‘Blood runs! Flags wave! … Come on, run into the Winter Palace and stand on tables, waving bits of paper at each other! Yes! Yes! Hello, are you the Tsar? Bam bam! Tough luck, fascist! That’s what happens to people who aren’t working class! … In ten minutes time there’s going to be a massive rock and roll benefit in the drawing room …’
Rick, ‘The Young Ones’, 1984
In the 1980s, the BBC broadcast a comedy entitled ‘The Young Ones’. It was set in a vermin-ridden flat shared by four students: Vyvyan, a sociopathic punk; depressed flower child Neil; shady spiv Mike; and Rick. Rick sported badges supporting every neo-Marxist, pro-feminist, anti-nuclear, libertarian campaign group imaginable. He thought himself the ne plus ultra of revolutionary youth, a self-appointed ‘people’s poet’. Always the first to denounce the iniquities of Conservative-governed Britain (‘Neil, the bathroom’s free – unlike this country under the Thatcherite junta!’), at heart he was a polite, middle-class boy who ran from the slightest hint of real insurrection. And his poetry? ‘Today I saw a dog / Yes, a dog / Talking to a pig / They were on the pavement / Discussing Trotsky / Not brotsky, or crotsky, or drotsky, or frotsky / But Trotsky’. Sometimes, when thinking about art and its relationship to the world at large I think of Rick. Many people contend that all art is, in some way, political. In as much as most decisions we make are formed in response to the codes by which our societies organise themselves, this is, perhaps, true. What’s less clear is what a person might mean when they describe their own, or someone else’s art as being specifically political. What elevates an artwork from the rank of ‘political’ to that specialist cadre of ‘Political’? What is art’s place in the discussions that govern our lives?
Rick lived through the conservative era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Similar weather systems blow today; the pernicious marriage of militarism and profit has seldom been so blatant. ‘American’, a noun that should evoke the idea of a broad and catholic society, is degenerating into either a simplistic insult or an intimidating metonym for patriotic loyalty. Middle Eastern politics seem irresolvably entrenched; religious fundamentalism of various creeds demands near medieval levels of intolerance. World affairs have increased currency in conversation, art, and writing; anti-Bush films pack out cinemas. Books for and against the political Right crowd bookshops – distrust is a lucrative trade. Perhaps, for this particular chapter in history, what we really mean when we talk of political art, is work that addresses power – government, economics, law – by utilising art’s own power systems; exercising the governance of image, and the clout of cultural capital.
For all its spin, art is often reductive when addressing politics, lacking the agency to move beyond illustration – generalisations accepted in place of analysis. A Noam Chomsky book, say, is displayed in a Thomas Hirschhorn installation, yet despite its wealth of ideas I suspect that ‘display’ is all the installation does. And what does it mean to make a drawing of a protest, as in the work of Sam Durant or Andrea Bowers? I fear that the symbols of recusance aren’t going to effect much change as they progress from studio to museum wall.
Surface references can preclude discussion since they suggest that deeper meaning implicitly resides in the work. The engagé artist can mistake reproducing historical images of political activism for activism itself, and, as a result, is in danger of being no better than a nostalgist, performing cover versions of other people’s slogans. (As Morrissey sang, ‘I thought if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant you were a protest singer’.) There are, of course, exceptions. Hans Haacke – twice the victim of censorship by museums, and an artist whose practice is Brechtian in the demands it places on its audiences – strives to make work that renders the links between big business and culture transparent. William Pope L’s performances give disenfranchisement a visceral corporeality, regardless of whether art audiences are watching or not. Jeremy Deller’s topologies of social history are made as much in the spirit of actively political historians such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams as they are as an artist.
A friend recently observed that ‘everyone is looking for the new Guernica’. In as much as people are hungry for, say, an iconic representation of indignance at US foreign policy, or the massacre at Beslan, or debt in the developing world she was right. However, political art can obviously only function as part of the solution. Pablo Picasso’s righteous ire at the bombing of Guernica resulted in one of the most famous – and, dare I say, dumbly literal – pieces of protest art, yet his celebrity served to draw attention to a war crime. It functioned in a propagandist sense, just as the collages of John Heartfield (the Michael Moore of 1930s Germany) denounced the corruption at Nazism’s black core. Constantin Costa-Gavras’ celluloid thriller Z (1969) turned the eyes of the world to the censorious activities of Greece’s dictatorship. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) did the same for the French government over their involvement in Algerian struggles for independence; its nuanced account of the dilemmas of armed resistance recall George Orwell’s Spanish Civil War memoir, Homage to Catalonia (1938). In a 1982 essay on Leon Golub, Peter Schjeldahl observed that the artist’s canvases of the late 1960s expressing outrage at the Vietnam War display a fatal flaw, namely ‘the misfit of general outrage and specific circumstance’. It is the dilemma of wanting to voice frustration, and denounce corruption and atrocity, while finding art itself frustrating. War and power can be reduced in the form of static image or object – but at best it’s a reduction that, like an open palm tightening to a clenched fist, gains force with bluntness, punching points of entry where discussion can begin.
It is not always clear whom so-called political art is intended for. There is a tendency to assume, like philanthropic Victorian patricians, that an art existing within other social frameworks is a positive thing. Like the central protagonist in Alasdair Gray’s epic novel Lanark (1981), the artist can be a tool for political gerrymandering, an experience analogous to Gray’s own with television producers: ‘the writer […] is a temporary creature, of use in assisting their work if he does not tamper with the notions it suggests to them.’ At this year’s Liverpool Biennial, many of the works on display were commissioned with the brief that they must be ‘about’ Liverpool. In the rush to justify the relevance of an expensively produced contemporary art event to an economically fragile city, a set of complex socio-political circumstances were flattened – ‘relational aesthetics’ becoming nothing more than amateur sociology paying lip-service to a woolly notion of democracy. The desire for inclusivity is in danger of rendering artwork bland and audiences invisible – a forum in which no one can be heard for all the shouting.
Isaiah Berlin held that disagreement is a fundamental part of being human. Art, in asserting itself politically, is a form of disagreement with the way the world is. But then again, art is not inherently big ‘P’ political – only the people that make it are capable of that. E.P. Thompson, when asked how he maintained faith in his own political beliefs, answered ‘put oneself into a school of awkwardness […] make one’s sensibility all knobbly – all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal.’ Human beings investing hope in disagreement.