“Is All Modern Art Left – Wing?”
Debate at the South Bank Centre, London 14/11/2007
An hour and a half of heated debate about the current state of contemporary art practice, was the promise on The Art Fund website. As part of a series of talks organised by the Art Fund and chaired by Tim Marlow, head of exhibitions at White Cube, this one attracted four high profile speakers to address the question. A controversial artist, Grayson Perry, a Tory politician, Ed Vaizey (also the Shadow Minister for Culture), an arts consultant for a research institute into multiculturalism, Munira Mirza, and Jonathan Yeo, the British celebrity’s portrait artist of choice who recently painted a porno- portrait of George W. Bush. After three tentative introductions by the panellists about themselves, Ed Vaizey proclaimed rather predictably that he would make his sound like a party political broadcast. In his opinion, all modern art is actually right – wing. Which art? Does this mean all Modern Art and Contemporary Art?
Surely in order to conduct a legitimate debate about art practice one must first define their borders. Assuming that the audience all know that he means Contemporary Art, he argues that since this art is highly individualistic, made by entrepreneurial artists and “is concerned with freedom of expression” this makes it art of the right, and not of the left. This sounds more like a Conservative defence of neo-liberal economics and its conditions for art-making rather than defining any political leaning in the content of the work. Any weighty counterpoint to this was unsurprisingly absent from Jonathan Yeo’s remarks, who’s only claim to fame is his rebellious schoolboy attempt at “leftist art” with his portrait of George W. Bush collaged from pornographic images. So far, all of Vaizey’s examples of contemporary art used to illustrate his points seem to have been plucked straight from typical sensationalist media coverage of the work of the old YBA canon.
If this art is the justification for his point that British Contemporary art is not engaged in current political debate, perhaps he should look more closely at what other artists besides Damien Hirst are doing. Grayson Perry’s glazed ceramic pots have long been surfaces on which to satirize the politics of the art world, and paint delicately worded messages from “Heteros Murder Children” to “Muslims Are Softies.” Surely this counts as an engagement with current political issues on some level. However, to suggest, as Munira Mirza does, that British artists should make work that explicitly addresses sensitive issues such as Islamophobia and immigration quickly turned the debate away from art and more into a Question Time style political discussion that Tim Marlow had to try hard to contain. Somewhat lost in the turn in the debate was one of Grayson Perry’s remarks which made more than enough sense as to what he thinks Contemporary Art should be doing with regards to politics: “Well it’s no good asking me. I put forward the question in the work. I don’t answer it.” Exactly that, asking the questions about the world we live in, not solving its problems.