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Is There Power in Critical Art?

We have been asked to consider 'Is There Power in Critical Art?'

To put the question in perspective one might ask whether there was power in two million people marching through the streets of London in protest against the coming invasion of Iraq?   Clearly there was not.   Tony Blair took us to war regardless, and behind him, shoulder to shoulder, stood the two main political parties.   If within a democracy the voices of so many can be ignored, then what chance has the barely audible utterances of the artist?   Very little I would suggest.   But maybe artistic 'power' can take on other forms, less direct and more insidious in their critique of the status quo.  

I recently saw a film by a younger artist which, from the perspective of our compliant consumer society, lamented the passing of the 'revolutionary' spirit of 1968.   The present rash of commemorative celebrations tend to gloss over the comfortable lifestyles that many of the old radicals of '68 now enjoy in the media, business and academia - the tough price they have paid for failure!

For sure something changed, not so much in '68 in my experience, as in '89.   Because it was then that we lost an alternative; a counter ideology; a place of hopefulness; we lost Socialism.   Since then we have been living in a political monoculture, characterised by a lack of meaningful alternatives, and the growing suspicion that national politicians have little power to control our economic or ecological environments.

But I guess I have been invited to contribute to this discussion not for my skills as a political analyst, but as a picture maker.   So against this backdrop, I want to pick up the story of my own work from '89, and to show a few examples of the changes it has taken in critical response to events.    

After '89 there was for me a period of mourning, rather as for the young filmmaker I mentioned.   I made a series in the wake of events entitled 'The Scar', which analogously related the break up of a love affair, to the political rifts occurring within the Eastern bloc. Then followed a series concerning the demise of the old revolutionary and avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich, entitled 'The Commissar of Space'.

But the real change came in the mid '90's when I turned away from historical subjects to deal directly with the present.   And when I looked at the world around me I found that, to paraphrase Juvenal, 'It was difficult not to make satire'.

My first shot at producing a satirical image took as its subject the ever recurring absurdities, and small-time corruptions of the art world.   At the centre of 'Private View' stands the confident young Gallery Owner, with the figure of Old Money behind her.   She manipulates the puppet like Successful Young Artist, held in the palm of the Collector's hand.   To the right the leather-clad Critic kowtows, behind whom kneels one of two Artist Donors, whose nose is in dangerous proximity to the Critic's Ass.

An all-important Ethical Distance exists between the main group and the figure on the left of the Public Gallery Director, who as we can see has just lifted the purse of the Collector's Beau. Behind him his Assistant is on his mobile to the Gallery Owner, thus completing the circle. And the cumulative effect of all these shenanigans is... that we can't see the pictures!

From Hogarth I learnt something about the use of ironic contrast.   In 'An Election Entertainment' , for example, through its arrangement of forms he refers us to Leonardo's 'Last Supper' , and thereby creates an ironic juxtaposition between its sense of sacrifice, and the greedy fatuousness of this Oxfordshire election scene.

With the coming of New Labour I embarked on three related exhibitions entitled 'Ukadia'.   The first, 'Capital Arcade', opens in the car park of a shopping mall on Mandleson Way, with the artist tugged between dour socialism and peroxide consumerism - there's not much doubt which direction he will take.   This is based on Reynolds's 'Garrick Between Comedy and Tragedy'. Another example shows a young man beckoning his companions into McDonald's, in implied contrast to 'Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple', by El Greco.

My peregrination through Blaire's Britain then took me, in 'High Summer' into our idyllic countryside, where I encountered 'Eco Warriors', sports fanatics, the county set, and the ubiquitous art world - et in Arcadia Ego .

'Gilt City' is set in the City of London and seems to rehearse a Social Realist model by contrasting rich and poor. Until that is, we take a close look at these outsiders. Then we begin to doubt their authenticity.   They are dressed just a little too well, in what might be read as chic street style. The viewer's sympathy turns to suspicion, then incredulity.   This conflicted positioning of the viewer echoes greater social uncertainties regarding the poor, in which we are all ethically implicated.

The final image in this series was made just before the Iraq war, and has Blair of Baghdad striking a triumphant pose, brandishing a bible and a gun. On the ground before the 'Living Statue', lies a wounded New Labour Supporter clutching his copy of Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle's 1996 manifesto 'The Blair Revolution'.

I would like to pause now in this gallop through my work, to think for a moment about 'why make satire?'   It is hardly a fashionable form in fine art these days. During the past fifty years or so there have been pockets of activity and notable individuals. A few Eastern European film makers in the 'sixties come to mind, this from Jerzy Skolimowski's 'Hands Up' ; also Ad Reinhardt's 'Art Comics and Satires' ; Joerg Immendorff's 'Café Deutschland' ; Dick Bengtsson's work throughout the '70s; Pyotr Belov's soviet satires; Komar and Melamid's 'History Paintings' and arguably the late works of Peter De Francia and Philip Guston.   All good artists but it must be said, none were particularly influential on the mainstream.  

If not for career opportunities, then temperament must play its part in creating satirists. Irascibility and a taste for the surreal, the absurd, the grotesque and the carnivalesque seem to be prerequisites. Satirists don't wither in despair but feel compelled to express their dissent. Satire is the language of the underdog. Whilst the propagandist of yesterday offered his or her own brand of ideological fix, the satirist feels no compulsion to offer solutions. In their criticism the satirist self-satirises, believing it better to play the fool than the high priest, of which the art world already has a surfeit.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq is as shameful as it is disastrous.   In retrospect there are few who would argue against this, but when I began to make 'The New World Circus' it was a different story.   I developed a disparaging analogy between the New World Order and circus, into an allegory of the war. Some of the pictures parody documentary photos from the conflict - Statue Entrée, The Illusionist and Crowd Scene.   Others take the form of traditional circus acts - Mazeppa, The Strongman and Mirror Entrée.   It begins with a Grand Parade and ends with a Grand Finale.

Did it stop the war?   No, of course not. But it did tour the country for 18 months, and in as much as the art press neglected it, it proved popular with audiences.   I like to think that the sentiments of all those ignored protesters found voice again, within the gallery walls.

In an attempt to reduce the time lag between events, and the responding images reaching an audience, I recently made a work solely for the internet. Using Google Earth I shifted the topographical furniture around a little.   As you move the cursor over the 'i' the location is revealed. These pictures were made quickly in response to news events, in a manner akin to a newspaper cartoonist. What they gained in topicality, however, I felt they lost in complexity, but I still like their pithiness. A less direct, more poetic form of speech, and images layered over a period, places the fine art satirist in a different time relationship to events to the daily cartoonist.

Time and history return as subjects in the most recent series I have made. Here I rework moments from English history with dancers drawn from some of the diverse ethnic and cultural traditions found in present-day Britain. One of its threads is a critique of the homogenised society aimed at by the abandonment of multiculturalism. Saluting the flag, oaths of allegiance and museums of Britishness are hopeless sticking plasters with which to bind the wounds of Iraq.     

To return now to the question of 'whether critical art has power'?   The artist's job in my view is to tell as fully as they can about the world as they find it. To bear witness, to observe and to reflect. Art does not have the power to directly effect events, and is mercifully incapable of creating revolutions, but it does accrue ethical power over time. By way of an example, George IV is less remembered now through his official portraits (this one by Sir Thomas Lawrence) than by Gillray's savage 'A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion' .  

Thinking minds and dissenting voices might not register widely in their day, but their ethical power grows over time, as the official line diminishes.

John Goto

Presented at The Art Forum, University Museum, University of Oxford; with speakers Marina Warner, Katie Paterson, John Jordan, chaired by John Hoole and organised by Susan Moxley and Tess Blenkinsop, 19 May 2008

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