The Political Artists
Ernst H. Gombrich tells us in that -emotional and just- log that is his text The History of Art, that the controversial Caravaggio -the terrible boy of the Renaissance- was commissioned by the Catholic Church to paint Saint Mark writing the Gospel. To fulfill this commission, the artist decided to represent a common character, bald and frowning, affected by his daily life: with dirty feet and simple clothes, guided in his work by an adolescent and careful angel who watches over his hand with an almost paternal attitude. The work was returned, being catalogued as scandalous and profane, for being allowed to disrespect a saint with an image far removed from his celestial condition. Caravaggio had to repeat it. This time, in the new version, St. Mark wore clothes appropriate to his ancestry, his head was adorned with a halo and the angel looked more solemn and resolute. Caravaggio would be considered in his time -and even today- as one of the most important and belligerent artists in history. He knew how to give himself his place, but above all, he knew how to make room in his work for the political and economic interests of his patrons. Like almost everyone else, in those glorious centuries of the rebirth of man and the immense economic power of the merchant families.
It is worth noting that even from Egyptian sepulchral art (father of Greek art and as such of Western art) to the Campbell's soup cans of the irresistible and shy Andy Warhol, that the artistic manifestations of man have been marked by their content and political charisma. It would be unthinkable to conceive of a work that has transcended time, without knowing how to recognize its origin (here) and moment (now); what Walter Benjamin would call "authenticity". Such recognition, of course, included the political circumstances prevailing in the environment and the implications of creation when confronted with a certain inhabited reality. However, it cannot be mistaken that because of such condition or reflection all art has been revolutionary or insurgent. Museums and academies are full of conservative art and works commissioned by the powerful of their time.
The reason for this reality is that the profession of artist has always been one of the most difficult and underestimated of all journeys, which has made the survival of the creator depend on his ability to adapt to his reality (some old-fashioned people would say to sell himself) in order to not only achieve glory (in most cases promoted by patrons, rulers or gallery owners) but at least to earn a warm meal and a warm bed. The aura of romanticism that surrounds the artist cannot ignore the fact that art is a profession like any other: if it does not work, it must be abandoned. Art is a market, with its joys and its pitfalls.
For all these reasons, it is curious that being the fundamental basis of expression the artist's intimate ideas and recurring thoughts, they are asked not to have a political stance. In fact, it is necessary for the artist to have it as part of the perspective of the world he tries to conceive, highlight or transform in his work. In that sense, to imagine an artist without a political vision of the reality that shapes him would be to mutilate him of his most epidermal quality: his opinion. For which he is undoubtedly responsible. History is also full of brilliant creators who, for the sake of a certain celebrity, committed their work to the most reckless forms -and backgrounds- exercised by proven villains.
For the time being, it is important to insist that we cannot judge a work of art -or even an artist- simply because his political beliefs do not coincide with our own. The creator has every right to be wrong or right, to take sides or remain silent. Dark would be the days when artists, for the sake of pleasing everyone, object to or lack their most preeminent responsibility: to see beyond the dull eye and hear what the tides and autumn have to say. And perhaps, possibly, heed the advice of their sponsors.