by Theresa Escobedo
Art has long been engaged with the political. Particularly since the Enlightenment, art has been employed in the service of politics to proliferate pointed agendas, especially via easily-replicated mediums—prints, etchings, lithographs, and written texts, for example. It could be argued that every work of art is informed by the political climate in which it is made and therefore is political in some way. What is certain about art is that it functions as a barometer of society.
It’s no secret that funding for the arts, humanities, and public media have been cut, if not eliminated entirely, across the board nationwide. These cuts, acutely damaging to educational and public enrichment programs, are the most obvious manner in which art is subverted or confined by politics
We are in Houston, Texas—Clutch City—a sprawling metropolis built on marshland and swamp — a surprisingly resilient city that has overcome some seemingly insurmountable situations (think about the events of the past year). The unexpected is anticipated here. We are in Third Ward, a historic ward whose designated boundaries and character have drastically changed since its establishment in the 1800s. Who knew a so-called “elite neighborhood of late 19th- century Houston” would devolve and later reinvent itself as a place where community-based non-profits and churches hold a significant percentage of real estate? Who knew that self-initiated, grassroots creative and social programs could become the nucleus of a cooperative and engaged community?
Someone knew. And in this story, art has played a large part.
Art works in mysterious and subtle ways, and its effects are often unexplainable. The fact that the value of art is difficult to qualify and quantify (perhaps especially to those in governing positions) makes establishing and defending funding for the arts difficult. The significance and merit of art cannot be determined by numbers, or even by popular consensus.
The short of it is that art and art-making have been largely compromised and abused by those with political agendas, who use art to establish and propagate stereotypes and stereotypical images to maintain the current power structure. Our politics tend to infringe upon individual freedom of speech and emotional autonomy, thus curbing individual expression and communication—critical for art- making. Thankfully, artists, by their very nature, often operate beyond the bounds of normative thinking and independently of social or class realities. Artists provide an alternative and counterpoint to political restraint.
The long of it is that in response to confinement away from and outside of the political and social mainstream, artists develop new methods through which to express themselves. This is why in the present era we see the emergence of new media and mediums as effective modes of communication— photography, film, performance, documentary, and installation—the new propagators—have become invaluable social tools. It is precisely because of the contemporary political climate that social-political has art emerged with the strength that is has.
Art, in its truest sense, speaks to our humanity, and forever responds to the context in which it is made. At its best, it has the capacity to change the status quo. In its current manifestation, art is no longer treated as a commodity. The social-political statements and experiences made by new art and creative placemaking are truly valuable. This is why artist- founded and artist-led organizations like Project Row
Houses (whose programming initiatives cater to the immediate needs of its proximate community) have the greatest opportunity to thrive at this time.
Art is perhaps the last frontier of unregulated free expression. Art is born of and advocates freedom. Art allows for a bridge between politics and society and changes the world one perception at a time. It looks at the world critically and can alter the way we think; it helps us to evaluate whether we accept that which is established and defined by politics.
The most radical future an invested and engaged civic body could build would be one in which artists have significant political influence and perhaps are, themselves, running for offices that address the most significant and dynamic issues of our time—issues of placemaking, infrastructure, land ownership, democracy, civil and human rights, capitalism, the economy, migration and mobility, and the
environment. The unique microcosm that is modern- day Third Ward, borne of segregation and isolation, has, in unique ways, laid a strong foundation for actualizing this potential.
Theresa Escobedo is a multi-disciplinary creative, curator, and artist living and working in Houston, Texas. Standout curatorial projects include Angelbert Metoyer: Seasons of Heaven, Collective Solid, and PROOF as well as their accompanying programs and publications. Theresa’s most recent creative work is executed through Main Street Projects, an artist-run collaborative active in the Mid Main neighborhood in Houston, which brings art into urban surroundings via historical buildings and invites artists to impact neighborhood experiences through creative place-making and social inquiry. It is with this dedication to community that Escobedo combines her experiences and continues to work as an independent creative.