Take a look at the governments and leaders of any of the world’s countries today (except maybe Vladimir Putin) and you will see legions of drab, dreary looking individuals all wearing the same grey suits, regurgitating the same false promises to the public as their predecessors. This universal depiction of most state leaders has existed since at least the end of World War II, with these people and their subordinates representing the classes known collectively as the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy needs to stay conservative in their policies if they want to fulfill their duties (tax collection, for the most part) and to punish those who get in the way. While its separate components consist of bland, docile, and relatively harmless individuals, the bureaucracy as a whole is able to threaten punishment because the state, which they serve, often holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical violence. Even today when we hear the words “government” or “police” we are still met with feelings of fear and worry; that is, the fear of the punishment and that legitimate violence, which may be doled out at the hands of agents of the state and its bureaucracy. But where does the artist fit into all of this?
The question we are confronted with is whether we should be more cautious of those we have traditionally been taught to fear (the hands of the state: the police, the army), or the artist. My contention is that we would do well in any day and age, but particularly in this one, to be a lot more wary of the actions of artists than those of any head of state, military leader, or other traditionally feared political entity. Allow me to explain.
I must admit that in some ways this notion has already been explored much earlier, when in 1839 the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” in his play, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. While this does sound quite similar to the central idea being explored here, the difference lies in that Bulwer-Lytton seems to advocate diplomacy in favor of violence for achieving social goals, whereas I will be pointing out the difference in the intensity and significance of the violence enacted by those more apt to express themselves artistically and those not.
Throughout history, the large majority of politicians and statesmen already belonged to the elite classes of their respective societies before stepping into their political offices. Most of them were brought up from a young age to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and forefathers, to ensure the continuity of the political system that favored their interests. As such, their education and recreation consisted of, and continues to consist of, teaching the skills that would prepare them for running the affairs of the state. Just think of the education received by members of the European royal families or nobility. The traditional curriculum consisting of subjects such as the languages, religious instruction, history, geography, and military affairs (usually taught at some form of military academy). All of these subjects were, and are still, necessary in order to mold the new generations into people capable of running the state in a manner that allows continuity.
The key word to keep in mind here is ‘’continuity”. What continuity really refers to is the continuity of the state’s hold on the monopoly on legitimate violence, and by extension, continuity of the power and privilege held by those elites that make up the state. While it is important for state leaders and the bureaucracy to use their power to repel threats to this monopoly from foreign entities, it is more so the domestic threats to the monopoly which take priority, and which occur much more frequently. In most developed countries this distinction often manifests itself in small, individual acts of relatively mundane violence by agents of the state against its own citizens to ensure the law is upheld — in other words, using the police to arrest those who thought themselves above the laws of their respective societies. It is true that this can result in numerous injustices, as well as the deaths of private citizens, but in general arrests for speeding or small robberies never make the history books.
Every now and again, though, we see individuals come about who totally disrupt the continuity of the established political classes, and whose extreme violence does make the history books. These are the individuals who are able to understand the afflictions and material conditions of their era, they are able to harness the zeitgeist and use it to express their ideologies in the real world — they are the artists. These individuals are painters, poets, writers, or musicians before they ever become statesmen, and I claim that we should be more cautious of them than any man in uniform or grey suit because the violence that they have the potential to inflict in expressing themselves is overwhelming. There has been no shortage of examples to support this throughout history, but I will only lay out a few of the most poignant so that you get an idea.
Many people may be aware that the infamous Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was actually born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. A lesser known fact about him, however, is that the name Stalin (which translates into “steel” in Russian) was a pen name for his writings on Marxism, and that he had another pseudonym, Soselo — under which he wrote poetry. As a child he had been inspired by the Georgian national epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, and went on to read all of the popular poetry of the time, eventually being able to recite Walt Whitman and Shakespeare by heart (Montefiore, 2007). Writing poetry is generally thought of as an activity reserved for those of a more peaceful and calm nature, so it might be a little difficult to imagine a man, who would later be responsible for the deaths of nearly 27 million people, sitting in his room counting verses and syllables for haikus and limericks.
Around the same time that Stalin was developing and honing his prose, another young man was discovering himself as a painter, and on his way to applying for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. As you may have guessed, that man was Adolf Hitler. Though the Academy rejected young Adolf not once, but twice, he nonetheless continued painting to support his himself financially until the outbreak of the First World War, by which point he had already began devoting his artistic talents to aiding the nationalist political movements of Germany. Throughout his lifetime it is estimated that he produced over 300 completed works of art, and he is even recorded once having confided to the British ambassador, Neville Henderson, that he saw himself as an artist, not a politician, and that he planned to return to art once Poland had been conquered (Gunther, 1940).
Going back four-hundred years before Stalin and Hitler, to the days of the Holy Roman Empire, we find another German-speaking artist who would also send ripples through time and space, reshaping the political landscape of the whole of Europe for centuries to follow. Martin Luther is known today as the leading figure in the Protestant Reformation, the religious upheaval which would displace Roman Catholicism as the main religion in much of Northern Europe. But aside from his religious vocation, and before espousing the renegade brand of Christianity after he famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church denouncing the hypocrisies of Roman Catholicism, Martin Luther was also a well-known musical composer, as well as a proficient lute player, having written many hymns in his lifetime (Lupu, 2019).
Lastly, I want to bring to attention one last painter disguised as a politician. Winston Churchill, an ardent British nationalist, is remembered today for the most part as being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, and bravely defending the UK from the Axis Powers. But as circumstance would have it, Churchill too had an artistic side as well, seldom mentioned in the history books, where he was an avid painter of oil and watercolors. Throughout his lifetime it is estimated that he created over 550 paintings, which can still be found in museums and private collections today (BBC, 2019). Again, it is quite difficult to picture someone who was nicknamed the “British Bulldog” wearing a smock in front of a canvas.
While these four individuals did not necessarily share the same political views, ideologies, or motivations, what they did share was a propensity for extreme measures to achieve their political goals — be them motivated by political ideology, religion, or nationalism. We might even go so far as to say that what these people were not able to express on the canvas or in musical notes, as they may have liked to, they expressed in the political arena. The downside to this, unfortunately, was that as they painted their respective political landscapes, so to speak, they left ungodly carnage in the wake. Stalin, for example, in transforming the communist regime was infamously responsible for the deaths of an estimated 27 million people through the various political purges, executions, and gulags, as well as the forced relocation of wealthy farmers, and famines he brought about (Merriman, 2010). Hitler, in attempting to expand the reach of the Nazi regime and apply the Nazi ideology to real life, was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 19 million people (Merriman, 2010). Martin Luther, though never directly killing or ordering the killing of anyone, would set in motion in a reformation whose resulting wars and conflicts would be responsible for the deaths of between 4 and 12 million people from the Thirty Years War alone, and the persecution of many more people for years to come (White, 2013). Finally, Churchill, though he is remembered quite fondly by history for his efforts for Britain during the Second World War, was no angel either. The more poignant facts about Churchill’s political undertakings are often overlooked, or omitted entirely from the historical narrative. A strong proponent of British imperialism, Churchill and his policies were directly responsible for atrocities such as the Bengal famine which killed between 3–4 million Indians under the rule of the British colonial authorities (Tharoor, 2017). Further, as the Secretary of State for War and Air, he did much to preserve the repression of Ireland, with such actions as deploying the Black and Tans, a paramilitary unit who carried out extrajudicial killings, as well as numerous other attacks on civilians and their property.
Looking at the work of the world-renowned psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, there may be some explanation for this connection between art and murderous politics in the end. Kahneman has famously theorized that human thinking can be divided into systems one and two, system one representing fast, unconscious and automatic thought; and system two representing slower, more effortful and calculating thought. It should be quite obvious which of the two systems any strategic thinking or politicking would fall into (system two), but what about doing art? Despite the clichés of the laid-back, bohemian artist, performing any traditional art in any valuable capacity (be it painting, writing literature, or composing music) demands more than just a laid-back, unconscious effort. To successfully create a painting, for example, one would constantly have to be making an effort to consider things such the direction of the light, the change in the hues based on the direction and amount of light, calculating proportions and sizes based on relative distances, as well as considering anatomy and bone structure if painting people or animals. In writing good literature, a conscious effort needs to be made to ensure character development, the creation of a logical narrative, proper grammar (too often taken for granted), and ease of comprehension for the reader. Performing any traditional art properly would then also compel the faculties of system two, and we could thus postulate that the same gifts or talents that may make one a great artist, may also make them a great (or infamous) politician.
Though these gifts or talents may reside within us innately, we often forget how susceptible we are to our external circumstances, as well as the material conditions of the eras we live in. Perhaps under different circumstances Stalin may have been known throughout the world for his poetry, and Hitler for his paintings. So, the next time you run into a starving artist at a bar, offer to buy him or her a drink, and you might just prevent a war.