Artists create not in a vacuum, but as integral members of a society. Their work, therefore, often expresses viewpoints about society, including its politics and government. From the Italian Renaissance to modern-day America, art has played a prominent role in politics, and the two have had an often complex relationship. Although government authorities have provided support for the arts, politics and the arts often have an adversarial relationship. This is especially true of modern times, as many artists express political and social views through their work.

Patronage in History

Historically, political authorities have been a source of patronage for artists. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church, a political power in its own right, commissioned religious-themed paintings and sculptures. Arts patronage increased during the Renaissance, as politically powerful families, such as the Medici in Florence, Italy, supported prominent painters, sculptors and musicians.

Modern Patronage

Although today’s artists, from painters and sculptors to musicians and filmmakers, rely less on government as a source of support, patronage lives on in state arts organizations and federal agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Congress created the NEA in 1965 as an independent agency to support and promote artistic endeavors. The endowment provides grants to museums, theater groups and other arts projects and entities.

Art as Politics

As artists derived more of their livelihood from the sale, exhibition and performance of their work, they grew less reliant on government and political authorities for patronage. As time passed, the visual and performing arts became more politically provocative, with artists using their work to make statements or highlight certain issues. Pablo Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica” stands as one example. Painted in the 1930s, “Guernica” highlights the inhumanity of the Spanish Civil War, which brought dictator Francisco Franco to power in Spain.

Political Backlash

The growing outspokenness of the arts sometimes provokes political backlash. During the 1950s, a congressional committee investigated leading Hollywood actors and filmmakers suspected of communist affiliations. In the 1980s and 1990s, some members of Congress sought to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts after complaints by religious conservative organizations about some NEA-funded projects the groups deemed offensive.

Expert Insight

Artist Mark Vallen contends all art is political. Although commercial forces, rather than political ones, determine most artistic successes, the political factors in a market capitalist system make the arts automatically a part of the political process, Vallen wrote in a 2004 essay. Artists and their works have played significant roles in many social and political events. Popular music, for example, provided a virtual soundtrack for the political and social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the protests against the Vietnam War. In addition, some prominent performing artists, such as U2 vocalist Bono, have successfully used their celebrity to call world leaders’ attention to such issues as global poverty and AIDS in Africa.