Where is the political art?

Perhaps I was being unfair to Gordon Hookey in my review, repeating Wm. Burroughs remark about the Dadaists anti-Nazi propaganda: “like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Maybe the propaganda is the act of charging the regiment of tanks with what ever you have or just standing in their way like that man in Beijing, just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I don’t think that there are enough artists making art about the critical issues in Melbourne. Some people, like the curators of the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, believe that the last 20 years of international contemporary art have been to hedonistic and frivolous. When I look at an exhibition or a work of art I ask myself: “how relevant is it?” Often there is no answer to that question or when there is it is as glib as press release.

Sure there are some Melbourne artists, Ash Keating for example, who are really doing something but I haven’t seen many great works of art about critical issues. Critical issues like human rights, the greenhouse effect and war are ignored by most of Melbourne’s art world; Bus Gallery’s “Apropos” exhibition in 2007 being one exception – I’m sure there are others. Melbourne’s art world plays at being relevant by supporting popular, dramatic and superficial charities like the Victorian bushfire appeal or kids with cancer. (There are now more charities for kids with cancer in Australia than kids with cancer.)

In writing about political art and critical issues I have to note that WorkSafe Victoria in 2009 has managed to use art to push an important message. It does take commissions (and other involvement with the arts) in order to produce good art about critical issues. Along with the frightening mainstream adverting campaign Worksafe Victoria has also been using graphic artists and street artists to get their message across. The Big Mouth campaign targeted a younger audience, the audience that is most likely to be injured at work. How effective this is might be is debatable but the images produced have been desirable. The artist is Jonathon Zawada and the image is a skull with a red bandana and a zipper mouth. Who wouldn’t want that? I picked it up for the stickers. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of searches for ‘big mouth’ on my stats page. The image has become a rhetorical device to inspire people to do find out about the campaign for themselves.

The street is still the best place to see artistic images about critical issues. Political graffiti is still alive and topical. Even a big multicoloured piece of aerosol art has a ‘no war’ comment. The stencil art has anarcho-syndicalists and situationist influences and politics; appropriating and altering (detouring) slogans and cartoons. “Unmindfully the anti-capitalists joined those demanding that we must earn our living.” Reads one stencil, along with Tom, the cartoon cat, lazing around. Elsewhere a stencil of a little TV with arms and legs that shows us lies. This situationist propaganda is still, almost fifty years later, a potent alternative on the street to the current political morass. Street art does have advantages in that it is about timing and placement of the image; it is also as ephemeral as the current issue.

However, neither the WorkSafe big mouth advertising campaign nor the scattered political street art are great works of art and this still leaves me asking where are the great, significant, powerful works of art about critical issues?


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

7 responses to “Where is the political art?

  • urbanmonk

    Could it be that the only place where people can explore critical issues is in arena’s that arent institutionalized? ergo: “illegal street art” that is willing to risk oppression by the powers to get its message out. The powermongering affluent nature of “high art” automatically disqualifies it from looking at anything approaching “real” issues, which is why it supports benign charities. It cant afford to have its power and control threatened.

    When human manifestations of freedom and protest are stifled, or give in to the security of institutional control, vital human expressions like art will always suffer and become docile and benign. Without the protection of the powerful, how will they maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed:) How will they pay for the massive canvases and tubes of oil paint:)

  • Jean Watson

    The Big Mouth Project artists – D*Face from UK and locals, JZ and Luke Lucas, have drawn on their experiences as young workers to bring the ‘Speak up be work safe’ message to life for the most at-risk members of our workforce. The next installment will launch early this year. Keep a watch on bigmouthproject.com.

  • Carl Gopal

    Hi Mark, nice blog post. Well I’m a painter of 23 years practice with political themes in my paintings. I really hear you. I meet other artists who have political practice in their work and have chatted and after a few drinks we concluded that we’re really the customers restaurants stick near the toilets and the footy reunions:) It’s not nice, and it makes it harder to pay your rent (in Australia especially), because people get political art mixed up with propaganda and protest art. The latter is seen as really downmarket crap and you always know its an uphill battle getting an audience or a gallery director to give your 5 minutes before lunch.

    It doesnt help either when the main people publishing your art are political publications, not art mags. Although I’m grateful they ‘get it’ and are keen to share it with their readers. I recently got my painting of Netanyahu in the Palestine Chronicle, and have done commissions for politically progressive magazines in the US. But these are not art focused, and you end up being more stereotyped while trying to get your work shown. So at the moment I have 40 paintings and drawings and nowhere to exhibit. I have kind of given up, and work a day job and do it because I like these themes, the political content is relevant to what I have to say, and if that means I do admin jobs and sell every 6 years so be it. But yeah, it can get you down if you let it.

  • Alexander Spencer

    I am by no means a political artist, but here’s weekend effort :-)


  • Writing about Political Art « Melbourne Art & Culture Critic

    […] my January blog entry asking, “Where is the Political Art?” I have been thinking more about this issue. I am interested in writing more blog entries about […]

  • Cel Out

    If you’re interested in some political or social commentary within street art you might like some of my paste up work. http://www.celout.org

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