It is impossible in fact to truly break from all of the past in art. One can of course reach so far into the past that the creation seems new: as many artists did in the second half of the 20th century. They reached back to the Bronze Age and the Neolithic, looking for a fresh perspective unadultered by the history of colonialism and empire. But this is a cheat code, a way to simply avoid the problem of built-in discrimination. Only recently have artists begun to take a better approach: re-appropriating the tools of Empire and Colonialist to imagine or potentially accomplish liberation. Likewise, in the 20th Century socialist states ran away from the artwork of the past: refusing to engage with it as a statement about its problematic foundations.
This is how you ended up with the bizarre situation of Tchaikovsky being banned by the Soviets, despite his work being the ultimate expression of the pain of the oppressed. His violin sonata None but the Lonely Heart is a perfect expression of the painful choice that oppressed people faced: be silent and live, or speak up and perish. It is a love song shorn of its lyrics, a serenade masquerading as a sonata: a revolutionary anthem, pretending to be a lullaby. Tchaikovsky was gay, but the song's very wordlessness allows it to be about universal liberation. The bombast of the 1812 Overture too is subtly revolutionary: It celebrates a victory by the peasants of the Neva river, not the Kossaks of the Tzar. It is the Overture to Les Deux Grenadiers, which draws parallels between the Russian and French soldiers by uniting the two pieces with a single theme. His Nutcracker Suite pretends to be a child's fantasy, but is actually a social commentary. The name of the main character is no accident: Clara, meaning "truth". Likewise, the Nutcracker Prince is an inherently revolutionary figure: a nutcracker is something which cracks open a facade or mask to reveal the truth. While Tchaikovsky didn't write the plot, it's interesting that he chose to score this particular story and in this particular way. The original story doesn't make mention of where the various sweets and delicacies that Clara dreams about come from: only listing what they are. Tchaikovsky makes each one a musical homage to the culture it comes from, although unfortunately not all choreographers have been so sensitive. The ultimate message of the ballet then is that truth is universal and revered by all cultures. True the ballet depicts the act of conquest and of bringing tribute: but they are bringing tribute to a concept, not an Empire. It affirms dedication to ideology over obedience to temporal powers.
Only now are other artists starting to do what Tchaikovksy did all those years ago. But, this is dangerous territory. Many artists have found themselves accidentally advancing stereotypes, and enough artists do it intentionally that fans don't tend to believe it when someone says it was an accident. One must think about the narrative that the original work is advancing, and think about how to subvert it. The rising popularity of Lovecraft for example, carries with it the danger that long unused racist stereotypes will reappear. Lovecraft's original stories were quite racist: with many of the Great Old Ones having names inspired by ancient Egypt (you know, a black African civilization). This is a problem since these gods tend to be evil or at least hostile to humanity. And then there is the uncanny resemblance of the fishmen to caricatures of African-Americans. Indeed, Lovecraft also seems to have a problem with women, pregnancy, and fertility: a lot of his stories portray childbirth, the lunar cycle, and the act of conception as innately horrifying. This shows that sexism and racism go hand in hand, they have the same root in immature masculinity. Lovecraft's non-fiction writing also shows that he was racist and sexist. A modern writer must use Lovecraft with care, so as not to import the original author's biases unknowingly.
That being said, it is possible to untangle old artworks from their biases. The way to do this is to take the symbols out of their original context, and give them a new one. For example, by replicating famous paintings with ordinary black people instead of famous white people. Or by placing Native Americans in traditional costume against the backdrop of bustling cities. You can be even more subtle: like appropriating religious iconography for new contexts. There's a reason why both Superman and Spiderman wear the colors blue and red: and hint, it's not the American flag. Yeah, those are the colors that identify Jesus. Supes and Spidey are the new Christ figures, the ultimate good guys of modern America. Or it could be a Japanese woman appropriating the symbol of western colonialism (the Victorian dress) and re-contextualizing it as representing freedom from the male gaze.
One can easily untangle Lovecraft's biases from his cosmic horror: after all, there is indeed something inherently horrifying about the superhuman scale of the universe. His creatures can be dropped into alternate settings that might recontextualize them. For example: the DnD universe where the malign Elder Gods coexist with the more beneficent gods presented in the Player's Handbook. For another example: tweaking the names to sound less Egyptian, and situating them in a universe utterly unlike our own as Blizzard did for it's Warcraft games. Or you can play with Lovecraft's biases: presenting the monsters as allied with the Nazis or other forces of fascism as Elise did in her story Ernst Thälmann vs. Chthulu which can be found on on my blog. Cosmic horror as a genre does not need to be considered tainted by Lovecraft's biases. But this also means that there is no excuse for including biased material.
One cannot simply avoid engaging with imperialism in art, because imperialism permeates our existence. It has created the political world we live in, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat. It is also because we all, on some level, like the idea of being powerful. One must therefore confront it in artwork, as one does in everyday life whether one is aware of that confrontation or not. This confrontation can of course take the form of making a universe where imperialism does not exist. That is just as much a confrontation however, because it shows us what flaws exist in our world or ourselves. It can take the form of imagining a different set of colonizing powers: shedding light on the ways that our current lives are created by the past. It can also take the form of making real life colonizers into fictional villains and allowing them to be defeated by fictional powers. Or it could be making colonialism the feature of your work: like Game of Thrones.
Indeed, Game of Thrones asks a compelling question about imperialism. Can we ever be rid of it? Danaerys Targaryen wants to "break the wheel": but we should be skeptical about whether she can actually do this. She wants to do so while also holding power as a monarch: and while commanding dragons that are the perfect tools of exploitation. What is she going to rely on to prevent exploitation and abuse? Perhaps by redefining what it means to be a monarch, what it means to be a Targaryen, what dragons mean. Perhaps by redefining the Targaryen words, Fire and Blood. In this world, the Iron Throne has long defined what it means to be a King: conquering and humiliating your enemies. But Danaerys has a unique chance to change the symbol.
Yes, the history of art is the history of imperialism: because the history of this world is the history of imperialism. Yet, at every step of that journey, art was also the greatest tool of those who resisted whatever Empire. Art, in its most fundamental sense, transcends politics. It is a tool which anyone, anywhere can use: but which bears the prints of every hand that has touched it. In this age, we have unprecedented ability to create art: all of us, no matter who we are. You may think it is useless to create, especially if you belong to a group society doesn't value. After all, no one will see it or take it seriously right? But art is the one thing you have which can outlive you. Even seemingly ephemeral performance art can outlive you, because it changes both you and those around you. Furthermore, art is an inherently collaborative process. When you create, you participate in a dialog with all other creators. When you share your creation, other creators respond. But it is precisely because of this power that art must be done carefully. It must not blindly quote the works of the past, or act as if it unaware of them. The artist must be aware of their place in the web of creation.
Refusing to use a tool because of how it has been used in the past is not virtue, it is apathy. In doing that, you are accepting the definitions that other have placed on the world. This is the hidden sin of Postmodernism that has allowed PC culture to take the place of real discussions. If you will not decide how to define the world, then you are accepting the definitions that already exist. By accepting the Empire's definitions, you are accepting the Empire. Claiming that any definition is bad, is really saying that you don't want to engage with the Empire. We must define our world in order to communicate, in order to live as the social animals we are. We can either choose to use the Empire's definitions and therefore accept the Empire: or we can choose to redefine our world, threatening the existence of the Empire.