Art turning left: how values changed making 1789–2013
Tate Liverpool, until 2 February 2014
This lively, noisy, fragmented exhibition explores ways in which left-wing ideology has influenced the making, distribution and use of art over the past two centuries. It not only raises interesting questions, it is framed around them: Can art affect everyone and can it be part of everyday life? Do we need to know who has made a specific work? Can art speak with a collective voice, and does that change the way it is made?
El Lissitzky: Victory over the sun (1920-21; lithograph)
The curators’ historical starting point is David’s Death of Marat (1793), which the artist arranged to be copied and distributed to promote the cause of the French Revolution. They then range over a variety of intriguing and lesser known moments in art history: Neo-Impressionism, which turned out to be a hotbed of anarcho-communism, shares space with Julio Le Parc’s delightful Ensemble of eleven toy surprises. William Morris wallpaper jostles with a topiary armchair and eggs painted as clowns. Meanwhile, a wonderful Pythonesque video of art as a spectator sport shows four painters in sports kit performing in front of thousands of cheering fans.
For me the best in the show are the Russian revolutionaries Tatlin and El Lissitzky, who, in the years before Stalin’s crackdown, produced inventive, abstract works that were exciting and beautiful, and spoke powerfully of their hard-headed utopianism, without falling into either kitsch or propaganda.
The same, sadly, cannot be said of a lot of the other exhibits, highlighting one of the show’s many areas of debate. Is all creativity ipso facto ‘art’? Only in the loosest use of the term. By ‘art’ we usually refer to the tradition of ‘Fine Art’, the creation of images through which we express and reflect on our deepest beliefs and commitments.
It is that refined area of art that the left wants to open up to the masses. Yet, in their understandable desire to seize ‘art’ back from the wealthy elite and share it with the rest of humanity, they seem to have overlooked the symbolic nature of ‘fine art’, and wrongly dismissed as elitist the basic skills needed to engage with it. The result is always reductionist. Some fall into easily readable sentimental kitsch or sloganeering propaganda; others coordinate community art projects. Ironically, many of the propaganda and community art images now need explanation, as viewers have lost the necessary frames of reference.
There is no universally accessible art. The nearest you get is another form of reductionism: formalist pattern-making. The Spanish collective Equipo 57 wanted to produce work that was accessible to all. It claimed to use scientific theory to produce works that avoided the imprimatur of an individual creator. The result was paintings that are quite pretty, but seem to be entirely devoid of meaningful content. But then, in a collective effort, who would decide what the content is, or do you just have to follow the party line?
The exhibition characterises left-wing ideology as seeking, in opposition to conservatism, equality rather than hierarchy; social progress rather than the status quo; and collective effort as preferable to aggressive individualism. Of course, in a magazine called Third Way one automatically questions such simplistic binary oppositions. Where are the Greens and the Liberal Democrats of the art world, not to mention the Monster Raving Loonies? Are there not other ways of thinking?
This exhibition, to its credit, sets out to provoke such questions and more: what is art, and who is it for? Is ‘breaking down the barrier between art and daily life’ in fact an oxymoron? Does art stop being art if you use it for another purpose? Is it elitist to say that some works of art are simply better than others?
I certainly came away thinking that Seerveld, Wolterstorff and other Christian voices in the art world have fruitful contributions to make. Seerveld’s vision of the artist as a servant of the community is a better solution than the apparent forced choice between the lonely individual genius and the anonymous collective. Wolterstoff’s writing on ‘world projection’ and Seerveld’s notion of ‘allusivity’ are vital in distinguishing ‘fine art’ from other forms of creativity, which are not inferior but, as this exhibition perhaps unintentionally demonstrates, are different in nature.
[This review was first published in Third Way, January-February 2014]