In 1941, George Orwell wrote what may stand as the pithiest piece of writing about art and propoganda to date. His essay "The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda" argued that, by the 1930s, it was impossible to be an English writer and not write about politics, however you chose to cloak it. The aesthetic concerns of an earlier age–"art for art’s sake," as he called it–were only possible when the climate was not choked with insecurity and political upheaval.
As he put it: "Since 1930 that sense of security has never existed. Hitler and the slump shattered it as the Great War and even the Russian Revolution had failed to shatter it. … You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat."
I was reminded of this essay when reading Michael Kimmelman’s article about Syrian artists, in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section this weekend. Kimmelman uncovers a fascinating undercurrent in contemporary Syrian cultural, arguing that, despite the brief easing of political censorship when Bashar Al-Assad took office in 2000–what’s been dubbed the "Damascus Spring"–that openness has resulted in an even less secure place for artists.
"Under Mr. Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, there were clear red lines of intolerance," Kimmelman writes. But "now those lines are no longer clear, increasing, not diminishing, the sense of uneasiness and tendency toward self-censorship."
Art in Syria has therefore become more political, but in the process, diminished its own ability to affect change. Censors won’t allow it. Perhaps that is the great bind all political art finds itself in: the more necessary it becomes, the less likely you are apt to see it.