Oil-free art

By Chris Creighton-Kelly

Musings on the practical difficulties of mixing art and politics.

I write these words from one of my favorite places. Collioure—a delightful, Catalan village in the south of France just a few kilometers from the Spanish border, where the Pyrenees slope gently into the silver-blue of the Mediterranean. 

It is a place for resting, loving, writing, eating and drinking well, strolling in the sunlight, sitting calmly. For experiencing the extraordinary sense of simply being alive, in this place, in this moment, in this spirit. In short, a place to appreciate the good things in life, to appreciate the good thing that is my life.

It is also a place for painting. Collioure is beloved by painters. A little over a hundred years ago, Henri Matisse and André Derain were inspired by the dancing interplay of intense light and bold colours. The work they made here generated a short-lived but important art movement: Fauvism. To this day, painters love to be here.

I sit in a café. I sip on pastis, revelling in this history. My thoughts wander. I wonder, why do artists paint what they do? 

I recall that just before I left Victoria to visit here, I went to an exhibition entitled Art for an Oil-Free Coast, a project of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Fifty artists were taken by Raincoast on a boat ride to the Great Bear Rain Forest region, a dazzling combo of fjords, river estuaries and forests which is home to many of BC’s Coastal First Nations.

Once there, they sketched and painted, creating the artworks which now constitute the exhibition. These were then donated for auction with all proceeds going to Raincoast, specifically to create a tanker-free area all along BC’s fragile, coastal eco-zones. 

Full disclosure here. I have over the years organized art auctions and contributed my own artworks for political causes. I entirely oppose the building of new pipelines in BC. 

Ditto for any new oil tankers. I fully support Raincoast’s efforts to educate and spur citizens to action against these destructive, oil industry initiatives.

But the morning of my visit, I felt discomfort.

The potent mix of art and politics was on the table. Art and politics—their histories and discourses cross in so many ways. Art influences politics. At the same time, political regimes circumscribe artistic practice. Artists, simply because of their eccentric, often transgressive lives, become “political” whether they like it or not. 

Is there such a thing as non-political art? Art can, at times, accurately capture the spirit of social change. But often it is useless in the face of fast-moving political movements. And yet, every political movement, from the mainstream to the most oppositional, uses art in the service of a kind of political, text/image propaganda. Art is never really outside this type of political context. 

The human imagination which we use to create an artwork also encourages us to envision more peaceful, more just, more culturally rich ways of living. Can we say, however, that a society with more arts, more imagination, more cultures on display is a “better” society? 

As I approached the Art for an Oil-Free Coast exhibition, earnest volunteers explained the genesis and purpose of these artworks. Cramped and poorly lit, they were crowded into a dankish, low-ceilinged, convention centre room.

I immediately thought of the international conversation about the instrumentalization of the arts. This fancy word basically means that the arts can be (and in a sense, always have been) used for purposes that are economic, social or political. Today we hear about the arts being good for business, good for social justice, good for cities, good for cultural diversity, etc.

Can art also be good for the environment? That question was neither posed nor answered. It was assumed to be a “yes” response. In fact, no questions were asked. 

Simply admire brushstroke and colour use; be in awe of majestic land and seascape; comment on exquisite, artistic renderings.  

Oh, and please put your money on the art and politics table—lots of it, if you want an art piece of the action. Oh, and isn’t art supposed to be about questions as well as answers? I had a few.

Why was almost every piece in a representational style? Why were they almost exclusively devoid of human figures? Are we not, as a species, part of nature? Why were the artworks priced way beyond the reach of the average citizen? 

With the important exception of the Aboriginal artists, why were the rest all mono-racial, mostly of a certain age? Why does the environmental movement in general—including the Green Party—not get that they need to do outreach to Canadians of colour in order to be taken seriously? 

A very complex environmental challenge seemed so simplistic, so dumbed-down. What if the project were conceptualized differently? Say, an accompanying exhibit by kids, illustrating what they see. Which could then be used to go into schools to encourage teachers and children alike to think seriously about the many contradictions of our contemporary eco-living.

Or a curated exhibition elaborating how corporations use art and design to present the “wonderful good” of refining oil for our society; juxtaposed with actual images of the tar sands and oil pipelines; juxtaposed with works by artists—both representational and conceptual.

Art and politics mixed together. That is a complex combination. It has been said that all art is political. If we see politics as the narrow, often childish, activities in the House of Commons, this statement seems untrue, almost irrelevant. Most art has nothing to do with those kind of antics. 

But if we understand politics in its historical development from the Greek word politikos through to the present day, as the context and systems that citizens invent to govern themselves, plus the language that they use to articulate this governance, then politics becomes a world view.

And art, whatever else it happens to be, describes a world view. Michaelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel”; Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”; Andy Warhol’s endless serigraphs; Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits; Anish Kapoor’s deeply pigmented sculptures all tell us about what matters to each of them, how their world is constructed. They all, each in their own way, suggest a world view; they are, each in their own way, political.


Back at the café, the sun is setting, all around me is less warm. Suddenly, it seems, there is a winter chill in the late afternoon air. The ice cubes have melted; my pastis is finished. I am returning back to the present tense.  

Back to contemporary life where an artist’s world view can be (re)produced with a click of a mouse button, the whir of a giclee print or the flash of an HD camera shutter. Endless copies of every image, of every performance, of every text ready to be YouTubed; Facebooked or Instagrammed. 

What does this constant, unavoidable copying by both old and new technologies imply for the intersection of art and politics? Does the absence of any kind of “original” diminish the authenticity, the “aura”? Over 70 years ago, the social critic and art theorist Walter Benjamin noted: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”

I get up from my empty pastis now, a bit disgruntled with my thoughts about “inauthenticity.” I stop for a minute to buy a couple of tacky, souvenir postcards.

To be continued in the next Culture Talks.

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.