Art for Government’s Sake

Why Art with an Agenda Fails as Art

Chuck Colson

When does art cease to be art? A recent Washington Post review provides food for thought.


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Philip Kennicott is uneasy.

As art critic for the Washington Post, it was Kennicott’s job to review a new book called Art for Obama. Now, this art critic is no conservative—on the contrary, he’s about as liberal as they come. And yet, this particular book of art has got him down.

Kennicott writes in his review that “there is something tremendously depressing” about Art for Obama—a collection of images and sculpture produced in support of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Kennicott says, “The gloom sets in slowly, page after colorful page, slogan after inspiring slogan. It is a catalogue of celebratory art, of smiles and hope and change, and somehow, it leaves you with a hollow, panicky feeling in the gut.”

Kennicott describes various images from the book as “partisan,” “treacly,” and “embarrassingly saccharine.” So for instance, we have “a digital painting that shows the president, surrounded by red roses, emerging from a pool of milky water while a white stallion cavorts on the seminal waves.” This is the kind of “art” more often found on a Twilight poster in a teenager’s bedroom than in a book of political imagery.

Some of this adulation, Kennicott writes, is downright “frightening.” He believes that these artists are helping to promote a “cult of personality,” without any objective distance between themselves and their subject.

But what’s his problem? He likes the President, right? So shouldn’t he like art that praises the President?

Now, it’s not that simple. In fact, I think Kennicott is touching on an important worldview principle. As I wrote in How Now Shall We Live?: “The classical understanding is that the arts are a powerful means of communicating something significant about reality, a means of representing truth.”

On this basis, we can believe that art has intrinsic value in its own right. But when we start moving away from a belief in objective reality, truth, and beauty, then art becomes pretty much anything someone wants it to be—including a tool to manipulate people.

As Kennicott points out, the organizers of the art exhibit that inspired this book asked that it “please stay positive.” No criticism allowed.

This is why many people, both conservatives and liberals, were troubled when National Endowment for the Arts communications director Yosi Sergant tried to get artists to help promote the President’s agenda through their work. The resulting uproar caused Sergant to be demoted—he should have been fired.

There’s a word for what he was soliciting: propaganda. That’s the end result of art that has lost its connection with objective reality—or as we Christians like to put it, with God’s truth. Without this grounding, art that’s created to support a popular leader can come too close to what Kennicott calls “the fragile line separating democratic enthusiasm from totalitarian mania.” Thus, many of the Art for Obama artists display a disturbing lack of balance, realism, and true artistic values.

Kennicott and I may not agree on much, but on one thing we see eye-to-eye: The mindset that inspired Art for Obama is “a very bad recipe for making good art.”

Further Reading and Information

Campaign Hype Feels Like Old Glory
Philip Kennicott | Washington Post | October 25, 2009

Propaganda, Health Care and ACORN: Full Context of NEA Conference Call Reveals Disturbing Pattern
John Nolte | Breitbart | August 10, 2009

How Now Shall We Live?
Chuck Colson