When You Artists get Political – We Pause Now for a Historical Reminder

I was perusing U2’s Facebook page today for the first time, as the last time I checked on U2 news, I hardly even knew about Facebook pages.

Turns out Bono is still actively involved with this world in crisis.  When watching a video in which he openly speaks into American politics about welcoming the refugee, I noticed there were an enormous amount of negative comments, particularly against wishing artists wouldn’t get political.

Then today, I saw a video of Bono during a live performance of Bullet the Blue Sky verbally duke it out with a particular US “Candidate” on screen, and noticed major criticism for their “taking sides” and for getting political with their music.  Seeing this question repeated over and over: why can’t artists just make art and not be political?  As a musician, I get asked this as well.

Firstly, I can’t remember a time when U2 wasn’t political with their music.  Secondly, show me one point in history where artists didn’t subvert into public awareness the possibility of a tyrant?

Bono calling the White House post Gulf War 1992

Also, show me one time in history where artists were told to be silent and “just make their art, as long as it’s not political”, when something wasn’t smelling REAL fishy?

I don’t mean to imply that artists are exempt from corruption.  

I once attended a lecture on the Massacre of the Innocents depicted in art.  Very often the Herod depicted in the scene is a depiction of a tyrant found in the artist’s time.


The Massacre of the Innocents – Matteo di Giovanni di Bartolo

Beethoven, when he heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself as Emperor of the French, renamed the symphony he had composed for him with the title “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”  These days, I’m sure when people listen to this symphony, they don’t get their feathers ruffled at how Beethoven was German and Napoleon was French and he should have not stuck his nose in another country’s affairs.  (Because, let’s face it, Napoleon didn’t have any influence or effect on other countries.)

Throughout history, you will find art that was outlawed had a certain visceral poignancy to it.  It wasn’t always overtly political but was somehow deeply true.  Often music that is found acceptable at times when tyrants are on the rise sound eerily triumphant, (not unlike a lot of Christian music you might hear in mega churches today).

Over the past 50 years, artists have become more and more political on a global scale.  Drawing their attention to where the power is and calling it into question. 

This becomes a difficult thing because America begins to feel like the big guy who is “picked on” for being the big guy.  Yes, as we globalize, people are suffering in “our own backyard”.  This again calls the system into question.  How can we address the millions of homeless AND welcome refugees?  How dare we call the “Candidate” with the whoopee cushion for a mouth (which fyi, is disturbingly why he’s so popular and unpopular – like a great country/bluegrass artist said a few years ago: “The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a [single] cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises — the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.) into question?

Why not scapegoat a more tyrannical tyrant somewhere else?

This is why.  Aside from the fact that there are artists, activists, religious leaders and even children consciously risking their lives for justice where they are, all around the world… wherever the great power is, many artists will be called there to take the long view… to find what is true and to shed light in the darkness, there.  Maybe they won’t always get it right,  and maybe they won’t always be so obvious, but as long as we are here, artists will be drawn toward making art that brings change and life and light to the future.   U2 knows they have power, so they have even subverted themselves many times over – mocking their pop stardom.  In this way, good art is not partisan… but redemptive.

An interesting insight into American politics is that although the country won its independence opposing Imperialism, it, as a world Super Power has an almost schizophrenic way of invading other countries but also seeing itself as separate from the rest of the world.  We’re seeing similar displays that harken back to anti-imperialistic activism, against the Candidate that Bono addresses, with activists behaving like British “commoners” mimicking a non-benevolent king (in the case of anarchists wearing the naked “Emperor’s New Clothes” suit).  

All that to say: I’m sorry America, (I really do love you too!) but you carry the burden of holding pretty much all of the nuclear power on this planet, and therefore, much art will be made about you and not just by Americans.  If a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in South America effects the eco system of the whole planet, imagine what an American vote can do!  No matter how helpless you feel, and no matter how you feel like you have Independence from the rest of the world… you wield great power and we are all watching and whatever you do to others, you do to yourself!  

That we humans and other-than-humans matter deeply to God is, and has always been, the misunderstood long view.

It’s time to go make some art people… whether you are “outsiders” or “insiders”…  and, if we’re true to art history, I can guarantee it won’t just be “nice”.

Prophetic imagination is never “nice”.


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