Why Artists Shouldn’t “Keep Politics Out” of Their Art

Lauryn Ellis
4 min readOct 2, 2020

The political climate in the United States right now is fraught to say the least. With the country on the brink of kissing our democracy (however flawed it might be) goodbye, a lot of people are finding ways to express their fear, frustration, and anger. Some are committed to sharing voting information. Others are volunteering, getting voters registered and signing up to work the polls. Writers are doing their best to document this unsettling time in history. Artists are putting their talents to use, creating pieces that convey pertinent information, or to memorialize the people and the ideals that have fallen through the cracks. Artists that share their work on social media receive a wide array of responses, from messages of solidarity and support, to those who tell them to “keep politics out of your art”.

Forgive me, but this statement is…nonsense. Allow me to explain.

1. Art falls under the First Amendment. For any non-American reading, it’s the thing that “guarantees” free speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom to petition and freedom of assembly. Just as an audience has a right to respond to a piece of art, the creator is free to create pieces that reflect their personal feelings on whatever subject inspires them. If you feel compelled to respond so vociferously to an inanimate thing, that is perhaps something worth exploring on your own.

2. One of the many beautiful things about visual art is that it can be a means through which dialogue can begin. Whether you like a work or not, there is usually some aspect to it that can be discussed or dissected between opposing or shared points of view. An artist isn’t evil or misinformed simply because you dislike what you’re seeing.

3. Art and politics have a long history with one and other. The textbook definition of “propaganda” is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” This can be written, oral (Adolf Hitler’s success is attributed in part to his speeches), film, or for our purposes, art. There is some art that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be regarded as propaganda (Picasso’s Guernica and Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live with come to mind) but some of the most memorable images from the last century fall into the propaganda category. No political stripe or ideology has ever been above using art to further their cause or push their agenda, especially during World War II. That was the time when Uncle Sam pointed his finger at young American men, telling them he wanted them to fight for their country. Those were the days that artist J. Howard Miller, borrowing heavily from Rockwell, created the unforgettable Rosie the Riveter, asking women to leave their kitchens behind and join in the fight. The Japanese painted FDR as an evil monster on comic book covers, and the Allies returned the favor by caricaturizing the Japanese as savage rapists. Phillip Zec in England depicted the Nazis as snakes and vultures. The Nazis depicted the young men on their front lines as Aryan angels, and the Jewish people as agents of corruption and rot.

Image taken by the author. From the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

But it didn’t stop there. The Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick created the iconic image of Che Guevara we’re all familiar with today, the one that shows the Marxist revolutionary and murderer as a hero of sorts, an image that inspired generations of angst-ridden teens long after the Cuban Revolution. Even President Obama’s famous “Hope” poster can be looked at as propaganda, inspiring droves of young people to turn out at the polls, voting in ways that have been uncharacteristic of Americans in the past. Propaganda can be “soft” or “white”, as in it doesn’t hide its sources and is generally based in truth. Propaganda can also be “hard” or “black”, that which is intended to discredit, hide its sources, and has little regard for the truth. But either way, all propaganda is biased.

Image taken by the author. From the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Now look, this is America, the land of the supposed free and home of the brave. You can feel however you want to feel about anything you see or any “political” post that shows up in your social media feed. But to say that an artist should “stay out of politics” or that they should not express their point of view, ignores the long history between the two and seeks to diminish the artist’s voice (which we aren’t supposed to do in America — that’s the kind of thing done in Nazi Germany or modern-day North Korea). If you come across something that you don’t like or don’t agree with, take the advice that Paul Anka and Lisa Simpson gave to the citizens of Springfield — just don’t look.