Politics and Street Art // 15/02/19 // Artist Influence (Semester 2)

In my Second semester at LAU I want to take a slightly more focused approach in my practice, and this has translated into a renewed interest in the world I find directly around me. The issue I face then is how does one look at art via their immediate surroundings without simply reflecting surface level aesthetic or becoming overwhelmed by the quantity and depth of issues occurring in every aspect of day to day life. In order to deal with this, I have decided to limit this investigation into just a few things that I find personal, relatable, or culturally important.

The obvious subject for this project is to simply try and depict Leeds- the city I have lived in for just long enough to feel like a home but not quite long enough to lose my naively mystified perspective on the place. This is both a limitation and a strength as whilst I have little scope for any kind of interpretation or depiction of the city – coming from a very small sub-culture of a sub-area of a wide and metropolitan place – this perspective is fortuitous in its ability to allow me to view Leeds as a more abstract concept. That is, my view of the city and its culture is that of block acrylic shapes and colours rather than a fine watercolour detail and this can lend to an easily relatable view of the place from other outsiders to the place.
From this same view, it is difficult to look at Leeds without thinking about the huge student presence of which I am a part – Leeds housing over 60,000 students across 5 universities – and the cultural practices that come along with that.

Of course there is more to student life than heavy weekday drinking and mental health issues, however, these are the most visible and destructive aspects one can think of – and ones of which no one seems to have a viable solution, thus making them an un-ignorable part of the society in which I live. Over-drinking is not a lifestyle exclusive to university, of course, as the UK as a whole is well known for its very dangerous binge drinking habits. With the pub and the club being staples of both modern and ‘classic’ British culture (well, the Pub at least) and with huge levels of economic and social insecurity amongst ordinary people, it is unsurprising that the number of dependant drinkers is roughly 590,000 in the UK but what is more shocking is the fact that only 20% are receiving treatment.

‘UK Revellers on New Years Eve’
Joel Goodman / The Telegraph

Another aspect of university that I feel not many are touching upon at the moment seems to be people’s fatalistic view that none of this is really worth it – “Why am I spending 9 grand a year to not go to my lectures and scrape my way through a degree I don’t understand so I can just become an overqualified Barista and live in a flat I can’t afford?” – and yet maintaining the ‘student lifestyle’ as it’s the only aspect of the experience they find rewarding. I feel like a large aspect of this viewpoint stems from the increasingly negative political atmosphere of the UK throughout my generations’ lifetimes, one of the first truly major world events I actually became aware and invested in was the Financial Crash of 2008 and the social/economic glacier that was this country as a result. The Brexit situation in which (at this time of writing) seems to be heading directly for the cliff edge that is No Deal is another terrifying prospect for many in every walk of life. The paradigm that the Brexit omnishambles set up between people in my social circles is interesting as it seems to have left people either disregarding politics as a waste of time that everyone should leave alone as much as possible, or just desperately scratching their eyes out in panic over what will happen next.

I hope to complete a basis of work surrounding the ideas of the dangers and contentions of a heavily alcohol and substance-based society in a consumer capitalist society, however, I shall first focus on a topic I feel will be more culturally relevant in its subject matter. Despite my best attempts to not delve into subjects of which I am frankly inexperienced with in real terms, politics can’t help but seep into my work. This project especially seems to be forcing my hand that way as I don’t share the view that politics is something that can or even should be avoided by the public, and so it very much sits in my mind as being a huge part of the ‘world around me’. It’s not that I don’t sympathise with peoples’ frustrations with what seems to be a never changing and fixed system of party vs. party and no solid resolutions ever being settled upon, I just feel that this is no excuse for giving up the fight for a better world, much in the same way that I feel art has a duty to the development of art itself, which means challenging what has been done before and setting new standards for what is to come in future. Art being political is certainly nothing new, even the now antiquated old portraits of Kings or Princes were often completed with express political purposes (the Renaissance being a particularly prevalent time for this sort of thing); a suit of armour to donate strength in battle, or a reference to a certain Deity so as to give them some form of religious superiority. Protest art has also long existed, in the obvious forms presented by street artists in times of conflict or social injustice, or perhaps in more nuanced works such as the masterpiece that is the ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso, painted in response to the bombing in Guernica by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy by request of the Spanish Nationalists.

‘Guernica’, Pablo Picasso, 1937

I feel that whilst one day I would perhaps like to make a fantastic and strong artistic statement in protest of the deceitful, dangerous, and inhumane politics of today, my practice is not yet mature enough for me to take that task on totally head-on. Instead, I feel I should work in a slightly less conventional manner. I want to find some manner of way of engaging with a confused populace and turning their responses to our political landscape into my practice – creating a reflection of the psyche of its participants. In this case, my participants would be the ones I find immediately around me, the people of Leeds. A large part of my inspiration for this aspect actually came from a surprising place; the mounting of an oddly servile statue to the late Margaret Thatcher at the price of a very modest £300,000. The plans for the statue began first as a monument to be placed in London, however threats of vandalism were so prevalent the location was moved to her home town in Grantham, Lincolnshire – on a ten foot high plinth in the middle of a pond so as to escape the prying hands of ‘politically-motivated vandals’.

Baroness Thatcher Memorial, Douglas Jennings, 2018

What inspired me about this particular example of public response to a political art piece was the fact that it took place 30 years after the targeted individual had last been in power, and 6 years after her death. The (theoretical) public response opened the eyes of those involved in its commissioning that the cultural impact of figures such as Thatcher is one felt deeply for multiple generations – the effects of her policies still echoing in the housing crisis and steady privatisation of essential pubic services. In response to this story, I would like to create a piece or pieces of artwork which incite a response from the public, in particular in how they deal with different contemporary and historical public figures who seem to stand for contrasting sects of society or ideological ideals.

With this comes the challenge of interacting with a wide, willing, and unfiltered audience in a world dominated by reality TV and club nights far more than art galleries or protest events. How does one engage via art without drawing someone into a gallery space? One protest group that caught my eye is called “Led By Donkeys” and is a three man collective that works with billboards to protest against the Brexit movement and the UK’s upcoming exit from the European Union by simply posting images of tweets made by different key players in the movement that are intended to show their inadequacy as leaders and thus their untrustworthy nature. In contrast to my own ideas, this campaign is one designed specifically to change someone’s view rather than to engage with it as an artwork in itself – what’s more, I feel it lacks a level of edge or importance given the majority of these posters have been placed in the most heavily remain areas of the country; big cities. This being said, it certainly makes use of the idea of public figures being figureheads of a movement more than the ideas behind it themselves.

Led By Donkeys // Highbury, North London
Imageplotter/REX/Shutterstock

The now more conventional response chosen by the likes of Shepard Fairey or Banksy in terms of dealing with the public as a whole is to simply turn the streets of their respective environments into their own public and interactive galleries through murals, paintings, posters, stickers, and public installations. Graffiti culture is one that is more closely linked with my ideas as it is one that has always involved artists working ver and over on top of each others works, creating a dialogue between artists who see themselves as separate from the general art world. These artists do often, however, have quite vague goals in terms of their politics beyond that of actually causing dissent in their viewers towards oppressive systems as a whole – as Fairey puts it in his artists manifesto;

“The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention.”

Shepard Fairy mural in Brazil, 2012

Fairey is unusual as a street artist for his staking his art directly behind a major political candidate in Barack Obama, arguably creating one of the most iconic campaigns of all time with his now famous and often imitated ‘Hope’ poster. Despite this, I can’t help but feel that all street art can’t help but be classed as ‘protest art’ for the simple fact that its production requires some level of disagreement with the law and as such is often put in place at night and with risk of arrest.

Obama Hope, Shepard Fairey, 2008

The reason I am so focused on the work of Fairey is that I feel he mastered the act of reproduction for the sake of artistic ideal in the most interesting way since Warhol mastered the concept in the mid 60s. The difference between the two is that whilst Warhol wanted to act “[as] a machine”Fairey in fact wants to awaken a level of humanity in his viewers that he feels modern society is quashing out. In his own words once more;

“The first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The obey sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings.”

In the simplest of terms, Fairey wants to make people think about the world they live in and he uses the familiarity of what has since become a kind of ‘brand’ in order to evoke this cultural memory in his viewers. It is the repetition and quantity of his stickers and posters that makes this whole project so effective, as well as how far spread they have become -even selling clothes on an international level with the same images reproduced once more, turning people into walking billboards for an incentive to turn away from advertisement. Perhaps Fairey has become post-ironic in his work as a result of this, but the principle remains fascinating.

Whilst I don’t seek to create a brand of any kind as this would defeat the purpose of a project that is about the responses of others rather than myself, I understand and appreciate the power that a consistent and simple style of work can have in spreading an idea or a work across a large number of people – and in activating a genuine response. There is a group of protest artists working in Los Angeles, California in a very similar method to that of ‘Led By Donkeys’. Members of ‘Friends of Abe’, the private group of Hollywood conservatives, these three artists (One well known as ‘Sabo‘ and two who have remained anonymous) have posted controversial art all over the city with the aim of “[calling] out Hollywood for its ‘hypocrisy,'”. Whilst I don’t tangle with their politics – Sabo claiming ‘leftism’ as being a ‘mental disorder’, their methods have been very effective in critiquing public figures via very simple alterations to already existing posters. This allows them to hide in plain site as it were and slide into the public consciousness, much in the same way as Fairey.

Meryl Streep with Harvey Weinstein, “She Knew” poster responding to her claims that she “did not know about Weinstein’s crimes”, 2017

In my response to these works, I have decided I will agitate a response from people in Leeds via a very simple method – asking them to. I hope to print a large number of large scale posters and place them around Leeds across a wide range of areas, leave them be for a few weeks or so, and see how the public has responded – not necessarily through words, but perhaps through an action of anger or humour. (These responses may also glean some result into my work facing towards drinking culture in the UK, I imagine). The posters themselves shall bear the faces of a number of controversial figures who have played or are playing a role in shaping our modern society – or who have been shaped by society itself, with the simple moniker above asking; “What Am I To You?”.
I felt it was important to have the question be as to What not Who they are as I feel that public figures’ persona’s are more often than not only a concept in people’s minds and not an accurate representation of who they are as a person. What’s more, the question of ‘What’ leaves open a far wider range of possibilities in responses as it treats public figures in this light of being exactly that – a figure. I also hope to turn these images into small stickers perhaps, to see if a small image can still yield responses from the public. The smaller scale would also allow me to place them in more difficult places or smaller areas with great ease.

Whilst my hypothesis is to receive an array of bleak humour, insults, and general degradation, I do feel that some may genuinely interact with the questions I am proposing. What’s more, perhaps those more cynical responses are exactly a reflection of the times in which we live – what’s the point of being interested if you feel you can’t change anything?

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