On political art

Modern Moral Matters is an exhibition of ‘protest art’ by the British artist Richard Hamilton at the pretty Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. At the press conference, the artist, 88, talked about his work and about the relationship between politics and visual art.

Most members of the Independent Group – the artistic movement to which Hamilton belonged in the 1950s – thought it fashionable to be apolitical, aloof. Not Hamilton. His art was then, and remains, politically engaged; his sympathies left-leaning.

This small exhibition spanning five decades of his career covers  some familiar territory – Ireland and Iraq, Thatcher and Blair – as well as some that is lesser known.

The idea for his earliest protest painting was conceived in 1962  after Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party (which was in opposition at the time), sanctioned Britain’s use of nuclear weapons, saying he didn’t want the country to enter the conference chambers of the world “naked”.

Hamilton describes his Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964) as his first “satirical picture”. In an essay on the painting, he writes, “In putting to myself the question ‘what angers you most now?’ I found that the answer was Hugh Gaitskell.”

He felt betrayed by Gaitskell, and turned his anger into creative energy. “A satirical painting should be topical and passionate,” he wrote, “I imagined the picture as one to be violently executed, it should be big, the paint aggressive, the meaning awfully clear.”

But art that refers to current affairs is often limited by that very current-ness: it can lower the art’s semantic life expectancy. Hugh Gaitskell now sits outside the span of many people’s political consciousness, so the painting’s immediate impact is diminished.

For how long is Pop art Pop art once its subject has left the realm of popular consciousness?

Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964)


Last week, Hamilton insisted that protest art was ‘worthwhile’ – which implies that, on some level, it works.

As I walked around the gallery after he had spoken, I wondered whether his art constitutes (or has ever constituted) an active protest – that is to say, a call for change, justice or justification – or rather whether it is simply a series of oblique responses to situations?

“Modern Moral Matters” is a title borrowed from the Eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth, famous for his depictions of  public and private corruption. I saw Hogarth’s The Election series at the Tate’s exhibition in 2007. This is the second of the series:

Canvassing for Votes (1754)

Perhaps Hamilton is a satirist in Hogarth’s image: engaged but detached. Hamilton doesn’t believe artists have a direct responsibility to “hold governments to account”, yet he has long believed in the effectiveness of art as a political medium. The pieces he created in 2009 for this for this exhibition, Maps of Palestine – a pair of maps showing the Israeli-Palestinian boarder as fixed by UN in 1947 and as it is today – he described as “a simple demonstration of a situation”.

Maps of Palestine (2009)

For him, the effectiveness of the pair lies in their simplicity: simplicity in the face of knotty political issues.

To me, the paintings seem impotent. The colours are unmodulated, flat; the compositions static. They remind me of uninspiring geography textbooks, and long afternoons spent sitting in classrooms, the real, moving world the other side of an open window.

The relationship between politics and art is, I think, something more fraught than a “simple demonstration”. Hamilton said as much when he admitted there are some subjects simply won’t touch: the current famine in East Africa, for example. “I can’t even imagine a painting that would be a response to that,” he sighed, suddenly looking very old.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on March 19, 2010.

2 Responses to “On political art”

  1. […] on political art I blogged recently about the effectiveness of political art – thoughts that were stirred by the Richard […]

  2. Very nicely done; you should be proud. Everything flows quite nicely and you also have a great eye for art.

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