Power and Hierarchy in Art

by J.P. Singh and Caroline Wesson  //  EDITORIAL


Expressionist artist Barnett Newman’s famous 1947 essay The First Man was an Artist presents the primordial being as an artist. “Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void.” In the next paragraph Newman writes of art as power: “Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water.”

Art is an expression of our lives and therefore is inherently meaningful. Art has the power to both constrain and expand the meaning we give life. Artistic meanings interpret the void, the tragic state that Barnett Newman prefaces. But power is portrayed with a different mathematics outside of art. In politics power is not just what X & Y mean but also power is what X can do to Y or vice versa. Vocabularies of power, therefore, include both meaning-making and instrumental and transactional aspects of what humans do to each other. Seen this way, the meanings and instruments of art contain both negative and positive values. For example, art can include poetic expressions of freedom or fascistic expressions of grandeur. Giuseppe Verdi’s choruses from operas such as Nabucco and I Lombardi roused the Milanese masses to seek freedom from Austrian rule and helped with unification or Risorgimento in the mid-19th century. Before World War II, Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of Will on Hitler’s created the grandeur of a (narcissistic) man and spectacular crowd scenes now often associated with fascism. Closer to our time, twenty-two years old Amanda Gorman’s poetry at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration evoked cascades of history to evoke light, “if only we’re brave enough to see it/ If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Four years earlier, President Donald Trump evoked dark images of an American Carnage in the less-than-poetic words of his inaugural address.

Art is multivalenced, but at the core of that enterprise is the artist. Art is often thought of as the expression of one’s creativity, emotions, and experiences. No matter if you are the creator or consumer of art, there is an element of freedom or agency. The reality is that art and arts communities exist within societal, regulatory, and economic hierarchies. The hierarchies and power that impact art, and artists, include government structures, communication networks, educational restrictions, and financial infrastructure. How artists navigate within and ultimately impact these structures has lasting impacts on culture, expression, and institutions.

In this issue of Arts & International Affairs the question of how power and hierarchy interact with art and arts communities is explored. Sometimes this interaction brings about positive developments, allowing art to take new forms or reach new heights. Other times, power and hierarchy result in art for societal change and empower individuals to action. Regardless, these hierarchies and the power within them can also be limiting, impacting artist’s abilities to carry out their visions or silencing certain artistic voices that do not fit specific artistic trends or norms. Taking a closer look at the way in which power and hierarchies interact with art and artistic communities can bring about a stronger understanding not only of the progression of art and culture but also the way in which art and culture impact aspects of society and human life that often seem removed from creative endeavors.

There are two overlapping thematics in this issue that we would like to highlight. These are the global influence on the local and how hierarchies impact art and artist. Global influence on local societies, arts, and politics have been studied extensively. Existing perspectives often speak of global dominations which diminish local voices. Nili Belkind shows how global influence may not constrain local movements for decolonization in Palestine, while Meike Lettau brings to fore some of the work from Goethe Institute with democratization in Tunisia. In both cases, global linkages strengthen rather than diminish local arts, arts movements, and their connections to civil society. Melissa Nisbett’s piece provides a contrast with an analysis of the lack of civil society activism in Dubai, and the somewhat manufactured “soft power” that Dubai projects through its museums and cultural artefacts. Singh’s essay on four global Indians also emphasizes the conversation of artistic creativity in global spaces, even if these spaces remain Eurocentric. Zach Marschall’s piece notes the double-bind that museums face from declining cultural heritage visitors and the lockdown from the COVID pandemic. Digital technologies can provide innovative forms of engagement but Marchall remains sceptic that they have altered the visitor experience.

Art is social and therefore impacted by regulatory and economic hierarchies. These hierarchies constrain and assign rankings to artists which thus impacts the artist’s ability to create. Anthony Hudson’s monologue narrates the difficulties that artists face navigating these regulatory environments and hierarchies. Zachary Marschall highlights the impact of these structures on the international museum’s struggle for relevance in the digital age, with specific attention to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, JP Singh’s multimodal article showcases artists and practitioners as their labor and creativity works itself through the institutional hierarchies of art.

Hierarchies and power hold significant influence over artists, the artistic process, and the societies that consume art. We hope that through this issue of Arts and International Affairs the conversation around the hierarchies and power within the arts can be illuminated for continued exploration. The themes we have outlined here will persist, global influences will always have tension with local cultures and practices, and hierarchies in art will choose those who win and lose. Even so, art will continue to be an expression of emotion and liberty, even if it is shaped by forces the seem at odds with its very essence.