What’s the point of political art?
Art that shocks, offends, and amuses has a purpose beyond aesthetic: its existence is a testament to freedom of expression
Political Art is curated by Jon Elrik Lundberg and Piotr Bernatowicz and is on show at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Poland until 16 January 2022.
Political art is everywhere. It permeates across our contemporary culture in the name of social justice and protest against a politics that is judged as broadly right-wing. The art world went into meltdown when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, when 52 per cent of British public voted to leave the European Union, when the Tories won the UK elections in 2017 and 2019 and when climate change, racism, identity politics and boycotting Israel became priority agendas for attitudinal change.
Art has always addressed political turmoil and upheavals. Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) captured the force of the French Revolution, and Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a profoundly moving work against the horrors of war when the town in Northern Spain was bombed by the Nazis and Fascist Italy in the thick of the Spanish Civil War.
Contemporary political art has taken a different turn. It has become more high-handed, reeking in moral superiority and disdain for the ordinary man or woman who are seen to have been manipulated by darker forces when voting against what are seen as liberal-left values. Art has become a vehicle for virtue signalling. Artists, writers or celebrities who question or go against the grain of the dominant cultural elite are silenced, “called out”, cancelled or ostracised for being on the “wrong-side”. Witness how the popular British novelist JK Rowling has been vilified for her views on sex and gender or the 2018 Turner Prize shortlisted artist Luke Willis Thompson was accused of being a “white [passing] man from New Zealand [Thompson is of mixed Fijian/European parentage] who self-identifies as black and therefore feels he is entitled to chase ambulances and make a spectacle of black death…all for his ‘art’…”. Many artists have been told to “stay in your lane”; an instruction for those who make work about subjects that are not within their lived experience.
It is within this context that the curators of an exhibition called Political Art have selected 28 international artists that go against the grain of Woke politics, safe spaces and the politically correct art. The works and the artists featured are deemed to be on the wrong side of politics. The exhibition opened in August 2021 at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw and met with much outcry from left-leaning artist-activists.
I was impressed by the plurality, tolerance, and the potential for conversation between the two exhibitions
Adjacent to the exhibition is Everyday Forms of Political Resistance by Palestinian artists and artists who have worked in Palestine. As a visitor to the centre, I was impressed by the plurality, tolerance, and the potential for conversation between the two exhibitions. However, the artists in the latter exhibition did not have the same sentiment. A public statement by the artists is on display, objecting to this difficult frisson:
“We, the artists involved in the Everyday Forms of Resistance exhibition, strongly object to the use of our project as a context for the exhibition Political Art….The exhibition…is an open consent to exclusion, hatred, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic prejudices. The limits of freedom of speech have been exheeded here in order to promote fascist attitudes….We would like to make it clear that we have nothing to do with this exhibition and we reject the contempt, aggression and hatred it promotes. Its proximity is…distasteful.”
It is a pity that these artists have framed the exhibition as hateful, Islamophobic, fascist and anti-Semitic. I do wonder if they actually saw all the works on display. Some of the work is uncomfortable, angry, and there are a few that are completely offensive and distasteful, but the majority of the artworks are against real injustices, and portray real struggles in regions and nations that are theocratic, corrupt, undemocratic and violently authoritarian.
The opening of the exhibition is an exuberant display of optimism against tyranny. Venezuelan artist Oscar Olivares’ cartoon comic book style art portrays ordinary citizens taking on the brutality of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s police force. His large billboard-sized illustrations of ordinary Venezuelan citizens cuts across identity; they beam with a sense of hope against Muduro’s repressive regime. In the style of comic book superheroes, these citizens are everyday heroes. Olivares images become tools of defence, his images are carried by protesters, emblazoned on shields employed to protect them against police bullets.
The inclusion of Swedish artist Dan Park has caused great offence. An open letter was sent to the centre’s director — the co-curator of the exhibition Piotr Bernatowicz — by representatives of Poland’s Jewish community in protest against his inclusion. Dan Park’s work is uncomfortable, his art performs all the tropes of hate speech and he has been imprisoned for it. His depiction of Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik in a French Lacoste polo shirt is unashamedly provocative as is his other works in the exhibition. Is Park a Nazi, an anti-Semite, does he hate Muslims and immigrants or are they performative acts simply to offend and stir up uncomfortable public debate and push the limits of artistic free expression? I would say the latter, his work should not be censored nor removed. Rather his work should be interrogated for what it is: silly and offensive political art, but no less offensive than say Marcus Harvey’s painting, composed of children’s handprints, of the serial child killer Myra Hindley, which was part of the Sensation exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1997.
The works I found most powerful were those interrogating Islamist subjugation of women, by women artists. Two performance to video pieces by Iranian-Dutch artist Firozeh Bazrafkan feature the artist reversing the subjection of women under theocratic Islam. In 99 Lashes (2012) the artist violently whips a copy of The Koran, while dressed in a short black dress and red high-heeled shoes. The performance is in response to the sentencing to death by stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani by the Iranian courts. Her sentence was subsequently reduced to 99 lashes. Her crime? Not wearing the hijab, thus spreading and corrupting others with her “immodesty”.
A staged photograph by British Yemeni artist Tasleem Mulhall shows a semi-naked woman surrounded by niqabi dressed women holding a dagger over her mouth. The work is called Silence (2014). London based Polish artist and curator Agnieszka Kolek’s quartet of watercolours — such a gentle, innocent and delicate medium — belie a horrific stoning to death of two adulterous lovers by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Satire and irreverence are plentiful in this exhibition. A British artist who operates like Banksy — and amusingly calls him/herself Mimsy — riffs on the children’s model figurine collection of adorable animals known as Sylvanians. In Mimsy’s lightboxes, cute Sylvanians go about their contented lives — picnicking, attending a real ale or LGBT+ Pride Festival, while Islamic State Sylvanians lurk in the background clad in black balaclavas with machine-guns. It’s an attack on Western liberal values by both the fictional Islamist mice as well as a damning critique by the artist on Western liberalism.
Political Art is a courageous exhibition, and not all of it is to my liking
It is unlikely that any of the works in Political Art will be exhibited in the UK. In fact, Mimsy’s work was shown in London at the Passion for Freedom exhibition in 2015, but had to be removed by the curators on advice by the London Metropolitan Police as they thought the work was inflammatory and could not guarantee the safety of the exhibition and the artist. Political Art is a courageous exhibition, and not all of it is to my liking. But within the context of an elite virtue-signalling art world, this curation truly reflects the words that were attributed to Voltaire, but actually penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Such conviction to freedom of speech and expression is now more essential than ever in our age of censorious cancel culture.
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