Artists, in their times, have played significant roles in political revolutions the whole world over, whether it be John Milton defending dissidents in the First English Civil War in the 1640s or living artists such as Ai Weiwei calling for extensive political reform in modern China. What about art and artistic life intersects with politics so significantly that artists will risk and sacrifice themselves for a cause?
In 1823, the English poet Lord Byron traveled to Greece, and from his own money financed a troop of 500 soldiers and a small fleet in the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In his poem Don Juan, Byron wrote of his reasoning, “I dream’d that Greece might still be free.” The image of the artist as the noble revolutionary, working and sacrificing from the good of his own heart for the simple sake of doing the right thing is on full display here. Byron committed fully, dying in Greece (though from fever as opposed to a violent death). Perhaps it was something in the Romantic temperament that persuaded Byron that Greece needed his help; Byron himself had no Greek blood in him, England would have gained little from Greece’s independence, and Byron spent a good deal of the fortune he had amassed as a poet on the war. It would make no sense to attribute Byron’s actions to a thirst for fame or for recognition, as Byron was at this point at the height of his career, and was likely the most famous and beloved poet in all of England. Few would have doubted that he was a romantic. Barring some hidden motivation that remains obscured to biographers and academics, it would seem that Byron devoted himself to the Greek cause for no reason besides that of truly loving freedom from tyranny and helping all he could to remove tyranny from the world. Up to this day, Greeks hold Byron up as a hero.
Several years before Byron committed to the Greek revolution, the French painter Jacques-Louis David devoted a great deal of his work to revolutions. A friend of the infamous revolutionary Maximilien de Robespierre and member of the revolutionary Jacobin club, David painted portraits and elegiac scenes for the leaders of the French Revolution, such as Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. Following the arrest and execution of the leaders of the Reign of Terror, which David miraculously survived, David did almost the complete opposite of a true revolutionary: he began to work for the government. Granted, he did not work for the monarchy or the aristocracy he rebelled against, but rather a new monarch: Napoleon Bonaparte.
The mystery of David’s ‘selling out’ is how a man so mercurially devoted to the revolution, who so violently agreed to the guillotining of those he didn’t agree with politically, could have possibly calmed down enough to work for a man suchas Napoleon. In fact, Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, was the one who brought David to Napoleon’s attention, despite the fact that David signed the execution order on her first husband. As such, it could be fair to say that Jacques Louis David was in it for the advancement. Prior to the revolution, he had tried and repeatedly failed to exhibit paintings at the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was ideologically in step with the monarchy and aristocracy. It is safe to assume, then, that had the revolution not taken place, David would have gladly tried to fit his paintings in both style and subject to satisfy the Academy’s tastes.
Perhaps the artist, though, is not motivated personally by ideology or the possibility of advancement, but rather through there being a place in the revolution for them. In his book Guerilla Warfare, the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara recommends a list of essential supplies for revolutionaries to bring with them, most of which are what one would expect: rifle, food, compass. Then the unexpected point, which he stresses: a book. For Guevara, literature was more than entertainment or a means of staving off boredom: it was something to be inspired by, something to give cause to revolutionary movements. The American writer Ambrose Bierce departed for the Mexican Revolution, hoping to simply see it and perhaps cover it. A letter to his niece published in part in Lapham’s Quarterly shows how it possibly ended for Bierce: “Goodbye- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and being shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life… To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia.” Bierce had been travelling merely as an observer, not a combatant, with Pancho Villa’s army. He disappeared in 1913.
The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, too, provided great opportunity for journalists, writers, and other artists to observe: the Hotel Florida in Madrid housed at the same time Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos, Errol Flynn, Robert Capa, and Gerda Taro, among others. Even more involved in the Spanish Civil War included George Orwell, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and James Joyce. This particular war for some reason drew great numbers – probably due to the artistic life of France in the 1920s. But as it stands, revolutions have long presented situations that artists are intrigued by. It may be the concept of people so roused to action against their old ways of life that rouses artists out of their lazy ways of life. Or perhaps it is something in some mysterious unknowable artistic temperament, something that draws artists to revolution. Not necessarily even to participate or to support, or even suppress them, but merely to witness them, and give their testimony to history.