Ask a right winger who is in charge of the arts in Britain and they are likely to tell you that the arts are run by a liberal-left conspiracy - that the BBC, National Theatre, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Arts Council are all staffed by pinkos who generate propaganda in service of leftie causes. But is all modern art left-wing, as they suggest?
To answer this, you’d have to work out what is meant by left-wing (or right-wing for that matter) which is an increasingly difficult thing to do these days. Calling someone left- or right-wing used to be a pretty good indication of where they stood on the big political issues of the day. For the 200 years between the French Revolution of 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, left and right were shorthand labels for showing ‘whose side you were on’ – whether it was at the barricades or the picket line.
But today, do these terms have the same instructive value? US President George W Bush is sometimes described as the leader of a radical right-wing government, but in what sense is this true? In 2002, he controversially introduced protection tariffs on steel imports to save the skins of domestic producers – so he is not exactly a rabid proponent of the free market. Maybe, then, he is a hawk when it comes to international affairs because he believed in America’s role in effecting regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then, if this is right-wing, where does that leave Bill Clinton, his predecessor, who used similar arguments to justify the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia (only he used the term ‘humanitarian intervention’)?
One could go on. Is free speech a left- or right-wing principle? For all their talk of freedom and challenging orthodoxy, we know there are plenty of academics on the left who have campaigned for ‘no platform’ policies in universities. Are they more or less left-wing than Mary Whitehouse, the Christian campaigner who demanded that certain things on television were too offensive for the British public to handle and required government censorship?
And what about green politics? Even trendy left-wing supporters of organic food, who are vitriolic in their hatred for Tesco, can be embarrassed to find themselves in bed with aristocrats who believe in the purity of the land and subordination of man to nature. Sustainability - the red-green slogan of choice - is about slow, manageable change. It’s hardly the credo for revolution.
So, the first point to make is that we should recognise that when we use the terms left and right, we’re not really referring to political categories, so much as badges of honour that we parade around. Or else, they are terms of abuse, to dismiss someone’s arguments and avoid examining their ideas properly. Many people cling to them for emotional comfort at a time when the sea of ideology is confusing and uncertain.
Accusing all modern art of being left-wing probably doesn’t get us very far. What might be more useful is to ask whether there is a dominant consensus when it comes to political attitudes in modern art today. Is art good at presenting alternative perspectives and shaking our worldviews, or does much of it congratulate us on our prejudices? If we’re honest, most of us would probably have to say ‘yes’, in as much as wider contemporary society can be dominated by bland consensus and conformity. Of course, there is still challenging and provocative art, but perhaps not as much as we’d like. Even Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre complained about wanting a really good ‘mischievous right-wing play’ to shake things up a bit. If we take him at his word - that he’s not censoring them when they land on his desk - then why are these spiky, thought-provoking works not being written?
There are some rather obvious gaps. For instance, there’s plenty of anti-war art out there (think of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, which is the recreation of Brian Haw’s eccentric protest on Parliament Square, or the spate of anti-war plays produced, like David Hare’s Stuff Happens, or the verbatim plays at the Tricycle Theatre), but where’s the pro-war art? It’s a minority view, but it’s intriguing that for all its spirit of experimentation and shock, no one in the arts is prepared to explore this argument further. And with all this concern for community art, there are a few communities that never seem to get much airtime. In the 1980s there were lots of agitprop plays about the impact of mine closures on working-class communities, so where are the plays about the end of foxhunting in the countryside? Most obviously, where is the satire about radical Islam or the ultimate attack on political correctness? When an issue so dominates in the media (and has, potentially, so much comedy value), why hasn’t anyone really touched it?
Although the political compass is changing, so-called radical artists usually stick to what’s comfortable. It’s very easy to be anti-Bush these days, but try being anti-recycling. You’ll be branded a heretic and lose your friends in high places very quickly. Indeed, there is hardly any artistic critique or satire about environmentalism, even though the majority of people in surveys feel deeply ambivalent about being hectored about flying, carbon footprints and so on. Never mind Jerry Springer: The Opera, or even ‘Mohammed the Opera’ (if any artist would dare to do such a thing), Al Gore is practically crying out for his own musical! The artist Mark McGowan is one of the few artists who has managed to spoof environmentalism. He once tried to ‘raise awareness’ about pollution in Britain’s rivers by publicising the fact that he was going to dump a tonne of waste in the Thames. On another occasion, he announced he would leave a tap running in his London gallery to raise awareness of wasted water. On cue, green protesters arrived to try to turn it off. Why isn’t there more of this in our age of supposed irreverence and playful postmodernism?
More crucially, however, what passes for ‘radical’ these days is actually quite conservative and reactionary in character. In 2001, the artist Michael Landy publicly destroyed all 7,277 of his possessions in a former C&A shop on Oxford Street. ‘Breakdown’ was supposed to be a statement about consumerism, the pressure of material wealth, money doesn’t make you happy, etc - practically Church of England stuff. Much of contemporary modern art displays our own pieties. As the editor of spiked Brendan O’Neill has argued, Marc Quinn’s preachy statue, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, displayed more elitism about individual identity being shaped by nature than even the imperial Victorian statues she shared Trafalgar Square with (see Statue of limitations, by Brendan O’Neill).
As many critics would accept, it’s a tough challenge to bring politics into art without losing some subtlety. It is a very rare thing for artists to hit the right political note without their work looking like a simplistic didactic message. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) is a rare example of a painting that succeeds as propaganda and art – telling the world about the Luftwaffe bombing of the Spanish town, while also screaming out the existential misery of twentieth-century warfare. But, as the art historian Simon Schama notes in his book The Power of Art, much of Picasso’s work and politics afterwards was too closely aligned to Stalinism to achieve the same effect again. The radicalism of an artist in his art does not necessarily correlate to his politics. Salvador Dali, possibly the most subversive artist of the twentieth century, supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Which is why it is hard not to feel a sense of relief when fine artists today avoid bringing politics into their work, especially when you know how bad their politics can be. Thank god for a bit of apolitical postmodernism, one might say. But then, with state subsidy the way it is, there is also an enormous pressure to be socially useful, in terms of measurable targets and transforming society. Artists are supposedly responsible for tackling the ‘poverty of aspiration’, as Tessa Jowell put it - the ex-culture secretary now minister for that even more Orwellian project, ‘The Olympics’.
The troubled artistic search for truth is dismissed as ‘a bit dodgy’ and state-funded artists are happily recruited to produce propaganda for the latest war against social exclusion. This marks a shift in post-Cold War politics, certainly. During the 1950s, the free world’s strategy was to associate liberal democracy with artistic autonomy from the state and politics. The CIA – through various agencies – clandestinely funded abstract expressionist artists in Europe and America. Its purpose was to undermine the appeal of socialist realism which was seen as overtly political, but also to make the point (without irony) that free market governments don’t tell their artists what to paint, unlike in the Soviet Union. It’s hard to conclude that this principle still has the same support in contemporary state subsidy.
It could be argued, as some have tried, that the contemporary art world is very right-wing, because it is commercialised, greedy and ‘entrepreneurial’. Post-Thatcher, we have a yuppified, over-inflated market where everything is a ‘brand’. Damien Hirst’s diamond skull retailing at a whopping £50million is hardly a left-wing statement. But is it a right-wing statement either? There is always a temptation to reduce right-wing politics to greedy, ‘loads-a-money’ individualism. But this would be to neglect the fact that a large aspect of right-wing thought understood the importance of tradition, knowledge, community and social institutions (family, monarchy, religion) to any society. All these elements are seen to be quaint but irrelevant in contemporary art.
To see what I mean, just compare Tracey Emin’s bed to Constable’s romantic, untroubled landscapes or Betjeman’s nostalgic, homely poetry. Rather than characterising the Young British Artist sensation and commercial art world as right-wing, it might be better to see it as postmodern. It sneers at the idea of meaning, truth, beauty and all that. In that sense, modern art is neither left-wing nor right-wing, because so much of it rejects the notion of truth and meaning, which must inevitably characterise any politics.