Challenging the Powerful

Forgive me if you think I’ve overthought this.

I’m trying to wean myself off social media.  I am all too aware of how often I check my phone, mindlessly scrolling through posts, looking for the gems which may pique my curiosity or amusement.   But last week I spent quite a while waiting around for things on my own, when being a “phone person” isn’t so antisocial.

What has played on my mind to the extent of being blog-worthy is a tweet by a nationally-circulated art critic.  For context, he was talking about the recently announced Turner Prize nominees.

Now, this is nowhere near the most offensive or controversial of the responses to this year’s list.  But there was something about the tone of this particular tweet which grated on me.

It strikes me as sounding like a grumpy elder, telling a child things were better in the past.  I have a great deal of respect for Januszczak – his writing and TV programmes are very good at explaining art in a non-condescending, intelligent way.  And obviously he’s been in the criticism game a lot longer than I have.

But I’ll play the role of rebellious child, and say that on this point, he’s wrong.  Here’s why.

1) Have you been to Liverpool lately?

Political actions with Larissa Sansour

Not since the Biennial, I’d guess.  But last week Bluecoat saw the opening of a show about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which is specifically about using visual art to affect political debate.  And it’s impossible to ignore FACT – providing a home for anti-Trump artwork in addition to the wake-up call that is How Much of This is Fiction?  That’s two of the city’s biggest galleries showcasing artists who are getting political.

The chances of my small city being the only place where this is happening are remote.  I refuse to believe that none of the artists at the various international art fairs are interested in the issues so affecting their societies.

Besides, identity politics is still politics – and can have an important role to play in shaping our world.

4) “Looking inward” has always been a thing – not always a bad one.

Art which is about the personal experience is nothing new.  My least favourite artwork in Liverpool at the moment is Tracey Emin’s My Bed.  I hate it because it’s so entirely inward-looking – It’s about her own experiences, with which I feel no connection.

But what if you can turn your personal experiences into something socially positive?  This is what “identity politics” art does.  We can get angry about racism or sexism – but we can also choose to champion the value of voices of the unequal.

In the UK we are fortunate to live in a society in which for many people direct war has never been an issue, and discrimination less so.  I feel lucky to be part of a society in which identity politics – the right of people to express themselves as individuals – has been able to thrive as a conversation.  Being more understanding of others and more inclusive is still, to me, progress.

I agree that art should sometimes talk about global issues.  And that I haven’t really seen enough response to Syria – although undoubtedly as the people directly affected find security and a voice, that will come.

But part of the problem is that global anger isn’t what we’re used to doing anymore.

3) We’re still working out what the hell to do.

A trope it may now be, but still true – 2016 threw a lot of shit into the political fan.  First there was Brexit.  In addition to dealing with the tragedy of Syrian refugees in Europe, we suddenly had to come to terms with a rejection of the values of integration, openness and co-operation my generation took for granted.

We were just starting to come to terms with this, and then Trump won.  Trump won despite his campaign being characterised by sexism, racism and general xenophobia.  What the hell do we deal with first?!    With Trump and Brexit, there’s so many issues to worry about, all at the same time and all so unexpectedly (we thought the world was better than this!).

CND: Instant, but single-issue.

In a climate where so many people and values are under threat, it’s hard to bring people under a single umbrella.  Mass political campaigns usually have a single focus – think CND, or 2003’s anti-Iraq protests.   A single image which symbolises the concerns of women, ethnics minorities, Muslims, environmentalists…that’s a challenge.  It may well come, but give us time to adjust.

Even when it does come, though, it may not be in a traditional form.


4) The changing image of protest.

Shephard Fairey: Hope

Nobody can deny the power of a really good political artwork.  The best one of recent years, in terms of entering popular recognition, was probably Shephard Fairey’s Obama poster, which captured a spirit which was matched by Obama’s outstanding oratory.

But when it comes to Trump, cartoons haven’t exactly caught on as part of the conversation.  Everyone from the New York Times to Sesame Street has been sending up Trump for years, but I’d say that recent events have proven how ineffective that’s been at even making people think twice about whether he’s a man who should be allowed power and influence.

Instead it’s been words that have been the most shared on my social media feeds.  With a man like him, it’s both far more suitable, and damaging, to throw his own words back at him.


(I could, of course, just be part of the problem. I do hope so.)

As society seems to become increasingly polarised, just mocking our leaders doesn’t really move the debate on.  Theresa May’s supporters have proved themselves to be a pretty unquestioning lot (policy, anyone)?, so sending her up will only unite them against us.

In the twisted new politics, maybe words – and truth – can take their rightful place as the strongest weapon.  Doubtless art will also have a part to play – Banksy’s already on the case – but it’s a part which is largely untested in the social media age.  The need for a easy-to-share summary of the issues could lead to something really exciting.  Have some faith in the younger generation to say what needs to be said.

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