Art Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013, investigates how the production of art and distribution have been influenced by left-wing values. As that opening sentence indicates, unlike some exhibitions the intent is purposefully complex, requiring the visitor to spend much longer than the hour or so I did this morning at the press view thinking about the political underpinnings of art in general and in the activist realm specifically. Co-curated by John Moores University, the effect is of stepping into the source material for an academic paper, an academic paper which the visitor is essentially asked to piece together themselves and then apply to their own thoughts on the art world and the extent to which, as a visitor are themselves affected.
This is achieved by grouping the exhibition around a series of questions and providing art from a range of sources which propose possible answers. Everything is subliminal. Nothing is entirely certain. Rather like some of the very good Liverpool Biennial exhibits, for example the City States at the old post office building in 2012, in which the visitor is being presented with the flavour of a topic which could easily be expanded to fill the whole space. There’s clearly much more which can be said and shown about the Guerilla Girls and their hacking of the advertising aesthetic of Saachi and the like to demonstrate the overwhelming gender bias and lack of balance within the art world. Whole hours could be spent listening to the many hundreds of tracks on Ruth Ewan’s fully functional A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World. Is this the first time Tom Lehrer’s been played in this environment?
As such it’s an incredibly difficult exhibition for a layperson like me to review in any kind of meaningful way without it becoming redundant lists of “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like” or even in general terms because what the visitor gets from the exhibition depends on what they put into it, in time and intellectual rigour. Instead, I’ve decided to attempt to answer each of the questions posed within the exhibition, subliminally informed by what's there but largely typing the first thing which comes into my head and just to add some structure, and so that I’m not still writing this at midnight, one paragraph each of just about identical length. The results are only partially coherent (I’m writing this introduction last) but in producing them I have at least illuminated some of my own values and prejudices, which is, I suppose, sort of the point of the exhibition itself.
Do we need to know who makes art?
Yes. No. Maybe. Perhaps. One of elements of activism is its anonymity with a group calling itself Anonymous being the ultimate expression, so arguably if a piece of art is being created within that kind of socio-political, collective thought environment (oh dear, look at that) then naming names creates an unhelpful hierarchy, to mention a target for the authorities. However, not naming names also creates problems for the communication receiver, for us, because without knowing the source, we lose a certain element of understanding the intent. This leads to conspiracy theories about whether the source of the message ideologically agrees with the message or is simply utilising the tropes of the message for their own political aims in order to ridicule or create counter propaganda against a group that does truly believe that ideology.
Can art affect everyone?
Yes, which is why the financial bloodletting within the arts and artistic institutions across the globe, not just in the UK is a disaster because as well as education, the arts can be civilising and that includes television, which as the last example of mass culture is itself being slowly eroded. Subconsciously or not, politicians know the answer to this question and do everything in their power to try and make sure everyone’s exposure to art is minimised. The more people think, the more they consider, the more they have opinions, the greater the likelihood they do something with those opinions. Keep them in a semi-conscious state of ignorance and they’re malleable. So they keep art elitist and if possible inaccessible through funding cuts and closures, make libraries seem like luxuries and so easily closable and degrade society’s ability to inspire itself going forward.
Can art infiltrate everyday life?
The answer is rather the same as above, although with different shading because even after local councils have sold off their art collections and closed their libraries and television channels are unable to afford intellectually rigorous programming, art will still have its way through fashion, through consumer goods and through the architecture in our environment and all of that, however much of it simple marketing, has some intellectual underpinning, thematic interest and the potential to make us think, even if it’s that we think it’s rubbish or it doesn’t work. Some William Morris wallpaper features in the exhibition under a different question, and although outwardly it doesn’t seem left wing, the philosophical and political aims that led to its creation mean that it’s entirely possible for the interior design in the home of a classic right-winger to be inspired by socialist ideology.
Does participation deliver equality?
No because it depends on the participants and the nature of the hierarchy. Purely on the basis of gender, there have been female participants in most of the major art movements across the century but their work has been largely obscured or at the very least tokenised in favour of the men. Only recently, thanks to the strict chronological rehang of Tate Britain have the contributions of female artists been acknowledged strongly and their voices included in the chorus, with Britain's first female professional painter, Mary Beale given some of the prominence she deserves. Clearly that’s changed somewhat in the contemporary art world, but for all the nominations there have still only been five female winners of the Turner Prize in its three decade history and it’s worth asking how many of those went on to become household names thanks to the ensuing publicity. Or lack of.
Can pursuing equality change how art is made?
Yes. Please. If I glance back through old reviews of the Liverpool Biennial, the largest proportion of work I’ve appreciated have been created by people who aren’t white and male (as far as I can tell). Whole sections of culture and the arts are stagnating because it’s simply impossible for non-white male voices to be heard, not particularly in some cases because of direct misogyny and racism though that clearly happens, but because society has a kind of bland acceptance of cultural structures that include those things. Even when non-white males are promoted to become heads of those cultural structures, it’s still predominantly people who aren’t like them who are the creatives, let alone people from a range of economic backgrounds. The amount of films and television apparently created for women with a so-called feminist undercurrent by men is utterly reprehensible.
How can art speak with a collective voice?
Well, it isn’t through predetermined rules, that’s for sure, unless they’re rules being created with the expectation that they will be broken. One of my favourite elements of the Dogme95 manifesto, in which the proposers created a set of rules as to how a certain type of film should be made and handed out certificates to those films which fitted those rules, was that the ordinary day-to-day requirements of filmmaking meant the rules had to be broken and so after about six productions, they began handing out certificates anyway, providing the filmmaker listed the ways in which the manifesto had been broken. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lasted only a few months or so before their own personal artistic agendas began to intrude. It’s the artists who work towards a political rather than aesthetic agenda who seem to endure, or who are influenced by one another without trying to put something together on paper.
Are there ways to distribute art differently?
There are now although the exhibition has plenty of examples from the pre-digital era. The most famous image in the exhibition, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat was copied by members of his studio and distributed throughout the country to spread the revolutionary message and while as the catalogue suggests it was “making accessible art which would have previously been displayed only as a unique object in elite circles” as an oil on canvas or print of Marat’s face it was still an incredibly time consuming endeavour. Now everything, taking into account copyright objections, can be infinitely reproduced as this Google Image search demonstrates. Which then leads to the question of whether a reproduction of a painting has the same value in terms of its message as the painting itself, but like all of these questions there are no easy answers and arguably any art which says it has a definitive answer is a failure.
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 is at Tate Liverpool from 8 November 2013 – 2 February 2014. Prices: Adult £8.80 (£8 without donation), Concession £6.60 (£6 without donation).