by Bruce Frohnen
By the same token, of course, to say that a “good” message makes for good art is both foolish and dangerous. Just as the “art” of Socialist Realism, with its paintings of stylized scenes of heroism in the name of “the workers,” is both nasty, lying propaganda and schlock, so the various renderings of “The Apotheosis of Washington” depicting our first President being taken to heaven to become a god, are both artistically and morally disordered. Washington was a truly great President, but art that turns politicians—or even true statesmen—into idols corrupts our sense of proportion regarding human goods, and risks undermining the call to virtue by making it seem ridiculous.
What, then, makes for great political art? Nothing. If it’s just about politics, folks, it isn’t art. Even if the message is one we happen to like, political commentary is just that, political, and it shouldn’t be confused with art, which has higher aims. This is not to say, of course, that art never concerns the political—often it does. But the requirement to make art in this genre is an intelligence and concern with higher goods that is increasingly difficult to find. Statues showing the nobility of great figures, if well conceived and executed, can be great art—we are blessed with a fair amount of such public art, though relatively little of it has been produced since the death of Frederick Hart. Satire often is political, and if it aims to show both the foibles of a particular time and place and the lasting issues of, say, pride and vanity (I am thinking, here, of Jonathan Swift, but Aristophanes and many others examples could be used), then it, too is great art. [Read more...]