Whether they mean to or not, all artistic works communicate political ideas. This makes what those ideas should consist of an urgent and pertinent question.
But first, what does it mean for all art to be political? Start with the definitions: politics describes the power struggle between different members of the polity, which is a group of people bound together by some kind of identity, be it religious, cultural, partisan, or otherwise. Artists, then, are also members of the polity, and the creations of artists are inevitably reflections of, comments on, or challenges to the surrounding culture. This makes those creations inherently political.
Reactionary and conservative movements confuse the issue by demanding that art be taken out of politics. GamerGate is a relatively recent example, in which game developers are (among other things) chastised for “putting politics in video games.” This establishes a normative status quo as apolitical, and thus any challenge to it can only be described as “political.” Since a political challenge is an invitation to change that reactionaries find unwelcome, the word “political” is itself regarded negatively. But this need not be so.
Everything from pulp comic books to trashy romance novels to Hollywood blockbusters to indie art house films to mass market music to garage bands to classical painters to graffiti artists to epic fantasy novels is chock full of political content. That content can be accessed in a multitude of ways, but the two most common are to attempt to interpret the work as part of the historical context in which it was created, and to evaluate the work by current sensibilities to determine what it might have to tell us about our own time. Both are valid approaches, and both can offer insights into both contemporary and historical cultures.
Suppose you take at face value that art is political–after all, art contains stories, heroes, villains, themes, and so forth. It is easy to extrapolate such elements onto a cultural framework and make connections. George Orwell’s 1984 is a goldmine of such content, so much so that it’s become a lazy fallback in online arguments. Note how often some governmental or corporate practice is described as “Orwellian.” Such claims usually revolve around censorship, mass surveillance, and especially the manipulation of language to shape the perception of reality. These are straightforward enough themes to relate to our own reality.
But would you believe that stylistic elements also communicate political ideas? Even something as deceptively simple as color can signify complex political ideas and cultural artifacts. I recently read a fascinating piece on how Pantone, a print and color company, appropriates, subverts, and manipulates color in the public eye. It may sound like an outlandish conspiracy, but it’s actually quite straightforward. It begins with an obscure musical genre that came to be associated with heavy use of rose and light blue colors (“rose quarts” and “serenity,” as Pantone calls them), and which quickly exploded into an aesthetic trend:
Seapunk, an electronic music micro-genre that started out as a hashtag in-joke on Twitter, became more identifiable for its online visual aesthetic than its music; psychedelic dreamscape collages of underwater imagery (with a clear overrepresentation of Ecco the dolphin), web 1.0 graphics and gifs, classical roman sculptures, and 90s era rave nostalgia, all immersed within shimmering pastel and neon tones of turquoise, aquamarine, pink and purple. Not quite RQ+S, but we’re getting there.
In late 2011, Seapunk graphics and fashion imagery exploded on tumblr and the style was quickly picked up by fashion bloggers and online music and culture magazines. By March 2, 2012, the NY Times style section ran an article, entitled “Little Mermaid Goes Punk”, signalling “la petite mort” of the micro-culture to many of its progenitors. On November 10, 2012, Seapunk truly broke into the mainstream with Rihanna’s performance of Diamonds on Saturday Night Live, which was described as a “screensaver performance” before the frenzied backlash brought the Seapunk terminology into the limelight. Azelia Banks’ “Atlantis” video dropped the next day, and Seapunk’s co-optation and death was officially declared.
That’s a short version of the trend, but what about the politics? For that, we must turn to vaporwave, a spinoff/successor genre, which refined, clarified, and matured seapunk’s political themes:
Analysis of the genre points to Vaporwave operating within what can be described as an accelerationist framework; expanding, repurposing and exaggerating the technosocial processes of capitalism in order to provoke radical social change. Its saccharine caricature of corporate culture engages whole-heartedly with the alienating nostalgia of the post-authentic, playing the role of the jester in the king’s court, or acting as a hall of mirrors in the funhouse enclosures of capital. Its tactics have abandoned confrontational resistance to instead lubricate the symbolic ground upon which capitalism stands, and offer it a series of gentle, yet insistent, nudges.
In other words, the relentless commercialization of the seapunk aesthetic led to a vaporwave aesthetic in which that commercialization is embraced, mocked, and made into a parody of itself. As is typical of artistic movements, what is presented here is a very superficial and hopelessly incomplete description of the intentions and politics of vaporwave and seapunk musicians and graphic artists. The politics may not be immediately accessible, and they may require knowledge of individual artists and their communities to understand. Of course, there is no one correct interpretation of a creative work, either–whatever the artists intended can be interesting, informative, and insightful, but it is by no means definitive or absolute. Not all artists seek to reveal any political messages they intend by their works, leaving such interpretations to the audience. This is not the same thing as not intending a message at all, however, and believing one’s work to be devoid of political meaning.
Individuals and groups associated with social justice movements understand the political nature of art, as well, and advocate, sometimes quite vocally, for particular political views and elements to be included in creative works. This can take many forms, such as calling for better representation of women and racial minorities, increased visibility of various kinds of people who may currently lack it, and the reduction and elimination of harmful negative stereotypes. Conversely, reactionaries object to this “politicization” as if works which reify heteronormativity, patriarchy, and white supremacy aren’t political. Artists are left in the unenviable position of deciding which course to take. Much advice is offered in this area, but it is rarely satisfactory. Perhaps the only thing artists can do is look at the world around them, listen to the arguments and discussions, and come to their own conclusions. I know what sorts of political views I prefer to see expressed–I want art that is progressive and inclusive and makes an effort to present the complex, multifaceted, paradoxical society in which we live–but no one can or should be forced to create it. I would instead encourage as many people as possible to flex their own creative muscles and express as they see fit. More than that, I implore people who pursue creative endeavors to think critically about what they create as well as what they consume. Your art is political whether you mean it to be or not, and if you don’t consciously consider the political content of your creations, you can be sure that others will–and you may not like what they find.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.