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The Art of Politics and The Politics of Art

In the last few weeks we’ve seen the tenth anniversary of the mass international demonstrations against the war on Iraq, a conference at the Tate titled ‘The politics of the Social in Contemporary Art’, and Patrick Thomas’ provocative horse meat scandal installation in Leicester Square tube station. It’s all got us thinking about the art of politics and the politics of art…

Arguably every artwork is political in the sense that it offers a perspective, directly or indirectly, on social relations. In current usage, ‘political art’ refers to works with overtly political subjects. Art has a long and fascinating history of engagement with politics, from Francisco de Goya’s searing ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’ (The Disasters of War, 1810-20) series of prints made in response to the Napoleonic Wars, to the Modernist’s anxieties about consumer culture and its attendant links to right-wing politics. Artists have always tended to exist as a principled political vanguard.

More recently, we need only look to the order-disrupting Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot and controversial contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for high profile socially discordant art. The last ten years have witnessed a remarkable proliferation of platforms for works usually referred to as ‘socially engaged’ or ‘political’. Here are some of our favourite examples from artrepublic…

Some our most overtly political work is created by kennardphilllipps, a collaboration which has been working since 2002 to produce art in response to the invasion of Iraq. It has since evolved to confront power and war across the globe, in works such as ‘Photo-op’ and ‘Know Your Enemy’. According to kennardphilllipps, the work is made as a critical tool that connects to international movements for social and political change, “we see it as part of those movements, the visual arm of protest.”

kennardphilllipps is an example of art created for the purpose of political protest, as the collaboration explains, “We want it to be used by people as a part of their own activism”. The art of Brian Jones is equally politically charged. His “twisted Pop” approach, however, brings a distinctive satirical wit to his subjects. Choosing to sabotage well known popular culture images, Jones deals with current issues such as war and politics with a subversive tongue-in-cheek twist. 

In 2004, Brain Jones created a series called ‘Future History’, including ‘Blairman Mao’, ‘The Idiot Son’, and ‘Should to Shoulder’. These striking screenprints portray Bush and Blair on postage stamps. The stamps are a satirical reworking of Mao-era Chinese Communist posters, like our collection from 20th Century Chinese School. As such Jones’ pieces critically examine not only Bush and Blair as political leaders, but also the power of art as propaganda.  In a creative writing piece titled ‘In the Future…’ Jones writes “In the future, artists will be kidnapped by political factions for the production of propaganda.” 

Brian Jones has worked and collaborated with the infamous Jamie Reid for many years, aiding the production of Reid’s renowned anarchist artwork. Jamie Reid is an English artist and anarchist who grew up in Croydon, London, in a very politically active family, and is probably best known for his work with the Sex Pistols. He created the ransom-note aesthetic of the Sex Pistol graphics whilst designing ‘Suburban Press’, a radical political magazine which he ran for five years. Reid has participated in anti-war art exhibitions and got involved in direct action campaigns on issues including poll tax, Clause 28 and the Criminal Justice Bill.  

Reid’s recent collaboration with street art legend Shepard Fairey has produced a selection of powerful contemporary political images focusing on climate change and the banking crisis. ‘Bright Future: Save Petrol/ Burn Cars’ is an effective satirical spin on Jamie Reid’s ‘Nowhere Buses’, complete with burning Rolls Royce’s and a ‘Suburban Press’ bumper sticker. Whereas, ‘Shoplifters Welcome’ addresses “timeless problems of corruption and wealth inequality, but ties into the very current themes of Occupy Wall Street”, explained Fairey.

Shepard Fairey, of course, is the artist who created the iconic poster of Obama which came to represent the 2008 US Presidential Campaign. In an interview with the Guardian, Fairey said “I originally made it just as a grassroots thing, and at the time it said ‘progress’. Then someone showed it to the campaign team, and they asked if the word could be changed to ‘hope’, because rightwingers associate progressives with socialists.” 

Fairey’s Obama poster has been followed by a wealth of President Obama inspired artwork. Brooklyn based street artist Bobby Hill has created a series of Obama works, including ‘Obama (Blue)’, which is an original mixed media portrait of the President constructed through a complex collage of newspaper photographs and clippings. The piece skilfully refers to the powerful role the media plays in constructing and presenting political leaders. In contrast, Bonnie and Cyde’s ‘Obama (Black & Gold)’ is a simple, unstated head shot, which poignantly captures the historic politician in a moment of contemplation. 

These Obama works form part of a long and fascinating history of political portraiture. In his ‘Mao’ series, legendary Pop artist Andy Warhol melded his signature style with the scale of totalitarian propaganda to address the cult of personality surrounding Chinese ruler Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Nearly 15 feet tall, his towering portraits mimicked the representations of the political figure that were ubiquitous throughout China. ‘Mao 1972’ renders Mao, an enemy of individualism, in a brazenly personal style. 

Berma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, is the subject of Mike Edward’s portrait ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’. A pioneer of contemporary Typographic art, Edwards’ portrait is constructed from highlights of her 1990 speech ‘Freedom From Fear’. The work transforms her commanding words into a powerful image representing the fight for freedom. Ernesto Yerena similarly employs striking portraiture to draw attention to social and political battles. His ‘Che- Green’, ‘Che- Red’, and ‘Fidel – Green’ prints, represent his frustrations with the oppression of his community and his attempt to tackle the fierce issue of immigration in America. 

We can’t write about political art without mentioning Street Art, a label often adopted by artists who wish to keep their work unaffiliated and strongly political. One of the most democratic, accessible, and empowering art forms, graffiti and street art is often political and satirical. The anarchical Bristolian Banksy has infamously tackled consumerism, Guantanamo Bay, child labour, CND, the Palestine conflict, and gay rights. Perhaps because of the nature of the medium, many street artists have tackled social unrest as a subject. Static’s ‘Right Hand Red’, Adam Koukoudakis’ ‘Right to Remain Silent’, and RYCA’s ‘Sound of the Police’, for example, all examine our relationship with the state authority. 

These diverse examples reveal how art and politics intersect, inform, overlap and challenge each other. As well as leading a political campaign, building the reputation of a politician, and functioning as a source of propaganda, art can be deployed strategically to engage viewers in critical enquiry of the social, economic and political issues. In this sense, a great deal of political art is affirmative; it affirms what we know (the Bush lead wars were bad, we should use less fuel, we should fight for freedom and tackle oppression…), it affirms that participation is a positive and creative force, and finally, it affirms that the consumers of this art are, in fact, part of a community of like-minded peers.

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