Published on November 20, 2013 | by Adam Biagini1
The importance of left-wing politics in artTate Liverpool’s exhibition Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 examines the importance that left-wing politics have had in shaping art in this time period.
Including work from founder Guy Debord, ’70s London collective King Mob and Bertolt Brecht among many others, the exhibition examines how left-wing political values such as collectivism, anarchism, socialism and communism have influenced the art of these practitioners and how, reciprocally, their art has affected these movements.
In the words of the Tate, this retrospective is: “A thematic exhibition, based on key concerns that span different historical periods and geographic locations. They range from equality in production and collective authorship to the question of how to merge art and life.”
Of course for many people, the best art is about provocation and rebellion, and when the status quo for many people is often the centre or the right, this is something often delivered from the radical left.
This phenomenon has been rather overshadowed in recent years by art which merely enforces the political norm.
However, left-wing politics, particularly those of the radical variety continue to play a huge part in a lot of art; be it in the work’s themes, its methods of production used or the historical context of the time it has always been present and important, which is the point the exhibition sets out to make.
Debord, a committed Marxist founded the Situationists in ’50s Paris with a number of other like-minded intellectuals, writers and Avant Garde artists.
Setting out to critique capitalist culture and consumer society, the group produced countless works which promoted and embodied their ideas; notably, they produced maps and routes of cities such as Paris and Venice based on their aimless wandering around through the streets.
Accompanied by accounts of the wanderings, these ‘psychogeographic’ maps were intended to encourage the reader to enjoy the city not in terms of work time and leisure time, but as itself, devoid from the constraints of work and money.
The Situationists in turn had a profound influence on the Atelier Populaire, also featured in the exhibition; during the Paris uprising of 1968, this ‘popular workshop’ was an occupied art school in the centre of the city, formerly known as the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
As universities across the city were occupied and workers struck, culminating in a huge general strike and rioting, the Atelier Populaire manned the printing presses, producing the stunning posters seen plastered on walls proclaiming, amongst other things, ‘La Lutte Continue’ (The Fight Continues) and famously, ‘La Beaute Est Dans La Rue’ (Beauty is in the Street), which was accompanied with an image of a woman throwing a brick.
The exhibition also displays lesser-known work from ’60s New York, ranging from anarchist artists Black Mask to Constructivist and producer of Soviet and Stalinist posters Gustav Klutsis or Filipino artist David Medalla.
Just why have left-wing politics been such a relevant and vital tool in art? In an essay on the ’20s German group the Cologne Progressives, writer Martyn Everett puts it like this:
“Art has a long history of use as a propaganda weapon by the powerful, who have patronised particular forms of art and particular artists as a means of enhancing or glorifying their own position. The icon-like portraits of Queen Elizabeth provide an obvious example.
“Occasionally however, attempts have been made to transform art in a political weapon; to use it as a means of overthrowing a cruel and unjust social system.”
‘Rampant capitalism’Paul Coldwell, Professor of Fine Arts at Chelsea College of Art and Design, is also a sculptor, printmaker and writer seems to agree:
“There is a lot of art now that seems to pander to rampant capitalism, in which case I would argue that the effect is to add to the inequalities in society. On the other hand many artists are probing at social issues and over time contribute to changes in thinking…
“An artist who is working to serve rich elite is making a political choice just as much as an artwork in support of Greenham Common.
“The problem with left-wing politics in art is how to prevent it being just another commodity to be purchased at ever-rising prices. There is a paradox, for example in Banksy’s work being purchased and installed in wealthy collectors’ houses.”
And are there any trends he has noticed amongst his students?
“My sense is that the student body is more conservative, but that is to be expected with the charging of fees and the difficult job market,” he said.
“The radicalism amongst students in the 70s and 80s was against a backdrop of grants and better job opportunities … staff brought their politics into the studio whereas now, teaching and learning begin with the students’ own position and ideas.
“In terms of left-wing ideas it is often difficult to separate that out from enterprise. There are many artist collectives, artist-run galleries; some are driven by alternative ideologies, others are aspiring to be the next White Cube so it’s difficult to judge.
“On the whole I am struck by the idealism that makes students pursue what can be a difficult route and find this very life-affirming.”
The tendency towards a more conservative outlook was something that came up in a number of conversations on the subject with students.
Martha Gardiner, who graduated from Camberwell this year, said it was something she noticed frequently during her time at the college; as a practicing anarchist, she said it was also the apathy of her fellow classmates she found strange:
“Even if they weren’t conservative, they were just completely dismissive of any form of politics. I find it strange that people can be attracted to the supposedly wild world of art school, yet be so middle of the road or small minded in their views.”
Asked why she thought the situation was like this in a time when more and more young people are becoming involved in political discourse, she partly agreed with Paul Coldwell but added: “In a way I can see that but then surely the tuition fees going up would have been a great catalyst for these people to become engaged. We had all the protests, but none of that seemed to trickle back down to Camberwell.
“Most of the people in my year were just happy to take loads of drugs and act out some weird middle-class fantasy that living in Peckham somehow made them ghetto.”
As the exhibition demonstrates, left-wing politics are still very much present in a lot of art today, as they have been for centuries. However it is a little odd that this doesn’t seem to be reflected in the colleges of our university.
As young people across the country continue to get involved with Occupy, or anti-fascist marches or the anti-fracking campaign, where are the Atelier Populaires of our generation?