I find it interesting in the way art almost entirely reflects the artist. Of course this seems obvious, but there’s also unintentional ways it reflects the artist. This is noticeable when you take a writer who doesn’t make an outline for their writing. If they begin to just write and see what comes out, it almost always expresses subtle traits of the writer. The tone they use, the events they portray, the characters they establish, it all reveals their subconscious feelings. This is why when you’re done reading a good book you feel as if you personally know a writer because of how much of their personality you’ve picked up.
After consuming all forms of art, paintings, writing, music, ect, you begin to notice a trend in topics. The universal themes artists are usually to make a point or to get the audience to feel a certain way. Themes like war, conflict, relationships, money, and nature are used to guide the audience to the conclusion the artist intended. For instance in Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” the brutal imagery of WWI is used to establish a relatively anti-war message. The author saw an issue with the current state of things so he wrote the novel as not only a record of it but as an argument against it. But notice how if there were no wars there would be no point to write an anti-war novel. Another example would be Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, if there were no dust bowl, the book would not have to be written. This shows how many times art is used as an argument against a certain established event/tradition, and often shows a proposal for a different one. Because of this many forms of art carry a counter-culture message.
Art can be seen as a form of protest, but protest against what can be an interesting topic. In the artist’s argument against the way things are they can also be arguing for more of what the system already is. The famous philosopher Slavoj Zizek points the author Ayn Rand as what he calls “Over Orthodox.” He further describes it as such:
They are absolute conformists in the sense that they spell out the secret premises of the ruling ideology in such clear, radical ways, that it’s inacceptable and an embarrassment for the ruling ideology itself.
Really this depends on the point of view you take. Artists such as Rand may have seen the ruling ideology much differently, which in her mind would make it seem as if she were arguing, not for the system in place, but against it. Whichever point of view is more truthful is debatable. But this shows that what artists argue for isn’t always the exact opposite of what’s in place. Depending on your point of view, since an artist can either argue for against the system in place, many forms of art can be seen as either enforcing the status quo or questioning it.
I know that when you try to lump everything complex into two categories not everything fits, but there is some truth to this. Think of propaganda posters. They are there usually to enforce the status quo, make people think a certain way, and to portray the the enemies as subhuman. This is true for no matter what kind of propaganda poster it is. If it was American propaganda against the Japanese in WWII, or early communist propaganda against the czars. The second case is special because it is used to promote a different way of thinking, in this case an anti-czarist message, so it would promote the questioning of the status quo while the first case enforces it.
Even more abstract works of art can lead to this. One of the traits of abstract art is that it is suppose to guide the consumer to a certain feeling. Just the feeling itself can enforce the status quo or not. Even if the piece of art is in no way political, feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, empathy, love, all inspire the person to question things more.
But then there are some things that sort of fit in the middle. Pop music makes a good example. Many times the auto-tuned person singing doesn’t really have a message besides partying, sex, or having fun. This can be seen as counter-culture if you believe acts like partying or sex inherently are against the status quo. But while this can be true, art such as this only further enforce the ruling ideology because they fail to make the person think. I can listen to a lot of songs about partying, and while it may seem rebellious, it would only indoctrinate me further to the culture. To begin to question the status quo the person has to first be able to think, and if the art they consume is all mindless then the art only further enforces the prevalent system of thought.
I would go on to argue that certain bands became famous because they made people think and they made them question the world around them. Bands like Pink Floyd or Radiohead are known for this. But there are other ways the ruling ideology gets support. So if a new band comes out and they sing about rebellion and revolution and all that, it won’t do much good if the millions of dollars they make all goes to the giant record production company. While what they sing about may be counter-culture, they are simultaneously working against themselves by supporting the company. I believe this is why so many bands prefer to stay “indie” and local.
Art can be a tricky thing to dissect. For some people it reflects their entire lives, while for others it frightens them and they can’t seem to wrap their head around it. But a good way to judge a person’s character is to look at what art they consume, because it says more of their deep feelings than they’ll let on. That’s another beautiful thing about art, it lets us convey things we can’t always articulate, whether we know it or not.