art for art's sake," for the simple joy and wonder of immersing yourself in the beauty and mastery of a striking painting, a gripping book, a memorable song. But it's hard to back the claim that there isn't always some element of communication to art: it tells you something or makes you feel something. And as a source of strong emotions and powerful messages – political or not – it has more than a little sway in the world. As Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences President Antonia Maioni put it at the Forum, "The power of the arts is to build a space in which we live together better."
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