Chin: Let Art Speak For Itself

Art may be political, but we should still allow it to be judged on its merits.

by Clara Chin | 3/7/17 12:20am

On Feb. 24, Chinese photographer Ren Hang died. Known for his minimalistic portraits which often combined human subjects with animals and various inanimate objects placed unexpectedly, Hang often highlighted the borderland between erotic and artistic, leading him to shoot photos for fashion brands like Maison Kitsune and face censorship in China. His photograph “We’ve Got Eyes Everywhere” for Milk Studios, for example, features a black-haired woman donning red lipstick and holding a peacock which partially covers her face. Despite the polarizing nature of his work, Hang denied that his work had a political message, sometimes claiming it had no meaning at all.

Two days after Hang died, on Feb. 26, Barry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Some praise the movie for bringing to light important political issues.“The question of what it really means to be a man hangs over ‘Moonlight,’” one reviewer wrote. Similarly, a review in Variety opens up discussion about the film by asking, “What does it mean to be black in America today?” Reviews in The Atlantic and The New York Times summarized the film in a more holistic way, commenting on the personal and technical qualities of the film instead of focusing solely on the ways in which they addresses social issues.

Hang’s passing and Jenkins’ Oscar win raise the age-old question about the political nature of art. Is art political — and should it be political? Hang and Jenkins travel in different spheres — geographically, as well as in genre and vision. But there are parallels in the ways that the media, the public and those interested in politics attempt to understand their artwork. Hang’s evocative photography is sensual and shocking — so to be considered politically important, as media coverage seems to suggest, its provocations must be political in nature. Similarly, the complex artistry and technicality in Jenkins’ work is often overlooked in media coverage. Instead, reviewers focus on the literal and explicit subject matter of his work — a gay, impoverished, African-American male. While Jenkins’ work does raise political issues, reducing it to political meaning minimizes its power as a work of art.

Similarly, the censorship of Hang’s work is immediately associated with the supposed political message behind it. Jenkins’ Oscar success is reduced to being a product of the way it challenges social issues. Calling the work of artists political is a way to simplify and fully understand the work, even though the idea of “fully understanding” a work of art is antithetical to art. While art may carry political undertones, our emotional response from the work of great artists derives from the technical aspects of the artwork and its indescribable affective qualities. Instead of fearing the complexity of art, we should acknowledge it as a decolonized space where we do not have to reduce it to a single meaning.

A political message is a tool that policymakers and politicians employ in their speeches in order to effect change or win over constituents. In contrast, art is generally free of the burden to produce concrete effects. Artists may choose to engage in politics outside of their work, but the art itself is removed from a political context. The aesthetic qualities of art come first — the politics come second.

It can be important to deny that artwork has a political message in order to preserve the art’s multiplicity and to avoid its reduction. While art may not have a “political message,” art is still “political.” A scene in “Moonlight” features the main character as a little boy learning to swim. The camera is used lyrically, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s filming style. Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, teaches Chiron to swim. Jenkins discusses the moment of “spiritual transference” that occurs. Chiron is “baptized” in the Atlantic Ocean in a symbolic moment that Jenkins called unplanned, even rushed. In addition to the religious undertones, one might also impose historical ideas — that Chiron learns how to swim in the Atlantic, suggesting a young boy finding agency not only in his immediate personal life but also against the deeply rooted historical trauma of the Atlantic slave trade.

While Jenkins himself describes the scene as a baptism, and while multiple symbolic meanings and metaphors can be derived from the scene, these meanings do not necessarily come together to create one political message. They do not even answer the question, “What does it mean to be black in America today?” Instead of thinking of movie techniques and storylines as the input to create the output of a political meaning, it is that the political meanings, better described as possible historical and political contexts, are part of the movie techniques that act as input to create the output of the movie’s emotional affect.

I am wary of generalizing about art at all. Even claiming that art tends to be political feels like a vague and almost empty statement. I cringe at words often used to try to capture the affective nature of art, like “thought-provoking,” “powerful” or “moving.” It is difficult to write about art effectively because its meanings cannot be described. The art, if it is “good,” should speak for itself. Yet, as critics and audience members, we have a responsibility to consider its multiple meanings. Art, after all, should be about human communication. Calling “powerful” art political is an easy way out. Talking about the technical and affective nature of art will allow audience members to think about its political meaning individually, giving them a rare chance to think about politics for themselves.

In politics, facts should be straightforward. But art is an opportunity to think about the world in a nonlinear way, considering nuances and tensions that we do not have the privilege to explore in politics. We can find political meaning in the art of Hang and Jenkins, but we should allow these works to speak for themselves without reducing them to single, straightforward meaning.