ARTS & POLITICS: What Gains Does The Relationship Witnessed in 2013 Elections Have?


Rapper Prezzo was among artists who endorsed Raila Odinga

Unlike any other species on earth, mankind has always had an artistic streak. The earliest cave paintings are interpreted as stories or as a historical record, yet as mankind developed, the use of art developed from mere record-keeping to something else. Art as beauty became important; but as democracy spread to the masses, it became increasingly superficial. Instead, art often focused on meaning to make a statement about the world and ultimately attain a political dimension

Art does not just influence people, but it also can control them. Jonathan Petropoulos wrote in the Chicago Tribune that: “Almost as soon as the Nazis seized control, they recognized that those who had the power to censor the arts … could control the government”. This is because the movies, music, paintings and press could spread differing viewpoints and engage the public in open debate. For the Nazi party, there was only one way and no other should be discussed. By clamping down on the debate that art creates, the Nazis could control the population and make sure they had only one way of thinking.

Artists create not in a vacuum, but as integral members of a society. Their work, therefore, often expresses viewpoints about society, including its politics and government. From the Italian Renaissance to modern-day America, art has played a prominent role in politics, and the two have had an often complex relationship. Although government authorities have provided support for the arts, politics and the arts often have an adversarial relationship. This is especially true of modern times, as many artists express political and social views through their work.

In Kenya however, the story is more than just different, in the just concluded elections artists decided to derive their livelihood from the performance of their work. Unlike in the past when Micere Mugo, Ngungi wa Thiongo, Wahome Mutahi et al, all faced the wrath of the law for stepping on the toes of the government, the new generations of artists in Kenya today have grown to appreciate political patronage. As time passes, the visual and performing artists have become less politically provocative, with artists no longer using their work to make statements or highlight certain issues.

Although commercial forces, rather than political ones, determine most artistic successes, the political factors in a market capitalist system make the arts automatically a part of the political process. Artists and their works have played significant roles in many social and political events. Popular music, for example, provided a virtual soundtrack for the political rallies. In addition, some prominent performing artists successfully used their “celebrity” dome to call upon their supporters to vote in a particular way, through endorsements of preferred presidential candidates, with talks of hefty pay packages towards the same gestures.


The big question is, what was the impact of the arts/artists involvement with just concluded general elections and what is in it for the arts and culture industry in future? Was it all about self enrichment for the involved artists or a collective bargain for the industry and in the case of the later, what are the agreements made between the presidential candidates and the industry? At times when government funding for the arts is severely threatened, it is critical to understand what how far the relationship between the arts and the political class will go.

The artist and the politician stand at opposite poles. The artist enhances life by his prolonged concentration upon it, while the politician emphasizes the impersonal aspect of life by his attempts to fit men into groups. The artist’s enhancement of life may emphasize, at certain times, those aspects that a politician can use. But the politician, at other times, eager to do good for man, may sneer at the artist because the art product cannot be used by him. Hence, the two groups of men, driving in the same direction, committed to the same vision, often find themselves locked in a struggle more desperate than either of them wanted.


Artists, by that I mean all creative people, not just musicians are not only the architects of tomorrow’s reality, but a barometer by which we can gauge the spiritual & mental health of a society. They are the unseen helmsmen that steer us toward new realities.

In a totalitarian society, artists that serve this function are suppressed, and subjugated to the will of the state. This action alone is adequate proof of the importance of art, for if it had no importance, no influence, why would the powers-that-be exert so much effort to control it? Art is communication, but not just any communication: it is communication in its purest, highest form. That is why a totalitarian government will attempt to harness it to their own purposes.

In a capitalist society, artists that know how to use the system will flourish and prosper; although, unfortunately, many artists find that their orientation is more geared to making art than promoting it properly and adhering to sound business practices. Thus, in a profit-oriented society, artists are often disillusioned by lack of material success, and often have to work at other jobs in order to make ends meet. This can sometimes generate negative feelings toward such a society, as the artist’s role in determining the future of society is not adequately appreciated. So artists in Kenyan today, believed to be a free society, tend to have leaned to the right politically, seeking support from individual political patrons as opposed from the society as whole.

What do I expect to see in the new found love between arts and politics in Kenya? A true expression of self which will rely ultimately upon freedom, the ideal scene would encompass educating artists in the “art” of managing their affairs and activities so that they are better able to profit from their own efforts. A really intelligent society, though, would provide tax benefits, perhaps even total exemption, to those creative souls among us who serve to make this country a better place to live in.


Ringtone was among the “Dunda na Jubilee” Team that supported Uhuru Kenyatta


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