Artists and Ideology

In Free Speech And Why It Matters by Andrew Doyle, he tells the story of Sandro Botticelli who was spellbound by the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola, along with the rest of Florence.

In his fervour, so the story goes, even cast some of his own paintings on the pyre during the famous ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in which followers of the monk “torched thousands of objects associated with sin and moral degeneracy: cosmetics, dresses, mirrors, perfumes, books and even musical instruments.”

Doyle concludes with:

“It is difficult to conceive a more evocative image of artistic self-censorship. If the story is true, we may have lost significant works of art because their creator had allowed a doom-mongering monk to throttle his muse.”

Artists are far from immune to the fads and ideologies of the time. In fact, they may be more susceptible than most, after all, part of an artist's allure is to be fashionable. Not least because, although no artist would admit to it, giving the public what they want is how to ensure they get paid for their work (something that artists struggle with at the best of times) as anything too controversial will immediately be subject to the gatekeepers ire or be a turnoff for an ideologically possessed crowd.

That is not to say that following ideological fads are cynical. Many truly believe them, otherwise, why would they do the modern equivalent of throwing their work on the pyre and self-censor based on a given ideology, and not just when it pays but also when it doesn’t pay.

A modern example would be George Clooney turning down $35 million for a day's work after consulting with his wife about the apparent ethics of the company. The telling of this story has earned social clout, but he could have been $35 million richer but for his ideological view.

The problem with self-censorship depending on the ideological fashion of the times is that work produced to accord with it will never be timeless. Fads come and go, and the art that capitulated to them may find themselves on the wrong side of history in a time in the future.

So often it is the artists that struggled in their lifetimes that end up rediscovered because they had a unique vision, totally unphased by the fads, that ends up to speak to people, no matter what ideology is in vogue.

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