The Brushworks of Politics

Cyan, indigo, chestnut brown and a rich cherry red, each of these colors are distinct, but once they come together they make something more beautiful than themselves. With these colors as their weapons painters can make columns rise to the heights of mountains, faces express the deepest of emotions, and water peacefully lap at an oceans shore.

Paintings have been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages. Anyone who has entered an art museum has had that one friend explain the deeper meaning of each and every painting. They attempt to draw lessons from the brushwork and principles from the colors–and if you haven’t had a friend do this to you, you might be that friend. No matter how annoying it can be to hear our friends drone on about the meaning of a painting, where many would much rather just silently stare, they are right. Painting is an all encompassing medium, it can teach us some of the most important lessons and reveal to us truths that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Paintings can be expressly political, or they can carry a deep political message hidden within the curves of a woman’s face, or the sheared façade of a cliffside. The hidden message of paintings is a popular topic for many, but there is a more important aspect to both painting and politics that one cannot see in a museum. Just as the painting itself teaches the viewer the meaning and intention of the artist, so to does the brush teach the artist lessons which nature seeks to convey. The sacred act of painting itself teaches to the artist deep lessons of politics, only accessible through the inner machinations of canvas and color.

The lessons that this art conveys are numerous, but some are more important than others. To paint properly one must understand how to layer various colors with one another to create depth. Layering requires foresight, the painter has to know what he intends to create, and he must predict the steps he will take to achieve that end. The painter is forced to assess all aspects of the painting before his brush ever touches the canvas, he must consider how each color will interact with every other color, and determine what will achieve the desired effect.

The greatest statesman of the modern era, Winston Churchill, was himself an avid painter and also recognized this relationship between painting and politics. Churchill was well acquainted with these principles and utilized them both in his paintings and his politics. The chief characteristic of any statesman is prudence, and prudence cannot be had without foresight. The statesman must, just as Churchill did, have some conception of the events that were to come and how they would alter the current political storm. In Marlborough: His Life and Times, Churchill states that the picture of politics, and the great men who partake in it, are not “to be painted in bold blacks and whites. We gaze upon a scene of greys shading indefinably, mysteriously, in and out of one another. A mere recital of facts and outlines would give no true description without a comprehension of the atmosphere. We have to analyze half-tones and discern the subtle planes upon which the subject depends for its interpretation.” The statesman and the painter must both learn foresight, utilizing the available information for the betterment of their work. The statesman, just as the painter beginning his masterpiece, chooses the course that is best for his country, regardless of the mixture of colors or characters that are presented to him.

Before a painter or a statesman can conceive of any course, however, he must first learn how to assess the situation. This too is taught through painting through the importance of scenery and perspective. The painter wastes his time if he carefully examines the whole of an object and memorizes every side the light touches, when in the end he will only utilize one perspective. As the painter becomes more experienced he learns how to examine a scene and quickly determine the best place to stand. This does not mean that he ignores parts of the whole or overlooks important details, instead he has learned to assess which details are the most important and give them their proper attention. Niccolo Machiavelli argued in the dedicatory letter of The Prince that the ability to do this was something possessed by great men to the benefit of government. No ruler can stand among the people and properly assess them as a whole, just as no painter can stand in the center of a valley and hope to catch all of its beauty.

But the most important lesson that painting teaches us about politics is even more fundamental than perspective, it is the art of imitation. Through the medium of painting, the painter gains the ability to take what is and shape it into what it ought to be. The painter is forced to look at reality and see in it all the possible creations that can spring forth. According to Aristotle in the Poetics the main difference between poetry and painting is their medium of expression, but it can be reasonably assumed that the function of both remains the same, “to relate [not] what has happened but what may happen – according to the laws of probability or necessity.” The painter can therefore see what is, or what has been, and imitate them to such an extent that they are made anew, sometimes to an even greater degree than before.   

There is a deep bond between the painter and his work, just as there exists a connection between the statesman and his nation. The skills gained from one can be easily transferred to the other. This does not mean that every painter is a statesman, or that every senator could tell the difference between a fan and a filbert brush. What this does mean, however, is that the virtues gained from properly studying the art of politics and the art of painting are similar. So even if they don’t become Rembrandt, it may be a good idea to encourage our politicians to take up painting, so that they better imbibe the lessons instilled by this age old art form.