All art is political. If you can’t see the political dimension of a piece of art this is because it aligns neatly with your own world view and requires no effort on your part. If you are cis, white and male and you’re used to it being normal for the main character to be cis, white and male, then you won’t see anything remotely political about this representation. This happens at the unpleasant end of comics reading rather a lot. To introduce diversity is political, to carry on with this – from the perspective of those who support it – isn’t.
Anything that upholds the current system and gives us what we expect can be misread in this way. However, given the many problems and failings of western colonial culture, to present it unchallenged is to be political. We are killing our planet, ourselves and each other with pollution, climate change, loss of resources and over-consumption. To ignore that is political. Art that doesn’t mention these issues is political.
Equally, art that has no room for vast swathes of diversity and experience, is political. If there is no room in your story for queers, if disabled people don’t exist, and poor people are just cannon fodder and BAME people don’t get speaking parts, or are just there to be exotic eye candy… then the art is political.
All creators exist in a political context. All creators are impacted by the laws and financial realities of the time and place in which they create. Some creators have massive privilege – family wealth, education, support, nepotism, opportunities… some creators do not. Publishing is not good at diversity. Getting an arts education is a lot easier if you can afford one, and doors open for people who know people who work in the right places. It is impossible to make art that is not political. If you find it easy to make and sell your work and give no thought to the context that makes it easy for you, your art still has a political dimension.
If you can ignore the political context in which you create or consume art, that’s political. It means you are safe, and have privilege and can choose whether to engage or not. Marginalised people don’t have the luxury of that choice. If politics are done to you, then you don’t get to choose whether you engage or not, and the political dimension in which your art occurs is there whether you wanted it in the mix or not.
Then there’s the politics of how we think about it. Whether we see an art item or a craft item is a political issue. The way in which beautifully made and decorated items with utility are hived off as craft is a political decision that impacts on how the arts of working people are understood.
So, next time you see someone complaining about an artist bringing politics to their work, bear this in mind. Some creators don’t get a choice, because who they are means that their work will always be viewed in political terms even if they don’t really want it to be. Art only seems not to be political if it expresses and reinforces your world view, and that’s a very politically loaded thing to have happening unquestioned.