It is expected that art in periods of political polarization or extremism will become more explicitly political, that it will become "engaged," actively commenting on world affairs, a form of protest or action. That is what a great many people are asking of art in the West, and particularly in the United States, after the surprising election.
And we will see a great deal of protest art in the United States in the next four years, as we did during the Vietnam War. We will see a lot of murals depicting poverty and ballets about racism and movies about cokehead bankers. We will hear a lot of spoken word poetry about rising up and taking back power.
However, historically, it is not always the case that tyrannies or depressions or famines only produce more explicitly political art. It has also been the case that periods of great inequality and economic anxiety and even incipient conflict can produce the most cerebral and abstract art, indeed, the most revolutionary of conceptual shifts in art – art that appears to ignore economic and social questions altogether, at least on its surface, and dives instead into questions of form.
What am I talking about? Look at Russian suprematism – a purely abstract, geometrical style that was at its height around 1915, a time of violent political protest, under a hopelessly incompetent dictatorship, riven by poverty and threatened by the possibility of actual civil war (which, as it turned out, was right around the corner). It was one of the most radical formal shifts in the history of art, but it offered no political commentary on its surface. I am talking about Dada, an anti-content art that bloomed in the West at exactly the same time in the middle of the bloodiest conflict in human history. It explicitly did not address the war.
Yes, the era of totalitarianism in 20th-century Europe produced Animal Farm and Guernica – "engaged" works – but it also produced surrealism. The surrealists may have been communist in their personal politics, but their works eschewed the objective world.
We can go even farther back with this. Consider Romanticism, a revolutionary movement across all art forms and across all of Europe in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Romanticism could be said to be a reaction to social change, specifically to the industrial revolution that so drastically altered working conditions and social hierarchies. Romanticism, with its emphasis on nature and on the non-conforming individual, has been called a human reaction to the soullessness of factory work, the industrial landscape and the loss of peasant traditions. But Romanticism was rarely an overtly political movement: It was inward- looking, about the cultivation of the self, the quasi-mystical and the exploration of beauty for beauty's sake.
Even in the United States, during the Vietnam War and the upheaval over civil rights, there was a great deal of protest art – in popular music in particular, where to be anti-war became a starting point for creation – but there was also the flourishing of pure conceptualism. Sol LeWitt's defining essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art was published in 1967. Lawrence Weiner's manifesto about similarly immaterial art, Declaration of Intent, was 1968 – the year of the battle of Khe San and the Tet Offensive. Warhol's Factory was churning out experimental films at the same time. Again, an art carefully devoid of meaning in the conventional sense. It took no stance on the war. These are the movements that changed the history of art and so could be said to be more significant in the long run than the folk songs were.
Is art such as this – art concerned with form, or with art itself rather than an objective world – cowardly, in the face of oppression? Is it a retreat from social responsibility, a turning inward instead of tackling the world? Is it navel-gazing? Is this the worst kind of ivory-towerism?
No, it isn't. Because it isn't, actually, apolitical: Everything is political. Avant-gardism in art makes people see the world differently and has always been associated with a dissatisfaction with conventional thinking generally. This is why experimentalism has been repressed by every authoritarian regime. (Stalin cracked down on suprematism and even formalist literary criticism once he took power; he knew, like every tyrant, the subversive power of abstraction and intellectualism.)
Didactic protest art has ignited passions and unified movements in the past, and has been associated with actual political change (more, in recent decades, in the developing world than here). But it also risks, in its didacticism, speaking only to the already converted.
The United States may be entering a time of great conservative reactionism, but it will be also, due to its unique traditions, a place of unfettered expression. This is a state whose extreme conservatives – unlike those anywhere else – value free speech above almost any other right. So banning expression of any kind is not going to be possible, even under the most troglodytic of Trumpian administrations. The protest art will flourish. I wonder if some other kind of artistic development, something not quite so direct – perhaps one that embraces entirely new media and new forms within them – will also emerge from this stress.