Brock Willard managing editor
Whether you like it or not, all art has a message. There is no such thing as meaningless art, because all art (at time of printing) is created by people with values and ideas of their own.
When we say, “all art is political,” what do we really mean? The phrase means that all art has some value baked into it, because it’s created by a person with values themselves. “Political” in this instance does not mean directly relating to a certain political party. It means “having to do or conveying some particular value or policy” and that is what artists do. They convey meaning or emotion through the lens of their creative medium.
Let’s take my favorite example: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” If that name doesn’t jump out at you immediately, it’s the “Japanese wave painting” that is featured in popular culture. At first glance, it appears to be merely a seascape with boats and Mt. Fuji in the background but looks can be deceiving in this case.
If we examine what is actually happening in the painting, we can see that the aforementioned “Great Wave” is tossing and churning three boats full of fisherman, symbols of bounty for the Japanese people of the time period in which the art was created. Why would a Japanese painter clearly paint a symbol of bounty being rocked and nearly destroyed by a wave? For that, we must look into the time period when the painting was made.
It was created during the Edo period of Japanese history by Japanese artist Hokusai. Additionally, this is around the same time that Western sailors begin making their way to Japan. Before this time, Japan was a hyper-isolationist nation. No sailors from outside Japan were allowed in, and the Japanese people didn’t travel outside their nation much either. You could say that the sea was a barrier to the outside world and its dangers. In this interpretation, the wave represents the threat of outsiders coming from the sea and the potential danger that posits.
I hope you can see now that there is a message to be found in even something as seemingly innocuous as the “Great Wave.” There is another side to this issue, however.
The philosopher Susan Sontag says that trying to interpret art is ultimately meaningless. Many people encounter modern art or even that of Pablo Picasso and say, “I don’t get.” Sontag says you shouldn’t try to get it because artists don’t necessarily want you to get it. That is not art’s purpose according to Sontag. While this is a worthwhile idea, I think it lets down the complexity of the art by a small degree.
As an artist myself (a composer, not a painter), I can tell you that each work of art I create has a message even if I don’t mean it to. This is the case for every work of art created. There are values caked into the works of art. An artist can come back and say, “No, there’s nothing ulterior about this piece,” but that’s not even a surefire way of destroying this idea, simply because there is no such thing as a private belief or a value. Our beliefs and values seep into everything we do subconsciously, and they always get out one way or another.
Next time you listen to a song or look at a beautiful painting, think about what might be behind the work of art.