First provocation: Art Is Politics?

Provocations is a free series of discussions about art and its function and place in today’s society…

First Provocation:

Art Is Politics?

Art is a force for political change. Does contemporary art have the potential to shape political ideas and actions? Is a 21st Century Guernica possible or has painting and sculpture relinquished any political potential to unintelligible theory and the new tools of social media and online activism?


Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50.


Mark Carr and Martin Gollan had organised this discussion at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, and provided a warm welcome. Seven people turned up which made a group large enough to include a range of people with differing views, and small enough for everyone to have time to have their say without needing to be too concise. The different colours here indicate different people saying things. Not all the discussion was noted down, and sometimes what is written here is a summary of a discussion involving comments from several people in response to what one person said. Where the text is the default black, it a summary of what several people said, or the original notes failed to record who had said it.

The discussion

Martin opened the discussion: art has lost its political power. The potential to make change in society has gone. Social media affects life. We had a more shared culture in the past as a result of having a limited number of television channels. We’re talking to ourselves or to the wind.

The political artists of today include Jeremy Deller, Banksy, Sarah Lucas (to some extent), and Bob and Roberta Smith. At the Venice Biennale, Deller took down a work about hunting that was considered by the British Council to be controversial and to have the potential to trigger aggressive actions.

There was a time when art about politics was stronger, for example, the work of George Grosz in Germany.

Banksy is sincere in approach but undermined by his work’s commercial value which weakens it as politically-engaged art. On the other hand, Mark Wallinger’s re-creation at the Tate of Brian Haw’s protest camp at Westminster [Parliament Square] (State Britain, 2007), which led to him winning the Turner Prize in 2007, was created through other artists making pieces for it. Wallinger reckoned that the boundary of the exclusion zone ran through the Tate Gallery and had added a line in tape so that half his exhibition was supposed to be inside the exclusion zone and half outside [the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act had created the exclusion zone, banning all unauthorised protest within a kilometre radius of Parliament Square and on 23rd May 2006, 78 police had removed most of his placards because although he had obtained permission for his protest, his display of placards and other material had exceeded the 3-metre length he was permitted]. Martin regarded Wallinger’s State Britain as an appropriation of Brian Haw’s original work.

Art and artists have a potential political role simply in making work that is different and personal. It’s difficult to produce art now to affect people in the way Courbet could offend the people with A Funeral at Ornans [also known as A Burial at Ornans, (1849-50) and Un enterrement à Ornans in French, exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1850-51]. Picasso’s Guernica was a powerful political, anti-war statement in 1937.

In history, art was used by those with political power.

Question: what can you term as art e.g. in new media?

Peter Kennard – an artist [fine artist] whose style is more graphic – produced posters for CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] in the late 1970s and 1980s, such as a hand crushing a cruise missile. He now makes photo-montages that he puts online.

The audience is massive on Facebook. Are you doing it [putting artwork on Facebook] to be political or to make a name for yourself?

What about artists who appear not to be so overtly political? For example, Jeff Koons seems to be trivial but his work does reflect a meretricious culture. Collectors are then interested in maintaining the value of the work [so it does not get reassessed as trivial due to its monetary value].

Russian artists after the Revolution and before Stalin expressed political views.

There is a tendency to want to fit in, of wanting people to like work so not tackling political subjects, but probably produce better work through not caring too much about what others think.

In architecture, totalitarian regimes tend to use straight lines, rectangular shapes. To challenge that, architecture needs to move towards the biomorphic to allow forms to be free. Forms are political. The first design proposal for the new Star and Shadow interior had curved spaces, to express and encourage the egalitarian nature of the organisation. 

Use of art to express ideas of green politics and ecological concerns includes street and performance for example Aurora the bear.

Best work can be when not commissioned.

Street art sometimes is used for political art but today’s tagging doesn’t seem as political and anarchic as in the past.

How can art be political through aesthetics?

The example of the Myra, 1995 painting was raised [work by Marcus Harvey, exhibited in Sensation, the very controversial Royal Academy show in 1997 that introduced the Young British Artists to the wider public]  – and how the painting was created with the handprints of a child so in its making contained the concept of trust being abused.

Architects essentially think of themselves as artists, supported by engineers. In architecture and and urban design, can’t expect to design something and have it built by the system, and at the same time to undermine the system. The only way to escape that is to project a utopian vision, adding the architect’s system on top of what is built and replace things over the years.

Political art can attract large audiences. One historical example given was the Degenerate Art Exhibition in the Weimar Republic, intended to show people how un-German modern art was, but attracting masses of people [over 3 million]. Does contemporary art with political subject matter ever attract such crowds now, apart from Banksy’s first big exhibition in Bristol?

Some discussion about whether most of the political art was and is graphic art or illustration rather than fine art.

There was a direct connection between graphic art and fine art in the British 19th century social realist work. Young artists earned money early in their career through working for the new illustrated periodicals that started to proliferate in the 1860s and 1870s. Some included images and articles that brought to readers’ attention the social issues of the day, and acted to some extent as today’s social media does. They went onto other subject matter as their careers developed – because social issue paintings didn’t sell – but some had made their names with sociopolitical issues, and had learned through doing such illustrations how to make images that connected with ordinary people.

The graphic posters of the Spanish Revolution put across their messages strongly. Käthe Kollwitz had a graphic style. She was able to stay in Germany, unlike many other artists in the 1930s, but she was forced to resign from the Academy of Art and couldn’t exhibit her work because of her pacifist views and opposition to the National Socialists [she and her husband had signed the Urgent Call for Unity in 1932].

There was some discussion of work that cannot be made or shown for fear of repercussions or aggressive reactions [suggesting that art still has power to convey ideas strongly enough to affect people].

What is the point of doing art if nobody other than the artist sees it? The act of being creative is in itself political.

The creativity sometimes reverberates, sometimes just in yourself, sometimes with thousands of others.

Brief reflection following the First Provocation

Some of the discussion was veering onto the topic of censorship at times. Sometimes, we also were considering the similarities or differences in approach across art forms (specifically visual arts, architecture, writing). The issue of the distinction between graphic and fine art kept being raised throughout the discussion, and this may be something that needs to be tackled head on in a future discussion.

The next Provocations

Do join in the discussions. Follow the Provocations website for information about the whole series. Follow @biscuitinstudio for news and reminders of these events and others held at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne. Book your free tickets and put these dates in your calendar.

Second Provocation

November – Art is Corruption?

The market has corrupted the practice of art. Are artists today uniquely vulnerable to the tastes of the market and transient fashion or was it ever thus? Does success damage artists compelling them to feed the market or can they retain their independence and values?

7pm to 9pm, Thursday, 26 November 2015: book your free place.

Third Provocation

January – Art is Profit?

Creativity and profit can exist side by side. Can the artist draw a balance between creativity and profit? Can creativity ever be completely free of the green dollar in our present society if the artist is to earn a living? Is the artist ultimately a small business making sure he or she satisfies the marketplace or can creativity resist commodification?

6.30pm to 8.30pm, Thursday, 28 January 2016: book your free place


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