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Monday, March 08, 2010

Politics or art?

There is a fascinating article yesterday's Observer looking back on the political posters of yesteryear and comparing them unfavourably with the rather crass, airbrushed offerings of the modern era.

Sam Leith tells us that in 1909, the Labour party – then still in its infancy – had a fantastic election poster. The image had as its background a dusty silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, giving way to a horizontal wilderness of factory chimneys, whose smoke spilled into the tan air. In the foreground, a crew of beefy working men, all cloth caps and rolled sleeves and dark tunics, were smashing through the doors of the Lords with battering rams. "Labour clears the way," ran the slogan.

Such an image may well prove too revolutionary for today's Labour Party, which seems more concerned with wooing newspaper barons than in projecting a radical image verging on the overthrow of Parliament by the working classes. Indeed it is likely that following the Zinoviev letter in 1924 party leaders would have been far more conscious of the message they were conveying to the electorate.

The paper tells us that the People's History Museum in Manchester has reopened after a two-year revamp and contains an archive of posters and banners:

The archive is full of beautiful, intriguing things: a Tory poster showing a glum art deco Britannia presiding serenely over crates of colonial goods being unpacked on the docks; a vorticist-style Ban the Bomb poster with squadrons of red planes dropping exclamation marks; and an ad for the Co-op's self-raising flour that would give the socialist realism of Stalin's Russia a run for its money.

This is political propaganda as art. Just as the commercial posters advertising soap that one will find in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight are marketing as art, these are examples of a form we will not see again. Sam Leith gives three reasons why not:

The first is an evacuation of ideology – or, at least, a move away from it. Few posters now aim to symbolise an abstract idea, be it striking the chains from the workers' wrists, or the glorious bounties of empire.

The second thing is the move towards negative campaigning. My objection to this is not the traditional one: that it debases politics. It's that it makes the posters crass and forgettable. If your poster is a picture of the other guy, you don't want to make it memorable or beautiful. You don't want your enemy looking iconic. Hence, perhaps, the failure of the Tories' 1997 posters. Given a choice between Demon Eyes and Four Eyes, people voted demon.

The third thing is the shift from screenprinting to (digitally altered) photographs. Political posters are not now about trying to establish an icon, a created image; they're about fakey verite and larky deprecation. Is Thatcher hair on William Hague the most we can aspire to aesthetically?

There are exceptions though, notably Shepard Fairey's posters of Barack Obama, but these were the work of an artist that went viral and were later adopted by his campaign. Maybe that is the future. Perhaps if we want art back in our politics we have to look beyond the main parties and rely on freelancers sending their own message and on the internet to disseminate their work.
I wonder how many NON-DOM's were present in the House of Lords in 1924 c.f. 2010??
Politics and art have always gone hand in hand, and far beyond just political posters.

From sculptures of great heroes such a David by Michelangelo and Donetalleo, to paintings by Gustave Courbert, Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix and even architecture, politics lies behind art because it not only shows the world around us but can represent what cannot be seen. The meaning behind the physical, and all in a medium that can cross cultures and transcend language.
I think the dramatic political poster lives on in Latin America, in particular Cuba. The messages may be simplistic, but the expression is as powerful and can be as imaginative as the classics of European politics.
Nothing matches the power of the anti-Nazi "Das ist das Heil das sie bringen", which combines a grim visual pun with a verbal one ("Heil" means "salvation" as well as "hail").
Superb post. The image transcends language. Before people could read and write the images in churchs would dominate. Even if the bible could not be read by people in their native tongue the stations of the cross and paintings of the crucifixion would give the message.
I personally love doing the political sketches but being only a pawn on the chessboard I am open to attack from opposition knights and rooks. More poignantly from my local council and other parties sending virus'.
Images can be very powerful and memorable. None as powerful as a piece of charcoal on a nice bit of drawing paper. Its like playing tennis on a grass court with a wooden raquet. Really natural.
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