Talk given at Hartlepool Art Gallery – Art and Politics.

The text of the talk given on January 20th, 2017 prior to the opening of my exhibition “The Politics of Painting”.

It’s strange, but since the dawn of art history, there seems to have been a division between art that’s considered ‘high’ and ‘low’. I suppose that this prejudice has its origin in the utility of art prior to and during the time of Giorgio Vasari – the historically credited originator of the idea of ‘art history’. He was a sixteenth century artist and architect who has become better known for his “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” than for his art – a little sad I think; even though this is considered to be the first encyclopedia of artistic biographies.
Being of the sixteenth century this division of art meant that ‘higher’ art was obviously art that dealt with heavenly issues and the league table of worthiness then descended through the works of state and that commissioned by ‘worthy’ men and families (that’ll be your aristocracies and royalty) and then down to the ‘low’ art of utility (public signage and the like).
This early academism flourished and spread throughout Europe and the prejudice continued and was reinforced with academic diktats such as the hierarchy of artistic genres. At the top of the list of genres there was History painting (which as well as historical subject matter included religious work), followed by Portrait painting (that’ll be your aristocrats and royals again), Genre painting (scenes of everyday life), then Landscapes, Animal paintings and finally Still-life.
From the late nineteenth century this presumed authority of religion in art was gradually replaced with the idea of rational progress to a new ‘higher’ art with a pseudo-scientific approach to both art production and criticism. This celebration of the autonomy of Fine Art came to a peak with the Modernism of the American Abstract Expressionists and the theorising of Clement Greenberg. However there were also political reasons why this direction was so enthusiastically followed and supported – the recent social history that preceded it; the Second World War and the ongoing political directions of the Cold War world throughout the 1950s.
The Nazi’s objection, and subsequent negative treatment, of modern art was not a high note in art history. Modern artists of the early twentieth century were derided in the infamous ‘degenerate art’ exhibitions and the fascist state supported only figurative artists whose work could be used as a propaganda vehicle for a fascist ideology.
Equally, Stalin’s championing of ‘social realist art’, in direct opposition to the progressive and revolutionary art that preceded it also blotted the copy book of anybody that wanted to progress figurative painting or even attempt work that suggested a motivation outside of the narrow High Modernist ideal.
So with these two directions of cultural production, instigated and promoted by oppressive and prescriptive state authorities, figurative art was lazily considered by many in the arts to only be a reactionary response to the Modernist narrative. And what artist would want Hitler or Stalin on their team?
Add to that, in 1949, Theodor Adorno’s dictum “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, which is usually given as “To write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible”. It’s a pet misquote, taken out of a very complex context, by (for want of a better phrase) slack-thinking, wannabe philosophers. It sounds quite snappy… you can get the hefty idea behind what’s suggested by such (edited) snappiness, but the frequent misuse of the phrase (to take down art that was not concerned about art’s autonomy) by individuals that wanted to sound clever, was not what Adorno was suggesting and even he returned to the line later in life to make a clarification. But it still hasn’t stopped its misuse.
So – to politics in art…
All art is political. Admittedly not all art is politically didactic, and not all artists are political activists. But all art is political. Even the artist that claims to not be concerned about society is attempting to take a distinct position of alienation or autonomy and that is a very specific political standpoint from which to present art.
Sometimes the political engagement of artwork that historically claimed its independence was outside the control (and even knowledge) of the artists themselves. The CIA, through a cover organisation called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, secretly promoted the American Abstract Expressionist painters with major exhibitions. The most well-known of these exhibitions, “The New American Painting” touring show visited the major European cities in the late 50s. There were magazines that eagerly gave a platform to critics that supported this new American painting – also funded by the same CIA cover organisation. And when a major public gallery couldn’t afford to bring the show to their door (this was the Tate in London) they were financially assisted by an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann. But even this money, apparently from a charity run by Fleischmann, was in fact funnelled through secretly from CIA funds.
All this was done with the aim of demonstrating that America was the home of progressive high culture and that only American artists were truly free to make modern art without state interference (unlike in the oppressive Soviet state system). It’s almost as if Post-Modernism had to be invented to highlight the irony of High Modernism’s ‘autonomy’. Though Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning and others were unaware of the CIA connections to these high-profile exhibitions it doesn’t mean that their work was not politicised. It was.
That false notion of the cultural superiority of the artist who stands aside from the worries of everyday life is still with us today. It is pernicious and it should be redundant to any person with any sense of civic responsibility who actually seriously considers what it means. It’s further reinforced when those within the arts make pronouncements on social matters and are eagerly stamped on by the media and public alike as if the opinions held by writers, artists, actors and musicians are automatically invalidated through their working in the arts. Attack their opinions and positions by all means – but don’t attack their right to express them.
Art history is littered with the attempts that have continually been made by artists to discover visual art’s ‘disembodied aesthetic’ – where there is the sense that the outcome of the production of the art form exists within itself; without any reference to other modes of expression or explanation. Frequently you will hear people say that music, particularly from the orchestral canon, can exist outside of criticism and that it is this independence that Fine Art (in visual culture) seeks. Well I think that even this classification of music is incorrect. Firstly, that which counts as universally harmonious or universally discordant has been scientifically proven to be non-existent but still that simplistic cliché (that seems to simply state a profound truth) of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that “music is the universal language of mankind” continues to be trotted out as accepted and undeniable fact. It was made by a white, nineteenth century, American academic it takes no account of cultural difference and lives on the assumption of the superiority of a single culture – his culture.
Music is clearly sited within its social and cultural origins and performance. It doesn’t exist independently of society when a performance has to be paid for and can only be afforded by the rich. It doesn’t exist independently when its commissioning or making relates to nationalist or martial agendas or even as an ‘exercise in the experimental’. It doesn’t exist independently of society when it’s given away for free and it specifically doesn’t exist independently when it’s constructed from four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. I don’t challenge the intellectual interest in such conceptualising, but when we consider that the phrase, or variants of it, that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between” is credited to Mozart, Debussy and others it seems to me excessive that a piece of music that formalises this idea needs anything beyond its writing as a formal piece of music. Yes, it is interesting; but I don’t need to experience it to be able to comprehend its significance. And the ticketed performances go ahead, in the mighty music venues of state, and those of the audience that maintain the inferiority of art that engages directly with its public, listen in the silence whilst silently congratulating themselves on their intellectual and cultural superiority.
To make visual art that claims to be solely about visual art is an attempt to discover visual language’s similar supposed disembodied aesthetic. Invariably it can only be done with vast assistance from the written word and Modernist theorising. Another Debussy quote might be appropriate: ”Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.”
An artist that seriously claims to make work in a social vacuum must also live in one; they are actually staking claim to being either a dilettante or a sociopath.
It is then, peculiar that contemporary public art commissioning is not universally derided by the critical fraternity and by its nature it is frequently tied up with a vast raft of social inclusivity agendas that the artist has to attempt to fulfil. So, when the state authorises artists to do politics in art that’s fine; when artists do politics off their own backs they’re stepping out of line. Historically the church, state, and wealthy patrons have always funded the arts in order to increase their political power and prestige; that’s the permissible side of politics in art – maintaining the status quo.
But in some respects things are changing. The distrust in the intrinsic value of postmodern conceptualism is becoming more widespread and even the critics are starting to challenge their churches a little more freely. And a few artists are starting to address the social with a little less art-language obfuscation. They are now leaving colleges where the last ten years of urban art has not been wilfully ignored by the market and they are adding the aesthetic of the street to studio work.
They are part of a wider generation that grew up through and after punk and see their creativity as being intrinsically connected to social commentary and activism. With the ubiquity and easy access to social media they know they can circumvent the meticulously engineered and controlled contemporary art gallery system and market and speak to their peers and beyond through their work.
Urban art has a loyal audience that has grown with the movement’s development and this audience read it without any of the baggage of cultural theory or art history traditionally associated with Fine Art. I’m sure many younger readers on art can easily see the clear associations between BANKSY and the 18th century English painter and engraver Hogarth, and I think you can extend the comparison to many other contemporary ‘urban’ artists. But how does the UK art establishment find it possible to accept street art? It waits for the likes of UK artist Mark Wallinger to appropriate BANKSY’s work, within a recreation of Brian Haw’s parliament protest site, for a Tate show in 2007. That’s ‘appropriate’ mind you and not ‘copy’. In the Fine Art establishment they don’t copy; they appropriate.
And how was this appropriation met critically? Wallinger was given the Turner Prize victory seal of approval and much acclaim for his ‘bold political statement’. The critical hypocrisy is astounding when there has been nothing but critical charges of ‘simplistic political posturing’ levelled at the work of BANKSY by the same critics and art establishment figures.
Clearly the art of the street is not irrelevant and it has much more to say to the general public than much of the blue-chip installationism and cod-conceptualism available at events like Frieze.
But still it’s High Art… Fine Art… versus the other ‘lower’ forms. In the minds of the establishment it’s a competition of degrees of intellectual intent. The audience for urban art knows (like the artists) that art will never directly change the world, but that an audience can take comfort in the fact that someone feels the same way as them about current issues. Today the people that look to graffiti and other politicised art are aspirational of change in the same way as the agitprop of the Paris art students of 1968; only in the eyes of a critic, struggling to maintain their authority of expertise, could it ever be a competition.
I’ve been angry for years. Ever since a friend woke me up politically back in the early 80s with handed down copies of New Internationalist, Marxism Today and New Society. I moved on through direct action protests, working with campaign groups and other (less publicly celebrated) organisations; disappeared into the ideological anarchist camp and have since, more or less stayed there. And I’ve always tried to channel that anger through my art. It is easy to attack ‘urban’ work as ‘simplistic’ if you don’t agree with the message, but that’s because you can read the message so directly. But you know what? It takes a high degree of skill with language and image to make a message that works this effectively. If BANKSY worked in advertising he’d be snapped up by Saatchi and Saatchi.
The flip side to this snobbery against the social minded artist and their work leads the critical fraternity assigning depths of profundity to contemporary fine art that even the responsible artists fail to comprehend after the event. Without the wall note, or the catalogue essay, or the accompanying monograph the higher percentage of contemporary conceptualism and installation work is not accessible to an audience outside of the elite circle. This is not an accident – it is not meant to be understood without its accompanying expert, without their expertise dispensed or without their expert language.
This focus on the specialisation of the expert, rather than the subject of the expertise, is the disease of the modern world at the fag end of the grand trajectory instigated by the idealism of the western Enlightenment. Like the respective academic experts on economics, the academic experts on contemporary Fine Art have attempted to convince us all that there is a scientific basis to their teachings. That’s why they call it art theory… they’re desperate to sell it as the researched and validated truth…
We’ve seen where the celebration of ideology over pragmatism got us to with economics; it’s time for the artists to take control of visual art too. Conceptualism isn’t working.
Perhaps we get the art we deserve. Perhaps the excesses of the last mad flush of the contemporary art market in 2007 where increasingly abstract sums of money were being paid for increasing un-art-like art objects was symptomatic of the crisis in the western capitalist neo-liberal world. Perhaps it’s time for a change.
Here’s another pithy little piece of academia writing on political art I found online…
“Art with an agenda is rarely good art… it risks miring an object in the ephemera of transitory context, diminishing the work’s meaning to something didactic and disposable.”
It’s another clichéd argument that is equally appropriate when turned on Fine Art that is made for an audience schooled in the theorising and history of Fine Art. Artwork commissioned by and produced for the insular world of national public art academe will achieve initial high praise and financial value. But when the artist has gone and the fashions have changed all that will be left is the work.
You only have to visit the public galleries of state and see where the greater public attention falls to know which art has significant life beyond the time of the artist. The message and aesthetic of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ draws a permanent and admiring crowd whereas the audience for much of the last half century’s conceptualism is fleeting and often seem puzzled, bemused or disinterested. Those few that do seem to be investigating the conceptualists are frequently studying it for academic reasons.
In terms of the ongoing life of a piece of art, the only constant will be an audience that has an ever decreasing experience of actual lived reference to the times the work was created in. Work made for a contemporary public audience is honest work and honest work is the best the artist can hope to be remembered for; to make visual artwork work for an audience requires using an appropriately accessible visual language.
If I didn’t believe that visual art was important, and I didn’t believe that throughout history it has made a social difference; that it can still have a social impact then I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life and energy on making it. Making art helps me understand what is important as a member of the human race; and personally it is important that I am able to share that sense of discovery. To do so I feel I should, at the very least, work with a visual language that is comprehensible without a handbook – or a degree in art critical theory…
And the main justification of political art, particularly in our very troubled times, is not to simply represent the world’s problems but to work as an active participant within the debate about its improvement. The artist has to think how they can help make positive change.
If the establishment denies the worth of politics in art then that’s the perfect reason to challenge that establishment. Our thoughts are free and our method of expressing those thoughts, be it through words, music, movement or image are the last space of freedom we have before we lose our humanity.


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