Important Visual Aspect Of Politics Cultural Studies Essay

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Politics is the activity of deciding how society will be governed. It includes formal and informal, institutional as well as popular politics. The study of politics tends to be very textual and most of the time is spent reading and writing about politics rather than looking at things. However, the practice of politics has always had a large visual component to it that cannot be truly understood just by reading texts. Visual symbols are noted to play a central role in developing a sense of self-consciousness, and its power lies in its ability to transmit flavours, colours, images and movements. [1] This essay will cover the importance of visual culture and imagery in politics as well as cover some examples that will further exemplify its importance.

Political beliefs and actions spring from assumptions, biases and news reports. In essence, the world is a place composed of images and models into which people translate the reported news, thus making that translation a necessity. [2] For instance, a report that American missiles' launched against Baghdad to punish the Iraqi dictator, takes its meaning from a person's repertoire of images about historical and fictional military actions, including the devastation that war brings to civilians. In a crucial sense, art is the fountainhead from which political discourse, beliefs about politics, and consequent actions ultimately spring. However as noted by Murray Edelman, there is of course "no simple causal connection because works of art are themselves part of a social milieu from which political movements also emerge". But there is a complex causal connection. Art should be recognized as part of a transaction that engenders political behaviour. [3] 

Works of art generate ideas about leadership, bravery, dangers, authority and fantasies about the future that people typically assume to be reflections of their own observations and reasoning. But as already noted, political events are typically reported and assumed. Both reporters' and spectators' observations take their meaning from memorable images that may be derived directly or indirectly from art rather than from objective observation. As such, art constructs the worlds in which we act. The choices that people make from the menu of models that works of art offer them are bound to be driven by ideology. [4] Art and ideology ensure that there is no immaculate perception. As such, politics cannot exist without art and ideology.

Increasingly, political theorists and others are bringing works of art into the classroom. At the same time, students of politics are revisiting earlier attempts at exploring the role and formation of political concepts. By borrowing from literary and artistic ideas and perspectives, it signifies interdisciplinary research agenda in the making. [5] Numerous scholarly works in modern political studies are committed to building theories, at the same time bringing into relief the importance of art, thus complementing the scientific enterprise of describing and explaining political phenomena. A concept drawn from life imitating art aptly illustrates this point, where Oscar Wilde held in his 1889 essay "The Decay of Lying" that "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life". Wilde holds that such anti-mimesis "results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy." As such, drawing from such work can explain the political phenomena we see today. [6] 

Art also has the evocative power to shape politics. Edelman claims that "the catalog of conceptions and perceptions stemming from works of art and forming political ideas and actions can be extended indefinitely", as well as "shaping the meanings of everyday developments". If people "perceive and conceive in the light of narratives, pictures and images," then works of art become "the medium through which new meanings emerge". Also, because artistic practice is mostly public in nature, art is thus well suited to the shaping of political ideas. Hence its power has made it historically complicit with and subject to pedagogy, propaganda, censorship, control and subversion.

There are several reasons why the arts in their form and production, enables one to observe and experience aspects of political life that we cannot be achieved otherwise. The first involves the role of human agency, which takes into account the intentions, motivations and reasons for human action. Artistic works take stock of the discontinuities of the social life process that cannot be accommodated by the "science" of human life or generalizations about human behaviour. Secondly, art is a privileged medium in the sense that it imparts knowledge about life, in this case political life, at both the abstract level and meaning at a deeper cultural level. [7] The third reason that literary and other texts provide the site for political discourse is because they are influenced by their historical circumstances in time and space. [8] For example, we cannot begin to talk about art and politics in Africa without considering the impact of colonialism and its aftermath, and without the insights of postcolonial criticism. Lastly, the perspectives obtained from art aid in informing politics. The innovative role played by intellectuals and artists and their influence in the construction of images are also part of the political realities in the here and now. [9] 

The principle of collage has also played a major role in twentieth century art, literature, film and music. The critical role of collage over the past century reveals its creative and political dimensions and the cultural work of its artists as public intellectuals, as stated by Kuenzli. [10] Newspapers were once considered the mouthpieces of political ideological representations through the century. However for artists, the ideologies they embodied and disseminated could be literally cut up, rearranged and transformed, emphasizing its increased importance in politics.

Marxist theory perspectives can also briefly be explored to show the importance of visuals in politics. Orthodox Marxist critics and theorist maintain that all actions have political implications; hence all aspects of art and visual culture are political in nature. A case in point would be Arnold Schwarzenegger's awesome spectacle in the California political scene. Literary critic Roland Barthes characterized the snare of the photographic image in the electoral myth making process as follows, "Inasmuch as photography is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an 'ineffable' social whole, it constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away 'politics' to the advantage of a 'manner of being', a social moral status". [11] Indeed, it argues that the mirror of photography, which can also be attributed to television and visual culture in general, enables a narcissistic complicity whereby political candidates and their voters find likeness in each other. As political candidates are exalted through their photogenic qualities, "the voter is at once expressed and heroized". Similarly drawn from psychologist Jacques Lacan's mirror, Schwarzenneger's constituency bestows him and is in turn bestowed with mythical power. [12] 

With Schwarzenneger's clever use of irony in his films, the parody of his "wink" serves as a critical gesture to entertain and perpetuate institutionalized and corporate politics. As noted by Jan Jagodzinski, he asserts that while Hollywood's wink lets the audience "know that what they are watching is simply exaggerated artifice," it nonetheless creates the "false consciousness" (in the Marxian sense) of the capitalist subject. This outwardly resists corporate capitalism while believing in its myth on the inside. [13] The exercise of visuals in politics as illustrated here is subtle but nonetheless important.

The importance of imagery in modern politics will also be examined. Politicians must rely on image to carry the day, a fact that modern politics entails. This has been the way since debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were first televised in 1960. Political Observer Daniel Boorstin noted from these "great debates" that television has reduced complex political discussion to one-dimensional visual storytelling. [14] From these debates, viewers were left to judge, not on issues explored by these men, but on the relative ability of the two candidates to perform under television stress. The vast increase in media outlets has only served to further trivialize the political process. In today's political scene, most voters grow up learning from television images rather than words. Successful politicians must therefore be more adept than ever at using images to solicit knee-jerk reactions from voters.

Visual image-making by politicians is nothing new. Politicians have always attempted to control their image in the media. [15] For candidates and campaigns, getting the best image possible is of utmost importance. George W. Bush nearly perfected the art of the image bite and had multiple former television staff to mold his visual image and spared no expense at doing so. An example would be him speaking about jobs to low working Americans, in which the VIPs seated behind him were instructed to remove their neckties so that he would appear as the "man of the people" on television. In August 2003, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean spoke in front of a campaign-created graffiti-painted background in Manhattan's Bryant Park in an attempt at reaching out to young voters. [16] 

To drive home the point of the importance of visuals, we can take a closer look at the toppling of the Saddam regime, where the first steps were taken at creating a new era of peace in the Middle East. It was not enough to show that Saddam was a tyrant. American voters required something more, sending the administration desperately scurrying for images of uncovered weapons of mass destruction. Foreign affairs, which lack the immediacy of domestic issues, derive their legitimacy from the threat of clear and present danger. The administration recognized just that, thus explaining why they "sold" the war with Iraq as a war to halt Saddam's weapons programme. This visual evidence was required to make the argument seem real. Hence, every new foreign affairs agenda was undercut by the failure to achieve visual closure in Iraq. Overall, American politics had long been trivialized by television images. [17] 

In conclusion, many aspects of visual culture as described in this essay illustrate the importance of it in politics. This is seen in how political theorists and teachers of politics have been increasingly emphasizing the need for art in better interpreting political phenomena. Images, pictures, characters and narratives have shaped our perceptions of the political world. Exploring the Marxist perspective in modern times also helps explain how politicians use "false consciousness" to gain support from the unsuspecting electorate. And lastly, American politics has been trivialized so much by television images that the term "seeing believes" becomes ever more evident. Should the administration have failed to come up with the crucial image of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, their foreign affairs agenda would have receded in significance, and the nation would be susceptible to the next demagogue who immersed himself in domestic issues and popular culture. As such, the visual aspect of politics is important.