Should Artists Ever Get Political?

You know how sometimes a Hollywood actor speaks out about a cause, and the critics shout him down? “She gets paid to act,” people say, “not spout off about her opinions.”  There’s a double standard when it comes to artists and politics. The message we receive is that we are “lucky” the public allows us to do our art, so we should shut up and do it.

So does art have a place in politics?  Well, the political cartoons of the 1700s helped turn our young nation against an unjust king. And a certain pamphlet by Thomas Paine galvanized the cause. You could argue that Common Sense doesn’t count as art. It was a political argument set to paper. But any person who has ever picked up a pen recognizes the hard work that went into lines like, “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right . . . ”

A novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with casting a new light on the issue of slavery for a public that had turned a blind eye. During World War II, propaganda posters reminded women that “We Can Do It” and men that Uncle Sam “Wants You for the U.S. Army.” Many years later, a poster would help aspiring president, Barack Obama, clinch the election. During the Civil Rights Movement, songs like, “People Get Ready,” by The Impressions, were written with the intention of inspiring people to join the struggle.

So what’s an artist to do? If we take a political stand, we risk losing fans and followers and sales, and that can be very scary, especially at the outset of our careers. Worse, we risk losing friends. We risk being labeled, and having that label carry over to views of our art. We risk people reading politics and agendas into everything we create. And if we are further along in our careers, or possibly famous, we risk people expecting us to take a stand all the time.

But if we don’t speak up, if we don’t use our talents to further the causes we believe in, we fail to influence change in the world, we stifle a passion in ourselves, we cave into fear. Artists have a unique ability to paint the world, and to help people see injustice. It is the artists who often take on the bullies, from the ones who run local police stations to the ones whose names stand tall on the buildings they own. They do it not with guns, but with pens and guitars and paintbrushes. People Get Ready:

There ain’t no room
for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just
To save his own
Have pity on those
whose chances are thinner
Cause there’s no hiding place
From the Kingdom’s Throne

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