Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 at The Tate Liverpool advertises itself as the first exhibition to look at how art has been influenced by left-wing values. I don’t believe that claim is strictly correct as a visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester presents many examples of the material, from posters, pamphlets, Trade Union banners and many other artefacts, where art has been employed by different British working class organisations to promote and explain their ideas and values. But that quibble aside this is a very good, insightful and intelligent presentation of the way that art has influenced politics internationally and has itself been influenced by the level of technology and the political environment in which they are produced.
Taking that the sub-title gives a time frame for the exhibition I was expecting that the exhibits would be in some sort of chronological order so it would be possible to see if there was an evolution in thinking and designs. That isn’t the case – in fact, the earliest piece is encountered at the far end of the second room. There’s no order whatsoever and no specific connection between neighbouring presentations. What we have instead are small examples from a number of countries throughout the globe to give just an idea of how art and the left-wing have co-existed in different historical epochs.
Before going any further perhaps it’s worthwhile quoting from Atelier Populaire, the group of students from the École des Beaux Artes (the Fine Arts School) in Paris in 1968. This was not reproduced in the exhibition but is from the preface of a book they reproduced of examples of their work in 1969:
‘The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.
Their rightful place is in the centre of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of the factories.
To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.
Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle is of such primary importance that the position of an “outside” observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class.’
I would agree with the majority of those sentiments with a proviso. I would like to think that many who have already visited (and those yet to visit) this exhibition on Liverpool’s waterfront would be doing so to gather ideas so that they could be put into practice in future struggles against capitalism and imperialism, but I think that’s more like wishful thinking. Future revolutionary artists shouldn’t need to start from scratch and an analysis of what has been produced in the past can become a springboard for the future. This doesn’t mean slavish imitation but more of a synthesis of what has come before to produce even better in the forthcoming struggles.
So what of the exhibition itself?
Although the time line suggests a period of more than two centuries the overwhelming number of the items on display are from the 20th century. The only item from the 18th century is Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting and etchings of ‘The Death of Marat’. I’m familiar with this painting but didn’t know until seeing it at the Tate that David’s workshop copied the original and many reproductions were distributed throughout France. The same with some of the etchings that he made as preliminary studies. This was done to break down the exclusiveness that surrounded paintings. We sometimes forget that extensive public access to the great art of the past is a very recent development and David was way ahead of his time in getting his poignant image of his friend and popular hero out to the greatest audience. It also played a political role in that he would hope that this would make the people angry and pursue those enemies of the revolution who sought to rein in the working people.
There’s then a big jump towards the end of the 19th century where we encounter a couple of the British examples on display.
First there’s a Trade Union banner from 1898. Here I have a major criticism of the curator. These banners were made to be carried through the streets as part of a march or a demonstration, the public expression of the ideas of those who followed behind. In the Tate this banner is lying flat. Not only does this make it difficult to appreciate fully it also goes against the whole meaning of its production in the first place. The manner in which they are displayed in the Manchester Peoples’ History Museum stands in strict contrast.
The second British subject from the end of the 19th century is the work of William Morris, specifically his designs for wallpaper. His inclusion doesn’t necessarily go against the general theme of the exhibition but it does take a slight veer away from art as political. Morris’s idea that good quality design shouldn’t be just for the rich is all very well and good but there would have been few working class homes indeed that could have afforded his wallpaper. As far as I could make out the work produced by Morris was the only one on display that was intentionally produced for the market. The fact that many other artefacts now have a value which the originators had not intended is just an example of how capital appropriates anything it can and tries to place a value that bears no relationship to its cost of production.
Not surprisingly the Soviet Union is well represented. Immediately after the 1917 Revolution and up to the Great Patriotic War (22nd June 1941 – 9th May 1945) artists of various schools were active in the young Soviet Union. They included: drawings made by the Futurist Eil Lissitzky, who believed in the production of propaganda for the new workers’ state through all forms of art and is represented in the exhibition by drawings he made in relation to a theatre production; posters produced by the Constructivist Alexandr Rodchenko, his work being represented by posters of a photomontage that he produced in 1925 commemorating an anniversary of the All Russian Communist Party; and the Productivist Liubov Popova who designed, amongst others, products which were of everyday use and believed that the just because something was ‘basic’ it needn’t lack aesthetic merit. What’s interesting about one of Popova’s designs is that the curator has taken the plan of a display board created in the early 1920s and has used that for the information about Tucamán Arde, the Argentinian collective, which is just a few metres away in the same room.
I’ve already mentioned Atelier Populaire and there’s quiet a few of their posters on display. I would like to think that most of the young students involved in the silkscreen workshop during the heady days of May 1968 would be horrified if they saw their work on the walls of such a bourgeois institution as the Tate Liverpool but, at the same time, wouldn’t be over surprised if some of them had entered main stream social-democratic parties in their home countries, as have some other ‘revolutionaries’ of that time such a Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Regis Debray.
One of the principles of Atelier Populaire is the involvement of the artists in the struggle. It’s not just designing and printing in the comfort of a school basement. It’s going out on the streets and demonstrating when the call is made as well as walking around with wallpaper paste in a plastic bag and fixing those posters where they will have an effect on the current struggle, at times playing hide and seek with the police – which in France in 1968 meant the neo-Fascist Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the riot police, who were responsible for an unknown number of deaths.
Also having to face the dangers of a fascistic military government was the Argentinian art collective known as Tucamán Arde (Tucamán (a region of Argentina) Burns). This is a group I’ve never encountered before and they believed that the unity of art and violence was not a choice but a given and challenged the military junta from the late 1960s onwards. One of their slogans in an English translation is ‘We must always resist the lure of complicity’.
China is represented by four posters from the era of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Many thousands of these posters were printed during that period and distributed all over the world, as well as being published in magazines such as Chinese Literature and Peking Review. Many of these used traditional techniques but the subjects were the life and times of the workers and peasants, at that time the rulers of the country who were attempting to build a socialist society.
During the Cultural Revolution one of the ways ordinary people could express their points of view was by writing something and posting them on the Da Zi Baos (the wall newspapers) were people would congregate not only to read but discuss the matters raised. Social Media might claim to play that role nowadays but, to me, that lacks the spontaneity and personal interaction that made the wall newspapers so special in all Chinese communities. An effort of the American Group Material in the 1980s to transfer the idea into the home of the beast met, as far as I read, with mixed results, but if people wrote and remained to fight their corner then the principle of the practice would be retained.
One small ‘installation’ that caught my attention was by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Miereles. This is a small presentation of three Coca Cola bottles, on one of which are instructions on how to make a Molotov Cocktail (petrol bomb). If Coca Cola was to adopt this policy then there would be reason for buying this expensive addictive sugar drink but I would have thought the glass in the bottles is too thick to make a truly effective weapon.
There were many other artists and groups on show, as I said before each installation was small, allowing for many to be mentioned the whole affair being much more of a ‘taster’ than a full meal. It’s worth mentioning: OSPAAAL and posters they produced in conjunction with the Cuban magazine Tricontinental; a US TV programme from the 1960s discussing the impact of Bertolt Brecht on both the American artistic and left-wing communities; the Hackney Flashers, a group of worker photographers which used their skills in community campaigns in the late 1970s; Equipo 57, a group I’ve never heard of before, who were a group of Spanish exiles from Franco’s Fascism who set up a Marxist orientated collective in Paris in May 1957; Guerilla Girls, an international women artist collective who campaign for more by women to be made available in art galleries throughout the world – I thought their small section gave the impression of whingers rather than innovative and imaginative artists; an interesting and amusing banner of The International Union of Sex Workers; an installation called ‘A Jukebox of people Trying to Change the World’ by Ruth Ewan, where visitors are invited to select from an ever-expanding collections of CDs of protest songs (and to suggest any new ones) – although when I went to the exhibition one of the attendants was making her selection so it was impossible to extrapolate the political leanings of fellow visitors; as well as a few audio-visual presentations I (foolishly) didn’t have the time to fully appreciate.
There were a few areas where I think the curator had gone slightly off beam, especially on some of the projects that took place in the last few years. Although taking pictures of, and displaying the results in places and locations normally reserved for the wealthy or just advertising of consumer goods I don’t consider that is necessarily looking at art in relation to the left in politics. Neither was the collection of photographs of locations throughout the country where individuals had decorated their homes in a peculiar way. Yes, this might well have been ignored and deserves to be recognised as valid an art form as other by professionals but this is not art that has been created in order to get across a political message
There was also, I believe, a glaring omission and that was any real reference to Socialist Realism. The small collection of Chinese posters was the only place in the gallery where workers were shown carrying out their everyday activities, even though in a stylised form. Now I accept that this could be a big topic and could flood the galleries but I would have thought the subject merited some reference. Although much of this material is not on show in the same way that it was before 1990 there is a vast treasure of Socialist Realist riches to be found and I would like to think that at some time ij the not too distant future someone at the Tate will consider a special exhibition sourcing material from Europe and Asia.
What I realised on leaving the floor was that this field is really vast and its unfortunate that political activists on the left don’t always appreciate the contribution they have made to culture through the very fact of their activity and the publicising of it. For example, how many silk screen posters have been totally lost form the late 1960s and 1970s which were the cheapest and most common medium for advertising meetings, demonstrations and making statements on the issues of the time?
Although I have a few quibbles this was an interesting and innovative exhibition. It’s a pity that once in finishes in Tate Liverpool next month there are no plans for it to go travelling to other galleries in the country. I also hope that it has been successful enough (I’m sure it hasn’t brought in such crowds as some of the recent special exhibitions at the riverside gallery) for further ventures along the same lines in the future.
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 is at the Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool until 2nd February 2014.
Entrance: Adults: £8.00