The following Sara Selwood text (now Prof.) is taken from Michael Peel’s MODERN WORLD series archive published by The Orchard Gallery (1988). It’s a pithy read that raises points germane to the flyingleaps project as well as chiming with current socio-political concerns and debate…
EXTRACTS FROM A MODERN WORLD raises many issues concerned with contemporary British art practices and the production of “political art” in particular.
Since late 1985 Michael Peel has made 31 poster-works. They are all screen-printed in one or two colours onto a 30”X40” format and carry the generic subtitle, MODERN WORLD.
The artist’s original intention was to establish a formal structure onto which he could impose different contents over an unspecified period of time. He also wanted to develop a format for showing work outside the confines of the art gallery.
The MODERN WORLD poster-works are made in response to media coverage of certain events. Their imagery is extracted from British television news; their texts are sometimes found, sometimes fabricated. They bring into play ways in which state information is disseminated and authoritarian dictates targeted at the individual.
EXTRACTS FROM A MODERN WORLD also refers to the apparently contradictory functions of the art-work as commodity and vehicle for the expression of social and political ideologies. This is compounded by the simultaneous display of the poster works in the gallery and on the street. In the gallery they will be shown alongside editioned prints bearing the same images.
The series of poster-works comprising EXTRACTS FROM A MODERN WORLD will be made immediately before and during the course of the exhibition at A.I.R. Although their content cannot be predicted at the time of writing, each poster-work will carry a negative command referring to the authoritarianism of the Thatcher administration.
In that Mrs. Thatcher’s has been the longest premiership this century, it has given us a unique opportunity to see how a government steers an uninterrupted course towards the realisation of its policies. Back in 1981 the Prime Minister described her intention to reform “not merely the way we live, but the way we think.” “The object” she explained “is to change the soul.” (1)
Mrs. Thatcher’s unswerving vision was largely informed by “… things I and millions like me were bought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, live within your means; put a nest egg by for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.” (2) Reinstating the values which underlie such a morality inevitably involved the curtailment of certain freedoms and expansion of others; the restriction of particular “rights” and the withdrawal of exemptions. In addition to passing new legislation the government was seen to implement policy through multifarious incentives and disincentives. Conceivably its most effective strategy was the inducement to share in the “property owning democracy,” where success is signified by the acquisition of commodities.
The art market inevitably reflects this, much like the city. If the newspapers are to be believed, modern art has had its “big bang.” (3) Significantly, new work by European and American avant-garde artists fetishes commodities. Their chic artifacts are largely self-referential – about art itself as the ultimate consumer item – not just a manufactured status symbol of material success, but the “irreplaceable status indicator.” (4) According to one commentator, this new art “plays on what the modern cultural economy defines as art and what it doesn’t.” “It signifies, albeit unwittingly, the triumph of the empty category on which the current empowerment of art depends.” (5)
If the present economic conditions are responsible for record breaking sums being paid in the art market, they also provide an ideal breeding ground for the creation of oppositional art-forms. These deliberately contravene the conventions of gallery-based modes of painting and sculpture: They may be neither object-based nor commodifiable; they may be transient or temporary. Often consciously targeted at audiences “beyond the museum,” their theoretical object is to “spurn all institutionalism.” One category of oppositional art, in particular, aspires to “ordinary social practice.” It thereby not only declares itself “oppositional,” it manifestly characterises itself “political.”
Broadly speaking “political art” would appear to assume many characteristics of other oppositional practices: it evidently regards itself as a vehicle for dissension “essential to the health of a democratic society.” As the official opposition party itself stipulates: “The arts are often a form of critical opposition within civic society and sometimes it is necessary that they bite the hand that feeds them.” (6) “Political Art” is also characterised by well-intentioned moralizing which seeks to expose social inequalities, politicise us and transform the quality of our lives. Bound to the sovereignty of anti-elitism, it resolutely pursues the cause of social relevance. It promotes the notion of participation rather than consumption, thus reinforcing the ideology of “shared experience.” Such interests are best served by the community-based art practices – “art as the sinecure for the psychological disruption caused by such social ills as unemployment, bad housing, etc.” (7)
One might have assumed that the primary function of any political art was messianic – that it would demonstrate the impossibility of sanctioning the nature of the political world we inhabit. But like oppositional politics, “political art” appears wholly determined by the very establishment it alleges to oppose: It, therefore, functions defensively, often blatantly, advertising its attachment to particular causes – anti-apartheid, anti-Thatcherism, anti-British rule in Northern Ireland. But such attachments are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of making an art which repudiates the world that produces these struggles. (8) Nor, indeed, are they sufficient conditions for making art. All too often the gesticulations of the defence-reflex appear to assume the guise of art practices:
“Thus a poster campaign, itself a legitimate political activity, sometimes informed by artistic skills is uncritically accepted as both culture and art. As a consequence, the nature and form of the poster-campaign becomes the definition of the art itself.” (9)
By virtue of their attachment to particular causes, “Political art-works” serve to transform political problems into objects of aesthetic pleasure. They thus become commodities to be assimilated into establishment culture, like any other commodity. They merely happen to represent the norm of dissent accommodated within that establishment. In its role as official oppositional art, “political-art’s” characteristics have become so familiar that they are recognised as a set strategic criteria according to which the quality and effectiveness of art-works is often judged. These have come to signify formalist concerns. Perhaps the most devastating irony of all is that “political art” has become fully assimilated within the cultural establishment.
Sara Selwood, 1988.
1. Mrs. Thatcher, cited by Robert Harris, “Prima Donna inter Pares” The Observer 3 January 1988.
3. Tom Dewe Matthews, “Modern Art gets its Big Bang,” The Observer 6 June 1987.
4. Thomas Crow, “The Return of Hank Herron,” Endgame: Reference and Stimulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art) 1986, p.19.
5. Ibid, p.23
6. Voices & Choices: Labour’s policies for the Arts and Media 1987, p.2
7. See Peter Stark, “Can the arts do anything about unemployment?” in Arthur Battram and Claire Segal (eds), Arts and Unemployment: A Collection of Articles and Case Studies (CASA) undated, with particular reference to his discussion of Marie Jahda, Work, Employment and Unemployment: A Psychological Analysis (Cambridge University Press) 1982.
8. See Sue and Terry Atkinson, “State of the Nation,” and Journal for Art and Arts Education February 1988.
9. Peter Bradbury and Dermot Killip, “The Problem of Art,” Another Standard: Community Art and Politics (Manchester: Shelton Trust for Community Arts) no. 22 / March-April 1986, p.28-9