One result of the video we produced for Fighting For Crumbs (our recent joint show – with John Ledger, Corinne Deakin, Connor Matheson, Rebekah Whitlam, Jonathan Butcher) is that we were invited to participate in the World Transformed – the festival of Politics, Art & Culture that provided the fringe for the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week. As you can imagine I was quite buzzed about this. Being invited to exhibit is always positive, being invited to show in a space that would see Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell and Ken Loach speaking was amazing.
One result of the invite was that I got my work featured in Red Pepper, a Green/Left UK magazine – twice in print in two months, wow :), and of course neatly illustrating the subject of this blog.
We managed to put four installations, some of my paintings, one of John Ledgers drawings, and two of Jonathan Butchers poems in a neat little installation containing installations in one corner of the workshop/gallery area. We also managed to get more of mine, John’s and Connor’s work on the walls and divisions alongside the main thoroughfare into the area.
Whilst at the festival, I sat in on a panel session about Politics and Art. This could have been an interesting discussion but actually took the form of a series of presentations followed by Q&A sessions. This format limited the scope for exploration, as did the available time in a busy schedule of workshops, and so I thought I’d use this blog to look at the relationship that art and politics can have, and how this affects the ‘Art’ element.
The seminar was hosted by Natasha Josette from the Anti-PV group (of which more later). There were four presentations by practising political artists, (Jennifer Verson from Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MAMA), Darren Cullen (Dismaland), Matt Bonner (Brandalism) and Momentum TV). The artists explained what their practice was, and what political aim they felt the work addressed. The first thing that struck me was that there was a gender difference in approach, both women on the panel talking of the value of using creativity to explore potential, rather than focus on making points about the dismal now. In constraint both the men on the panel utilised in your face approaches referencing the contradictions, hypocracies and wilful ignorance of the now.
Now, as someone who is fond of saying “I’ve got your point, where would you like me to stick it?” I have a lot of interest in the idea of art exploring what we could become, rather than being the mirror by which we examine ourselves. Momentum TV has a focus on exploring the possibilities by encouraging local people to share their thoughts on their own communities and geographies. In doing so they facilitate the voices of so many who would otherwise be unheard. Clearly by involving larger groups of people directly in the production of art on this basis, it can facilitate a collective understanding of the world people would like to live in. I can see that this approach could be a powerful tool, but with the caveat that our idealised world is informed by the one in which we believe we live in. In consequence our collective imaginations are restricted by the prejudices, fears, and aspirations we associate with our internalised view of our current world. I was minded of this following a recent exhibition opening I went to, themed on exploring potentials, and led by women (sensing a pattern here). Part of this exhibition contained a document outlining the potential worlds revealed by a discussion with members of the public in York. Sadly, one of the ideal futures had the words ‘no chavs’ in its specifications, and at no point did money seem to dissappear from our future, both illustrating the point to which we are collectively restricted by our imaginations.
MAMA uses creativity at a practical level to campaign, support and engage with migrant women, and to enable them to engage with the wider community and have a voice while so doing. The focus is on both potential and reality, and creativity is used as a positive tool to bring people together, to share understanding and try to demolish myth. It can foster a sharing of experience that undermines the divisive rhetoric that we are daily fed. Participation in these activities can also help return a shred of dignity to those whose lives have become undignified through necessity not choice, and it is worth bearing in mind that one of the most political acts we can make as individuals is just this, the acknowledgement of another’s humanity, and the dignity that accompanies that status, regardless of circumstance. The impact of this should not be underestimated, people with a sense of dignity are more likely to be receptive to pro-social attitudes and even action.
The increasing evidence of a reaction against the constraints of politically correctness and the effective demonisation of the poor leaves the uncomfortable reality that many people have yet to “get the point” and face a barrage of tools designed to ensure that they don’t. The question is how art can address this. Both Darren Cullen and Brandalism’s direct action approach, subverting the language of advertising to expose the realities behind the public face of products/companys/attitudes is effective, immediate, and often relies on (albeit dark) humour. However, it’s also sometimes misunderstood, and Darren’s PTSD Acton Man figures, despite being endorsed by veterans for peace have come in for a lot of internet bile, some of it from what were respectable sources. This is art designed to evoke a specific response, and relies on its immediacy to work. How effective this can be at achieving cognitive change is open to question though, and I often wonder whether using humour de-emphasises the significance of its object to the point that though we can see how awful it is, we can also live with it because it’s funny?
Let me stress that I am not diminishing the importance of any of the approaches mentioned by highlighting the inevitable problems each faces. All these approaches in their own way show how art can be an effective political act and tool. The underpinning message of potentials is about art showing a brighter future rather than highlighting our dreadful present, this struck a chord and will force me to examine my own practice and output. I am however also interested in other approaches that through individual creativity (even as part of a collective) can address some of the caveats I have raised. There is also the thorny question of ‘Art’ to consider. Two members of the audience asked whether the panel saw a role for abstract or high art in political art, and one trotted out the time worn ‘the working classes don’t engage with art’ mantra, and this got me thinking.
Art, the process of holding a mirror up to the world, of using lies to tell the truth – or in these days of post-structuralism a collection of forms textures and colours that can mean whatever you want it to regardless of the artist’s intent – relies on engaging with and evoking a response in the viewer. Despite the post-structural paradigm, I stick to the idea that this is a designed response, and of course the techniques of Brandalism and Darren Cullen rely on their use of graphic design and advertising elements, which no-one doubts are designed to elicit a specific response, or what that response might be. The fact that they can misfire is an indiciation of the resistance to the designed response in the viewer. In this respect their obviousness may hasten the cognitive dissonance that often results when attempting to sway attitudes. On the other hand abstract and semi-abstract contemporary pieces with a vaguely dark undertone and vaguely suggestive titles abound in collections and galleries, as installations, films, sculpture and paintings. Many are beautiful and well executed pieces, but their intent is too elusive, the response they evoke too unfocused, for them to be effectively political.
For the would be political artist wishing to adapt their practice to the struggle there are a number of problems to be faced. The first of these is being seen. At a practical level, this means finding space to show which people will visit. Anti-PV (private view) seek to place works in public spaces and the art within the festival is an example of the approach. Here the volume of potential viewers hopefully offsets the low level of engagement, and it is more likely that work will reach the gaze of those who would not seek it out.
Being seen does not mean being digested. Conventional art forms often require contemplation to be appreciated, but we live in the culture of the soundbite, the tweet, the easily digested, easily consumed and easily discarded media of Warhol’s vision; Brandalism works well in this environment, perhaps too well, as the reactions to it seem often to be equally hasty, as though the image has gone in but the message has stumbled. High art perhaps lacks the hook to engage with people so far removed from its cultural referencing. The work of the political artist, in order to engage, must pay heed to the cultural references of the people it is aimed at, and here lies a harder task. To contradict the mantra, the working classes do engage with art and they produce it as well. Just like any other group what they engage with speaks to them and often of them. To do this it needs must reference their experiences, landscape (both physical and cultural) and circumstance. To be a true expression of the artist, that suggests that the artist needs to express themselves in those terms and frames of reference naturally, and if not from experience, from genuine empathy. It may be worth considering Anselm Kieffer’s work here, of which it is said that style is less important to the work than content. As artists we try to communicate, and it is on the effectiveness of the communication that the success of political art relies. It is also worth noting that it is not just the working classes that are the targets of political art, and that the same caveats apply when trying to for example evoke a response from someone in a comfortable circumstance.
The biggest problem by far though lies in to what end the work is being produced. Is it to make a specific point, or to sow the seeds that will lead to the viewer acheiving that realisation by themselves? In terms of cognitive effect, the latter, whilst slower, is far more effective. It is also far harder to achieve, unlikely to lead to artistic plaudits, or pecunary success. None of these are reasons for not trying.
. I would welcome feedback and discussion on anything I’ve raised in this, and thankyou if you have read this far 🙂