Some thoughts on the North West’s recent political art exhibitions: Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool and Radical Conservatism at Castlefield Gallery


Joseph Lewis, ‘My War, Positiv Church 0’ (2012), mixed media hurdy-gurdie, (behind) Patrick Moran, Buried, Issue 4 (2013), fanzine. Image credit: Adele Myers.

The turn in Art Turning left wasn’t clear. Much of the artwork could be defined as propaganda in the form of Situationalist International détournement, OSPAAAL posters, or other social consciousness raising materials, most of which involved typographical elements indicating art’s vehicle in various print mediums to provide a socialist message. Other familar and some less familiar examples include Walter Crane’s illustrated ‘Socialist Reader’ book (or early zine?), Russan Constructivist designs, posters, charts and pamphlets by Rodchenko, Malevich and others, pages from the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung’s anti-Nazi, pro-Communist pictorial newspaper and later, post-WW2 excerpts, collages/photomontages, murals and manifestos from Fluxus, King Mob or Cuban, Argentinan and French artist collectives such as Tucamun Ard and Atelier Populaire.  The list of socialist collectivist print media objects in the exhibition could go on here and the variety per square metre was impressive. However, being propaganda doesn’t mean being left wing. The same sorts of printed material could have been assembled but to represent Tory or Liberal, Nazi initiatives but the exhibition was about how art works can be used as an ideological or functional tool to promote left wing perspectives. Aside from the socialist or Marxist text based messages inherent in much of the examples, the other ways in which art can be deemed left wing was not always clearly illuminated in the show.

At points in the exhibition, more conceptual pieces were displayed to demonstrate how artists have thought about the relationship between artist and spectator with the aim of breaking down the boundaries of high and low culture or of artist as individual genius – barriers that fine art and art academies have often harboured. These examples range from those that concern the subversion or detournement of ‘established’ art or commercial products, to artworks with a participatory intention to the recognition of cultural products that can be considered kitsch, outsider or otherwise excluded from the artistic spehere. These include Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s ‘folk archives’ of everyday incidental art occurences, interactive op art by Julio Le Parc (1967), Cilo Meireles’ culture jammed cola cola bottles (1970), David Medalla’s communal embroidery or Ruth Ewan’s recent/ongoing ‘A juke box of people trying to change the world’. The emphasis on dissensus – highlighted in this exhibition from the Dadaists onwards (though reference is made to older revolutionary art within the 20thC artworks, such as David’s ‘The Death of Marat’) – went some way to designating a particular space for art that is radical – anti conservative in both senses. Art can be left wing in format but also in form. In the case of the former – such as with propaganda materials –  this is not exclusive to the left wing cause. Arguably, the latter – art that works to erupt its own elitist ontology – is. This is demonstrated more in the larger of the two exhibition rooms. Yet more conceptual artists (take Tracy Emin) who use art to question the former hierarchical modes of artistic endeavour are not always leftist. In fact, artists who were seen to respond to or to embody the late twentieth century ‘cultural turn’, arguably, did so in way that worked to bolster neoliberal ideology. The exhibition’s perceivable conflation of conceptual or pop art methods with art’s turning left in this exhibition room was problematic. The participatory aspect of these artworks was what really needed to be reinforced for the visitor in order to avoid perceivable inconsistencies in the exhibition’s own format and ontology.

If art turned left, then when, how and why? That art can be left wing we already knew, so what exactly is the exhibition trying to tell us in terms of the trajectory of left wing cultural agendas? The ways in which left wing thought has become manifested into works of art is something that could have been made clearer through the curator’s modes of representation, for example, be it chronologically, inter-nationally or socio-historically.  The exhibition catalogue arranges the artworks around a useful timeline. It also introduces key criterion for left wing political ideology, such as a focus on equality and collectivism, before highlighting the significance of Marxist Dialectical Materialism upon the production of art. However, the different types of political cultural action do not really come across with any cogence within the text and at £10 for a booklet sized catalogue, the majority of visitors would probably not access this contextual information. If art is for all and knowledge is power then the latter fell short.

The smaller of the two exhibition rooms seemed to hint at the significance of Marxist thought and the creation of communist, socialist states as the point at which art turned accordingly but it could have been spelled out (particularly if younger audiences were in mind). The Marxist element was either corroborated or confused by references to the French Revolution depending on how you interpret socialism. If the formation of the USSR signalled the turning of art towards left wing prerogatives across parts of the globe then surely the cold war would need to be highlighted somewhere. The focus here was more about revolution itself – about art as a revolutionary vessel and about how revolutions could be documented by or with art in the age of mechanical reproduction and distribution. In both exhibition rooms, outwardly socialist art collectives, ranging from the Art and Crafts movement to the Hackney Flashers became confused with artworks by artists who can be – but who are not necessarily – political. This is interesting because it demonstrates that politics itself is a slippery concept. This wasn’t addressed though, at least not explicitly.

Writing as someone who has designed and who runs an art theory unit about the intersection of art and politics, I was particularly interested to see how the curator navigated their way through the subject. The unit – called Empowering Images – considers some of the same artistic tactics, such as propaganda posters and banners, the subversion or misappropriation of images or objects and the potential egalitarian involvement of the audience. There was a piece of wall text in the exhibition where the word ‘empowering’ was used in relation to participatory art. The wall text itself was less empowering, not because such information is by its own categorisation a form of direction (can this be avoided in such a print heavy exhibition?) but because it did little to edify the art works, particularly for a visitor who may know nothing of Marxism, Modernism or Identity Politics. This eclectic range of art pieces could have been clustered into themes that work to highlight their particular format, socio-historical or theoretical underpinnings or their particular site for contention. It’s not an easy task to try and push political art into educational boxes because it goes against the grain of political vigour and because both art and politics are equivocal and transmutable concepts. In Empowering Images I organise it around themes that combine the format and the theoretical aspects of political art: protest, power, identity and so on. I also keep to the 20th and 21st centuries, highlighting significant political moments: the Communist revolution/s, decolonisation, the cold war, 1960s counter culture, 1970s recession and responses to the rise of neoliberalism. It’s not an easy task trying to categorise over a century of cultural and political intersections in a way that is user-friendly and that is not too empirically dry but without an understanding of particular histories or politics, the artworks that embody them become not only discombobulating but sometimes even defunct. A banner that refers to a protest that is not explained is an empty sign – its text and symbols often specific to an event rather than simply to a generic way of seeing. Things were explained but they weren’t ordered in a way that made them relevant to political moments or to each other. Where was and where are communist nations today and how much were they influenced by Marxist dialectical materialism or Socialist thinkers? Why stick in only one example of Maoist cultural propaganda and why not compare such a product of totalitarian persuasion with Socialist Realist style artworks that were being created contemporaneously in parts of the world where a degree of freedom of speech was allowed in the cultural sphere? Perhaps it is because art is still turning left and so to isolate and compare historically socialist moments as finite trajectories would be to compartmentalise socialism – or art that is socialist – in a way that might work to encourage the insistence of the globe’s turning right.

The Radical Conservatism exhibition at Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery worked to acknowledge the world’s shift towards a deregulated late capitalist system. In its opening take-away text it is clear in its mission, which is to consider both the liberal and the neo in neoliberalism, asking ‘can conservatism be seen as a radical position in itself? If art is defined by a radical movement towards the new, could ‘holding onto the past’ stubbornly be seen as a critical position?’ The blurb goes on to suggest that neoliberalism has created a more significant change to politics than leftist ideologies ever have. Still, Marxism has been around longer. Also, the shift that neoliberalism has caused for the world of labour and capital does not mean that the majority of people subjected to it agree with its ideology; perhaps neoliberalism is radical because its impact is so great yet supported by relatively few. At the same time, Marxism is radical because it is an economic alternative which is outmoded (as such); it’s reactionary and thus, conservative. The introductory exhibition blurb sets up the contradictions around these concepts of the radical and the conservative in a provocative way. The installations, print media and videos within the exhibition can then be interpreted as radically conservative or conservatively radical. Or perhaps, both – or neither.

Like with the Art Turning Left exhibition, the artworks are not organised thematically and it is unclear how each one tackles the curatorial remit. However, with an exhibition of this scale, there is more space in which to reflect upon the potential meaning of each piece and its relationship to the others. Are Oscar Nemon’s busts of Thatcher – which are one of the first things we see upon entering the exhibition – homages to the former leader or a form of irreverence? Are Joseph Lewis’s folklore hurdy-gurdies really a contestation of the commercial British tourist industry or are they a celebration of English insularity? We learn from considering each work that notions of what is radical and what is conservative are subjective and dependent upon the political position of the viewer with which to begin. What works well with this exhibition, other than the layout, is that its oxymoronic title sets up a question that the visitor can then carry around as they look at the artworks. With Art Turning Left – and its subheading ‘How Values Changed Making 1789-2013’ we were led to assume that art did turn left. We then had to wander round the artworks whilst wondering exactly how. But if it really did, then where does that leave us now – and should that be our real consideration within such radically right turning times?



About Art Theory and Practice

BA Contemporary Art History Manchester School of Art

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