Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789 - 2013
8 November 2013 – 2 February 2014
By CHRISTIANA SPENS
On a single floor of Tate Liverpool, 200 years of art influenced by the Left is exhibited: a big idea, in a small space. And rather than take a Marxist or Socialist approach to curating the show, the organisers seem to have gone with a more Anarchist approach. From the Guerilla Girls’ posters, to Alan Kane’s touring art show, Folk Archive, and from Bauhaus democratising pleasure, to David’s stabbed Marat of the French Revolution, the exhibition is certainly an excellent opportunity for those with prior knowledge of political art, or rather, some of the individually brilliant works on show. But for anyone seeking to understand, in any depth or with any coherence, how values changed making art, as the title suggests we will find out, the show will likely confuse.
“Art Turning Left” says little of substance about art has changed, as there is no wider reference or intellectual discussion about how left wing values contributed to art practice; rather, it seems to exhibit token ‘protest art’ alongside aesthetic ideas about giving artistic pleasure and access to the masses, which although all “Left” in some respect, are extremely diverse ideas and approaches. There is no engagement with politics, or the context of the works, which would better explain their relevance and significance, and perhaps their connection to one another. This is almost certainly because the subject is too big, and the works, though exhibited thematically, are too diverse and unrelated to make sense of.
Put another way, imagine an exhibition entitled “Art Turning Conservative”: it would be completely impossible to even conceive of an exhibition that would cover the Decadents of the nineteenth century alongside portraits of the Royals and aristocrats, Nazi propaganda, the whole Renaissance, most Medieval Art, and even the self-confessed Thatcherite Tracey Emin. “Conservative Art” would likely be a much bigger sample, but even “Leftist Art” is far too big and diverse to include in one room. Even the whole of Tate Liverpool, or all of the Tates in the UK, could not contain it, or explore it with enough breadth and depth. The problem, in a sense, is assuming that “Leftist Art” is a minority or a niche, even if many of the works of art in the History of Art have been in some respect Conservative.
“Socialist British Art” might be niche enough to warrant a focussed, in-depth exhibition, but the whole Left Wing is not. On that note, what of Communist art from the U.S.S.R? What about modern Chinese art created under Mao? What of Latin American left wing art? What of all the activist art from the 1950s, criticised and censored by McCarthy? What of the protesting activism of 1960s and 1970s America? Where these artists not influenced by the left? And what of political art from the same period in South Africa, Ireland, Germany and Australia? Or the Russian Revolution? What of all the other instances of revolutionary, or made-during-revolution art work? Of course it would be near-impossible to exhibit a representative and substantial exhibition that truly taught us about “Art Turning Left”, and that is the problem: this exhibition sets out to do the impossible. Its ideals are too great to ever be turned into a reality that makes sense. It is quite frustrating, really, that the exhibition manages to embody the simplistic criticisms so often thrown at the “Left” – and that is perhaps because it uses a term than is so vague and wide-ranging that it ends up referring to nothing in particular.
Another problem with the show is the assumption that these artworks are influenced by the Left, rather than by other factors such as Libertarianism (the Guerilla Girls could be considered Libertarian, which is far removed from Communism or Socialism, usually), globalisation, urbanisation, fashion, or reacting to the Right Wing (not necessarily being Left, but just apolitical, or anarchic). Then there is the problem of Capitalism: this exhibition is situated in a Capitalist society, and many of the works created with that context, even as Left ideals may have been in effect also. These works are bought and sold within that structure, and have a price tag – they have not left the Capitalist art world, and so it is doubtful how influential left wing politics have been on art, compared to any other ideology. An artist may profess to be left wing, but the practice of making art is naturally quite individualistic. Even the most collective art groups are working within a structure that values them in terms of monetary value and public image. Even if art is or wants to be Left, there is a responsibility to acknowledge the many other layers of influence, ideology and input. In not defining “Left” properly, the exhibition has inevitably fallen against the criticism of inconsistency.
There is no doubt that left wing ideals have influenced some artists, some of whom are shown in this room. But in lumping them into a single room with little explanation about how they were influenced leaves us no more enlightened than before entering the room.
As in a badly organised (if extremely good-looking) protest, there is no central aim, no clear, collective characteristics, no direction, and no serious understanding of politics. This is unfortunate, because many of the works are valuable and exceptional as individual artworks, but this brilliance is often obscured or cheapened in being shown in a crowded room. People may have power simply in congregating in a square; but artworks require a little more organisation.
One positive aspect of the show, however, is the great range of talks, events, and educational initiatives that are organised in parallel to “Art Turning Left”, however. If this show is anything, it is a starting point in a conversation, and there is certainly enough inspiring work in there to inspire those who attend. The exhibition itself does not answer any questions, but it does provoke more questions, and it has the structured education program to go with it. And that is where the “Art Turning Left” saves itself: through education, discussion, and at the very least, a means of attracting like-minded people into one space. It is tempting to think that such a small space has been chosen so that the visitors may spill onto the streets.