If the goal of your work is to persuade--that is, to convince the viewer that your take on an issue of cultural or social concern is on the side of the good--then you're well on your way to making bad art. This isn't to suggest that all art or music that carries an explicit message about religion or politics is necessarily bad. In 1967, Martin Scorsese made a short film, "The Big Shave" (1967), and its moral evaluation of the Vietnam War was fairly straightforward. It's worth a look. People could deride Public Enemy's lyrics about poverty and race as preachy and unsophisticated, but that doesn't make their music not worth listening to. Scorsese and Chuck D have made work whose subject matter is explicitly political, and they've done it well. The difference, it seems, between their work and that of the artist or musician who tries (and fails) to make work with a "message" is the difference the artist who is trying to be an artist and the artist who is trying also to be an activist, or maybe a rhetorician.
Whereas in art, ambiguity is welcome, in rhetoric, it is a cumbersome impediment. The most effective rhetoric engages with our thoughts and beliefs with the distinct goal of bringing someone from one point-of-view to another. The best kind of art engages with the thoughts and emotions that we paraconsciously attach to what our ears hear and our eyes see. In the real world, these thoughts and emotions are rarely simple, direct, or pure, and so it's mostly in bad art that they're depicted that way (see: Donald Hall, To Read Poetry, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1982). I've seen an awful lot of art that has presented itself as politically-themed (much of it made well before I was born), and most of it (particularly the kind with an explicit goal to persuade) has been mediocre. The artists I've met who hasten to emphasize the political aspects of their work have generally reinforced this perception.
As a result, I've remained prejudiced against work that seeks to excel both as art and as activism. My prejudice has waned, however, since getting to know the work of Newton and Helen Meyer Harrison. A husband and wife who have been collaborating in the field of ecological art since the late 1960s, the Harrisons have sought to make works of art out of models of ecological change in places like the Sava River in the former Yugoslavia, or the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the Central Coast of California. These models are in turn documented (often over formidable stretches of time) in photography, video, verse, and computer animation.
For virtually their entire careers, the Harrisons have been criticized either (1) for making works of art that would be more competently executed by a "real" environmental scientist or (2) proposing models of environmental activism that are made weaker by the intruding egotism of the museum, gallery, and artist (see: Stiles, Kristine. "Helen and Newton Harrison: Questions." Arts Magazine 52, no. 6, pp. 131-32 and Perrone, Jeff. "Review." Artforum, April, 1974. A concise bibliography for the Harrison's is available on the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts website. I still lament the lack of a footnoting feature on blogspot and encourage you to reread the last sentence if you've lost your train of thought). Indeed, the Harrisons would be harder to take seriously if they affected a greater expertise in the sciences than they really had, and notes of elitism do come through in their decision to display their work in a gallery or museum setting rather than, say, through television.
This criticism, while altogether reasonable, seems to miss the point of what the Harrisons have been trying to do. By establishing models for ecological preservation and sustainability that many local and state governments have actually put into practice, they lend substantial credence to the notion that cultural figures deserve a seat at the table of environmental policy. While the "results" of the Harrisons work (photographs, maps, slide shows, etc.) are best displayed in a gallery or museum setting, it is only because their real product is (at the risk of sounding New Age-y) in the land. It has no fixed boundaries, no temporal limit, and no real way of being compartmentalized or packaged. I was downright delighted to hear a story of a collector who wanted to blow up one of the more picturesque photographs the Harrisons had used in one of their shows to place over his couch. They turned him down.
Part of what An Adaptation does is indeed political and rhetorical. One walks away with the understanding that global warming will change the delicate ecological balance of places like the Sacramento San Joaquin Drain Basin forever, and that only through concerted, nuanced political action can we expect to meet those changes in a way that will incur minimal harm. The power of the Harrisons' work, however, doesn't really come from the purity or directness of this message, but from the delicacy and nuance with which they have described their subject. They have sought not so much to make art, as to tell a story. And they have excelled.
Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation will be on view at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (31 Mercer St, New York, NY, 10013) until March 26th.